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Can the Internet Be Your New Bookshelf?


Matt Yglesias loves his Kindle for reading. But it's not so good, he says, for showing other people how much he loves reading. "It deprives me of the signaling fun that comes along with reading traditional books," he writes. "I’m going through Infinite Jest, as are a lot of people this summer, but I can’t visibly display the book on the Metro or around my house."

This is one of those spots where I imagine social networking really will save us. Back when I was using Facebook more, I was a big fan of Visual Bookshelf, which let you display what you were reading and, when you finished, let you rate and review the books. As a matter of signaling, it's quite a bit more efficient. Your friends don't have to catch you in a literary moment on the Metro. And being able to browse the collections of all my friends was a delight, and offered occasional surprises that helped me known them better: former football teammates who were now reading John Kenneth Galbraith, for instance, and libertarian friends who listed "The Grapes of Wrath" as one of their favorite books of all time.

I also found that displaying the contents of my bedside table helped counteract my tendency to get distracted 90 pages in and start something else. Now that the books were hanging out on my profile, I felt more pressure to finish them. Somehow, simply leaving books around my room didn't carry the same silent reproach. In fact, I sort of miss that pressure. Which is why I've added a little Amazon widget that does much the same thing to the right sidebar. Technology!

Photo credit: Getty Images Photo.

By Ezra Klein  |  July 13, 2009; 10:04 AM ET
Categories:  Books  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Health Care Should Not Be a "Benefit"
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Fretting over signaling with physical media only matters to people raised to signal in such a way. As younger kids grow up signaling their personality digitally, that will become the norm and nobody will worry anymore about the fact that people don't use bookshelves. People are too vain to miss an opportunity to show themselves off a bit.

Posted by: MosBen | July 13, 2009 10:18 AM | Report abuse

I think what Matt is talking about is the dearth of serendipity. If I were reading "Infinite Jest" this summer and reading it while waiting at a Metro stop, and if by chance someone nice said to me: "I'm reading that too," we are no longer perfect strangers.

The same thing used to happen in small towns where you would see the same people at the post office often enough to comment on the length of the line or the new pictures on stamps. But in a city, talking to a stranger is more constrained. And reading material is a marker: "You read the same stuff I do." And you would admit that reading "Infinite Jest," particularly this summer, puts you in a small set, almost a family.
Having people you already know aware of what you're doing is fine if you already know enough people. But what if you're open to a happy accident?

Posted by: paularock11 | July 13, 2009 1:09 PM | Report abuse

There is a display side to reading. My express bus in Portland, Oregon was the sort where the other passengers were odorless and might be perusing the New York Times or Economist. Regular bus on the same route--nope.

The first time I visited London that I noticed a gentleman sitting in an Underground train, reading a book in Chinese. I figured London must be a sophisticated place.

Posted by: DaveoftheCoonties | July 13, 2009 1:25 PM | Report abuse

Relatedly, there is also the icebreaker function where when you find your self in a stranger's home or office, you can scan their bookshelves and start with "So, what did you think of Infinite Jest?" Not sure how social networking will replace that.

Posted by: df37 | July 13, 2009 1:45 PM | Report abuse

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