The world`s largest reading room
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The world`s largest reading room
Nilanjana S Roy / New Delhi September 27, 2007
Umberto Eco is not on Shelfari or LibraryThing, which is a pity. The vast, book-lined corridors of the block of flats he occupies in Milan would have dwarfed the twenty-odd books I have up on Shelfari or the pitiful 200 books LibraryThing allows me to archive. But I would have enjoyed browsing his collection, even if through the virtual medium of the Internet.
 
Most authors, publishers and booklovers maintain personal libraries. Some, as in the case of Umberto Eco and the late Sham Lal, stretch to acres of bookshelves. Sham Lal�s home in Delhi was testimony to the idea that books could be not just furniture for the mind, but replace the furniture: his bookshelves were built almost equally of books and bricks, in some sections.
 
Some libraries are tiny; travel writers and war writers become experts at choosing the 15 or 20 volumes that encapsulate the reading they can�t live without. Some would fit into W Somerset Maugham�s �book-bag� � that writer�s version of the portable library � others would give Umberto Eco�s estimated 30,000 volumes a run for their money. Unless you�re very good friends, however, you rarely get to browse a fellow booklover�s library � and even among exceptionally generous booklovers, it is rare for one to know the exact contents of the other�s personal library.
 
It�s been possible to share your music and photograph libraries online for a while, and as several services discovered, listeners and photographers found a new excitement in finding recommendations from strangers with similar tastes in, say, jazz, or in browsing each other�s photographs of the Taj.
 
While booksharing applications have been around for a year or so, it�s only recently that they�ve really caught on with the general reader. The three main widgets of choice are LibraryThing, Shelfari and GoodReads: in different ways, all three allow you to create a �virtual� replica of your personal library and share the contents of your bookshelves with other readers.
 
LibraryThing is favoured by many bibliophiles: it has a comfortable, reading room feel to it, is good at enabling discussions among readers with similar tastes, and is easy to use. It doesn�t work for me, though, because it limits readers who sign up for the free service to stacking 200 books or less on their virtual shelves. By the time I�m through cataloguing my favourite books by Indian writers (in any language), I�ve crossed my quota �and I haven�t even started on world literature yet, so I find LibraryThing unpleasantly limiting, despite its virtues.
 
Shelfari received a huge boost recently when it was adopted by the popular social networking application, Facebook. My shelf is a mere 15-20 volumes strong at present, but even at this baby stage, I�m beginning to find far better recommendations from other readers than I do in the real world. Shelfari has some annoying bugs, and many prefer GoodReads, billed as the number one social network for book lovers. I�m enjoying GoodReads a great deal because it has a very active and highly well informed community; the downside is that the slant is strongly US-oriented, which is not true of Shelfari on Facebook.
 
At this point, perhaps some readers are wondering why you would go to the trouble of building a virtual bookshelf and sharing its contents in the first place. I can only speak for myself, but in the few months that I�ve been using virtual bookshelf services, this is what I�ve learned:
 
1) Using a virtual bookshelf gives me a better sense of my reading patterns than I�ve had before: I read more food memoirs and books than histories, for instance, and more poetry than I had realised. If you�re an eclectic reader, this can become something of a parlour game.
 
2) Being part of a community built on reading interests is very different from being part of a community that includes voracious readers among its members. The recommendations you get are usually more personal and more enthusiastic than you�ll find from book reviews, and it takes a very short period of time before you find like-minded readers. It may be a voyeuristic thrill, but it�s a lot of fun raiding other people�s virtual bookshelves.
 
3) It�s easier to build a �wishlist� or to follow through with a recommended reading list if you�re using a virtual bookshelf app�especially if you�re also comfortable with doing some of your book-buying online.
 
4) One of the biggest benefits for a reader like me is discovering old, forgotten books and new authors off someone else�s bookshelves. Once any booklover�s network becomes large enough, you find that it can help to iron out �cultural blindness�. On my shelves, other readers can and have discovered Indian writers who were �invisible� to them; I�ve found Japanese and Taiwanese writers I�d never have known about from mainstream channels.
 
Just a few months into sharing and browsing books online, it occurs to me that what�s really being built here is a constantly evolving map of reading. It feels good to know that I have an armchair of my own in a small corner of what might become the world�s largest reading room.

nilanjanasroy@gmail.com

The author is Chief Editor, EastWest and Westland Books; the views expressed in this column are personal
 
 
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