Let the Internet choose your reading: perspectives. (Link-Up@Home).
My husband is a serial monogamist. He falls passionately in love with an author and reads all of his or her works, and then moves on to an equally passionate love affair with another author. Recently, he worked his way through the oeuvres of W. G. Sebald and Ursula Hegi. Now he's reading his second Alan Furst.
His Sunday dog-walking buddy, an even more compulsive reader, set out many years ago to read the great books in alphabetical order by author. He purchased the entire Modern Library series of the "world's best books" in hardcover, now republished and expanded in paperback. (Go to http://www.randomhouse.com/modernlibrary/pbclassics.html for more information.) We could always tell what he'd read next--the book to the right of the space on his shelf.
Many years ago, another friend, with more eclectic and modern tastes, figured he couldn't go wrong by signing up for the Book of the Month Club (http://www.bomc.com) and accepting every main selection as it arrived. He had to move several times to have libraries or dens with built-in bookshelves large enough to accommodate his collection. Fortunately, he was in the home-construction business!
My 34-year-old son, who is writing a novel set in ancient Rome, has read just about every ancient Greek classic in translation and is now working his way chronologically through Roman history and philosophy.
These avid readers never consulted any of the more than 5,000 book-related Internet sites to help them select what to read. But clearly, many people must be doing so.
So Many Books, So Little Time
In 2001, more than 114,000 books were published in the U.S. alone, according to figures compiled by R.R. Bowker. More than 15,000 of them are works of fiction. Regardless of one's areas of interest, there are just too many books! By helping us select and process what we do read, and by giving us some exposure to writings we'll never have the time to even scan, the Internet is performing an important role, even as it adds to our information overload.
The traditional publishing industry's gateway function is beginning to give way to newer, more open publishing systems facilitated by the Internet. This means we have even more reading material from which to choose, but newer, online-only literature is harder to find. The filtering systems we relied on for so long--the neighborhood bookseller and the librarian down the block--no longer know our individual interests the way they used to. To-stay in "business," these institutions must cater to popular tastes, which are heavily influenced by the enormous amounts of money publishers spend on marketing and promotion.
How can we avoid succumbing to rampant commercialization?
Let the Experts Guide You
With so many book review sites online, it's easy to check in with experts in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry who are asked to review books in their field. Any book reviewed at the following sites, even one with a bad review, might be worth your time:
* The New York Times Book Review (http://www.nytimes.com/pages/books/review/index.html)
* Village Voice Literary Supplement (http://www.villagevoice.com/cls)
* The WashingtonPost.com Book World (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/style/books)
Some of the sites also offer libraries of first chapters (http://www.bookspot.com/firstchapters.htm) for you to scan.
Books-only newspapers and magazines have burgeoned in recent years. The New York Review of Books (http//www.nybooks.com) was founded during the New York newspaper printers' strike of 1963 and is still going strong. Popular in academic circles, this journal offers long, erudite reviews by recognized leaders in their fields. Often, a "review" will actually be an essay comparing and contrasting several books on the same subject. Its 1979 offshoot, the London Review of Books (http://www.lrb.co.uk) has similar stature and has been published independently since May 1980.
In the same genre are the following publications:
* Boston Book Review (http://www.bookwire.com/bookwire/bbr/bbr-home.html), which features learned book reviews in many fields of contemporary literature and includes business books not covered in similar publications
* The Bloomsbury Review (http://www.bloomsburyreview.com), a Denver-based bimonthly for the "discriminating reader," deliberately steers away from "mega-bestsellers" and concentrates on "lively writing about good reading and great writers."
If you still want to read a book after it has been given this kind of extensive and detailed analysis, it's surely meant to be on your reading list.
Checking a Few Good Lists
Other "filters" available to us are the world's most prestigious book awards, such as the Booker, the Pulitzer, or the National Book Award. Current and historical winners are easily accessible on the BookSpot Web site (http://www.bookspot.com), as is another collection of lists encompassing other selection processes ("favorite" children's books, "most important" books, those selected by Oprah, etc.).
Old-fashioned booksellers pride themselves on the quality of their recommendations. If you've ever wandered into their unique environments and seen the featured books that clearly bear the stamp of the owner him- or herself, or "staff picks," you'll know what I mean. They're especially good at spotting and promoting young, emerging talents.
