I have no idea how many books we have in our house. There are collections that once
belonged to our parents, books that we bought over 40 years, and books added by our son. Then there are books that were gifted to us.
This collection, scattered over many bookshelves, reflects each individual’s taste and personality: There’s fiction, non-fiction, travel and cookery. English literature textbooks from my wife’s college days, my father-in-law’s eclectic collection of French novels and Greek myths, my son’s childhood sets of illustrated books and, of course, many best-sellers.
There’s science and science fiction and a few graphic novels. And within these categories there are sub-genres: biography, conflict, history, politics, philosophy, a lot of espionage and crime, travel writing, and so on. The Grantas are on one shelf because they are numbered, dictionaries and style books within easy reach, and cookbooks arranged neatly for quick reference.
Books we are reading and books we intend to read at some point in the future—and there are far too many—are spilling on to the coffee table. I have no idea when I will read them. And yet we go and buy more books.
It’s an addiction.
And like any addiction—smoking, for example—you look for excuses to justify it, and try to come up with ways to remedy the situation. At one point I decided I will not buy another book till I have read at least two. And yet every time I visit a bookshop, I walk in with a fresh list. We have no more shelf space. And I have reached a point where I have given up arranging books.
This Christmas my son gave me a bar code scanner as a gift. Frankly, I had no idea how useful this $10 (Rs465) gadget could be till he scanned the bar codes of a handful of books, signed me in on a website called LibraryThing.com, and showed me the covers of the scanned books displayed neatly in a virtual library.
Cover to cover: Build a virtual library on LibraryThing.
Since then, I have scanned the bar codes of some 300 books, and I can now sort the collection genre-wise, author-wise or alphabetically. From what I learn, 25% of the authors I read are dead. Purely as trivia, these books have 837 characters (including Orange Juice, the orangutan in Yann Martel’s Life of Pi) and mention 159 places (from the islands of New Guinea to the constellation Ursa Minor Beta). I also notice that I have two copies of a few books.
LibraryThing is an amazing online service, a sort of Facebook for people who like books. I can share my library with others, and meet people with similar tastes. The experience is like walking into someone’s home and looking at their collection of books. Within a minute, you know whether he or she is your type, and you begin to wonder what else you might have in common with them.
It is also a book club where you can join a group—the Green Dragon (if you are into Tolkien and fantasy), YA Lit (young adult literature) or just Tea! (if that’s your obsession). Based on my collection, members recommend books that I am most likely to enjoy reading. The site also tells me (through something called an “unsuggester”) books that I am least likely to read: Shopaholic Ties the Knot, The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Cookin’ with Beans and Rice. I must confess I am not a great one for beans.
LibraryThing is not a new website. It was launched some four years ago and has quickly grown to a million members. There are other similar sites such as Shelfari and Bookrabbit (Macs have an application called Delicious Library that makes bar coding quite an experience). If you do not have a bar code scanner, you can use a webcam; if the book belongs to pre-bar code days, you can manually enter its title or the ISBN (International Standard Book Number). The process takes longer but the result is the same.
Over the months I will catalogue all my books. They will at least be arranged neatly in the virtual world. My only problem with this technology is that it fuels my addiction: The more I browse through other people’s libraries, the more books I want to buy.
Shekhar Bhatia is a former editor, Hindustan Times, a science buff and a geek at heart.
This is the first of his fornightly columns for Mint.
Write to Shekhar at firstname.lastname@example.org