Why I like LibraryThing

I was trying to explain tonight to Annalee why I like LibraryThing. “What’s it FOR? Is it a book recommender? Or is it data about a book?” No… no… it’s for building a picture of knowledge and of people. When I first walked into Annalee’s house, for example, my head went sideways and I muttered off into all the rooms reading the book titles. I could see evidence of interests past and present, clusters of information, and could extrapolate meta-interests or things like “here are sets of books that indicate grad school classes very similar to ones I took or browsed.” So now I know without having to ask that she has a mental foundation or familiarity with Spivak and Bhabha, Derrida, Sontag, Delouze and Guattari (“Spavin, Babble, Dada, Snotrag, Deloser and Guitar”) and that sort of cultural studies/literary/historical theory way of thinking as well as science books, tech books, monster movies, pulp, tons of good science fiction, and the same sort of 19th and 20th century sex and gender information books that I also collect.

When I was looking at Timmi Duchamp‘s books I wrote that it was like being together with her in a beautiful cathedral. The way she organized them was beautiful, but it was the combinations of ideas and the depths of certain areas of knowledge that were amazing and I felt happy and honored to understand some of that, and what it meant to my knowledge of her as a person and of her work as a writer and critic. Seeing someone’s books, if they are a very booky person, with their brain deeply intertwined with what they have read, very intertextual, then seeing their books gives you some knowledge. It’s not like any two people, reading the same set of books, have the same reactions to them. But because we’re in this post-Golden-Bookshelf age where we have no literary or cultural canon, it is reassuring and interesting to see someone’s (nongolden, or golden only to them) bookshelves. If it was important to have (and to destroy) the golden bookshelf, then it’s important for us that we’re developing ways to make each others’ bookshelf compositions transparent.

Since I have read quite a lot, and in areas I can’t expect someone else at random to have read, I get very happy when I met with people whose bookshelves intersect. Right now the person with the closest books to my books on LibraryThing happens to be one of my best friends. That was a funny feeling, like confirmation of our unusual common areas of deep knowledge. I look at the people I don’t know (and I know many of them from their blogs, mostly from LiveJournal) and figure that, the way my life is going, and with tons of social software stickly spreading around through everyone I know denser & denser, I’ll probably meet them within a year. And when I search on a few of the rare books — anthologies of Latin American poetry from 1910 — and then later am searching on some incredibly hip or trashy science fiction book published last year — Then I swoon a little bit and fall in love with that person who is in the tiny club of the two of us who like those two very different books. (We don’t just own them: we gloat over them and bothered to enter them and tag them up.)

Who has this book? Only 2 other people! I feel a new pleasure; that of snobbery and pride. I look at their tagging of that book and I learn something – and maybe go back and put my tags more in line with theirs, which might make more sense. Or I like mine better and keep them as they are. Together the three of us built something, a small consensus. Then I can look at their personal library tag clouds:

Another pleasure is in the tag clouds. I can follow a few tags of marxist feminism and find strangers, then browse their tag clouds. (Here’s my tag cloud, but that’s only about 2% of my books.) What other tags does a marxist feminist reader tend to gather? Wandering around in that information is fun and I feel like I’m learning a meta-something from it. What, I’m not sure.

I look for the people who have eclectic collections, and who have certain areas of depth of knowledge – who are geeky and expert about a few things, but then whose interests scatter interestingly. It’s not like I am dying to write them messages, I’m busy enough… but I feel less intellectually lonely because I know they exist. And again, odds are in the techno-bohemian world I’ll meet them at some point and then feel instant friendliness.

I start to feel I want to introduce certain readers and LT-ers to each other; and I see gaps that inspire me as a critic, that make me see “Wait. All these people should also have A Certain Glorious Book; they’d love it, based on what they own and tag heavily.” And then I resolve to write a review, give a book as a present, or just give a recommendation out of the blue.

It is not just social and about stalking… it is a method of creating cultural meaning.

But that is not all of it… I’ll have to return to this thought. Meta-information structures laid in place… underpinnings of possible conversations…. people seem more real to me than they ever did… strangers hold more possbilities… It is a general feeling of hope, connection, interest, pleasure, curiosity. I think that when you drink the Web 2.0 Koolaid it’s not about believing in hype – it’s a fundamental shift in how we think about each other as people with depth, with books and feelings about them, with wishes and goals and places we want to go to or that we’ve loved (as on 43places and 43things) and with social ties laid out with at least an attempt at clarity. When novels became popular, it provided an opportunity for people to think about each other as characters in novels, as protagonists even, whose thought processes could be revealed, imagined, chronicled. I think Web 2.0 and blogging and rich social information environments, which will surely develop intertwinings more complicated than we’ve imagined, are in the beginning of a shift in the way it is possible for people to think about each other. There are of course utopian and dystopian results from that shift. But lucky for me I was born in interesting times and will not be bored, ever.

LibraryThing has inspired me several times so far to get rid of books that I think are embarrassing, too embarrassing or dull to add to my public bookshelf. Do I want this on my shelf? I didn’t want it in my brain. Then… throw it out!

Just as certain people are peculiarly charming and witty on Twitter, but dull on their blogs… or vice versa… I think some people’s libraries will function like registers of complicated conversation. Registers of speech or media for speaking can result in very different output from the very same person. So as a mode of self expression, art, and culture, LibraryThing and social media let us see each other saying things we might not have said, or been able to see being said, before. They provide an extra conversational layer.

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