Some of these booksellers have brought their idiosyncrasies to the Web. Check out Powell's (http://www.powells.com) and Reading Frenzy (http://www.readingfrenzy.com), both in Portland, Ore.; Ruminator Books in St. Paul, Minn. (http://www.ruminator.com); The Strand in New York (http://www.strandbooks.com); and The Tattered Cover in Denver (http://www.tatteredcover.com). Bestseller and new-acquisition lists from these independents give you a feel for what people in different parts of the country are reading.
Independently owned and operated shops and their trade organization, the American Booksellers Association, have created a Web site called BookSense (http://www.booksense.com), whose recommendations and reviews, published regularly as the "BookSense 76," reflect the diverse tastes of its members.
Another way of getting beyond general-interest selections is to go to the combined site of the Association of American University Presses (http://aaupnet.org) for information on more specialized and perhaps more commercially "risky" books. The site features contributions by university presses to the literature on current hot topics and links to all its member presses.
Readers can explore their identities and heritage, and those of others, through the following interesting sites:
* The Women's Review of Books (http://www.wellesley.edu/WomensReview), published since 1983 by the Wellesley College Centers for Women, describes itself as "more than a guide to good reading--a monitor of the currents in contemporary feminism." The online index of its archives is a comprehensive guide to feminist literature since 1991.
* Also in Massachusetts is the National Yiddish Book Center (http://www.yiddishbookcenter.org). Located in Amherst since 1997, it offers an excellent annotated list of the Top 100 in modern Jewish writing, as well as a monthly feature called "The Jewish Reader" that includes essays on contemporary Jewish writing, excerpts, and discussion questions suitable for book groups.
* The Black Book Review Online (http://www.qbr.com) is the online version of a print bimonthly magazine and a hub for AfricanAmerican literary life. It features the "QBR Sacred 100", essential black book list.
Connecting with Other Readers
As it has done for other formerly solo endeavors such as writing, the Internet has made reading a community activity--and some people like it that way.
Newspapers and libraries sponsor online book clubs and author forums. Among the most popular sites are Salon (http://www.salon.com), an online-only magazine with extensive reviews and literary discussions in its Table Talk and The Well interactive forums, and an excellent directory of contemporary authors. Cafe Utne (http://cafe.utne.com/cafe), the well-established online forum of the newly renamed Utne magazine, features many book and author discussions. It has begun its own Book Club, which hosts "monthly discussions of rich, compelling works that might not make it to the bestseller lists." Suite101.com, an online community in which people share their passions, has a section on reading and literature (http://www.suite101.comlreadingcenter).
Surrender to Serendipity
Far from the compulsive end of the reader spectrum are those who surrender to serendipity. An interesting new concept in the worldwide exchange of books and ideas is the BookCrossing.com (http://www.bookcrossing.com) movement. Members register books they want to exchange, write a journal entry about them, and leave or "free" the registered volume where another reader might find it. Finders check in at the Web site and write -a journal item about it themselves. One can envision this process of a treasure going from hand to hand as the book equivalent of the movie The Red Violin.
As of March 2003, some 97,172 people had participated in exchanging 274,188 registered books since the idea's conception in March 2001. Some 350 new members join this movement daily. The site contains book reviews, member profiles, meeting notices, and discussions, and is now the most popular reading group on the Web.
The Great Books
For those who would prefer to stick with the tried and true, you can't go wrong reading one of the "great books." Thanks to Project Gutenberg (http://gutenberg.net), you don't even have to go to a bookstore to read one of the thousands it has put online (if you are satisfied with a lot of plain text on your display).
The Great Books Foundation (http://www.greatbooks.orgfhome.shtml), an advocate for the benefits of "shared inquiry" around classic books, has an interesting site in that it selects books for discussion in a given year around themes that resonate with current affairs. Another selective books site, that of the Access Foundation (http://www.anova.org), has chosen 240 all-time greats and assembled them online along with biographies, background study guides, and links to related sites.
More Changes Ahead
Futurists tell us we'll be doing much more reading online as portable "electronic paper" becomes a reality. E-books in their current form are only one linear precursor to the much more interactive digital formats that are emerging.
Regardless of the delivery mechanism, we have a real dilemma of how best to spend our limited reading time, given the abundance of possibilities. Will we also have artificial intelligence guides that know not only what we like to read and need to know, but also what there is out there to be read? Will they be able to present us with a "short list" of suggestions we can trust, allow us to browse the material as well as the reviews, and then instantly deliver our final selection?
Wallys W. Conhaim is a Minneapolis-based independent consultant who provides research, planning, and analysis in the field of interactive services. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.