New Life for Old Books, and Feeding Your Book Habit

Bibliophiles have two interlocking problems:

  1. Given all my interests, how do i get more books without going broke?
  2. What do i do later with the pile of things generated by #1?

If you read a lot, just managing your list of things you’d like to read becomes an information technology challenge all its own. Amazon wishlists work alright for this purpose (and help you remember just how interested you were, if you use the priority feature), and of course Amazon makes it very easy to buy them! (in case you’re feeling generous, our Amazon wishlist is here)

When it comes to a task like software development that i’ll invest personal time in, purchasing a new book is an incredible value: an hour or two saved nearly always justifies the cost of the book. Nevertheless, i try not go overboard, so my regular routine is

  1. check my local library (unless it’s something i need to own or use for a long period of time)
  2. check a bookswap site like PaperBackSwap or BookMooch
  3. only if those fail me, cough up the money and buy it, typically from Amazon

But i don’t yet have quite the information technology i need to make this work as smoothly as i’d like. First of all, it means i have to check multiple places. Links and browser bookmarklets make this somewhat easier: looking at a book on Amazon, i can check my local library with one click with a library lookup bookmarklet (though it’s sometimes misses if there’s a different edition), and check PaperBackSwap with another (i posted here about the PBS bookmarklet i created).

More recently, i’ve been trying LibraryThing as my starting point for searches: once you’ve located the book of interest, they make it easy to get to Amazon, as well as your local library (through WorldCat), and they’ll even tell you if any of their associated bookswap sites have it available (kudos to BookMooch for participating in this: boo on PaperBackSwap for not playing). Furthermore, their Universal Import lets you import your Amazon wishlist directly into LibraryThing (at which point you can go down the list and check other sources). I’ve been thinking lately about writing a little Python application to query my Amazon wishlist but then do the work for me of identifying any items that are currently available from a non-purchase source.

What about problem #2, getting rid of book you don’t want anymore? We’ve had some success lately with a hybrid strategy:

  • First, estimate whether there’s continued interest in purchasing this book by checking the used market at Amazon. Powell’s makes this even easier: you can type a lengthy list of ISBNs into their page, and they’ll tell you which ones they’ll buy (which is a pretty good estimate of whether there’s still a market for the book). If there’s a market for the book, you have nothing to lose other than a little effort by listing it on Amazon’s site. Once you’ve set up a seller account, you can list them for 60 days for free. They get a cut if you sell it, but any sale means more money in the kitty for future book purchases!
  • If there’s no market for the book, then we list it on a book swap site. When people want them, we have to pay to mail them, but then we get credits so we can request future swaps. It averages out to a couple of bucks a book, which is a steal if you can find ones you want.
  • If nobody wants it on the swap site and it’s not out of date, your local library might be interested in a donation
  • If you absolutely positively have to throw away a book (sniff), at least make sure you recycle it!

(This post was motivated by Phil Gon’s latest post at the Logos blog on building your digital library by reselling your paper books. He describes a great way to finance your purchase of Logos software, and you’ll be much happier with a digital reference library next time you have to move it!)

PaperBackSwap Bookmarklet

If you’re a bibliophile, you’ve probably got scads of books that have no significant commercial value (so you can’t sell them used), but that you can’t bear to throw in the trash (because they really are still worthwhile books!). Since that’s us too, i was excited to find PaperBackSwap, a book club that works on a simple cooperative premise: people will share if they’re shared with in return.

Here’s how it works. You post books you’d be willing to give away (without remuneration). In return, after you’ve met the minimum sharing requirement of posting 10 books, you can two credits which you can use to ask others for books they’ve posted. If someone wants your book, you mail it to them and pay the postage: in return, you get an additional credit. When you ask someone else for their book, they pay the postage. While there’s no person-to-person exchange of value (money from me, book from you), it works out overall: people get books they want in some proportion to their willingness to share.

Of course, this is only appealing if you can find books there that you want. As you’d expect, PaperBackSwap isn’t heavy on the latest or most popular titles (but it does include hardbacks, despite the name: there are also companion sites for swapping CDs and DVDs).

The main attraction for me is a less expensive source of books that i can’t find in the local library, and would rather not pay full price for. I generally use Amazon’s Wishlist feature to track books i’m interested in obtaining (feel free to buy me something for Christmas!). So i wrote a bookmarklet (modeled on Jon Udell’s fabulous Library Lookup Project) that simply automates the search for an Amazon book inside PaperBackSwap.

Just drag this link to your link toolbar (see the Library Lookup Project if you need more help on how this works):

PaperBackSwap Lookup

Amazon Kindle: a Bible Study Platform?

Gadget lovers have doubtless already heard that Amazon recently released Kindle, their new e-book technology. Reviews on their site (like reviews in general) tend to be somewhat skewed between those who love it and those who really don’t. I’m interested in a different question, though: what might Kindle mean for the future of digital Bible study?

In general, people tend to like:

  • convenience (you can download new books wirelessly, no cables, long battery life)
  • ease of use (good design, more readable than traditional monitors and PDAs)

Things they don’t like so much:

  • #1 seems to be the cost: $400 is pretty expensive if your main objective is to read best-sellers. Many of the enthusiastic reviews on Amazon’s site are from beta-testers who were given devices to try: even among those who loved it, however, it’s telling that some said they wouldn’t buy one once they had to return theirs, and cost was the main reason. On the other hand, the incremental cost for books ($10 for best sellers, less for others) doesn’t seem high to me compared to the paper versions. Some people find it galling to have to pay again for books they already own in print, though i don’t see any easy way across that particular digital divide (i still have lots of music that i love only on cassettes because i was too cheap to buy it again on CD).
  • Digital rights management: you’re really buying access to books. So you can’t copy them to other formats, or give them to anybody else.
  • It’s not a completely open platform: some fussing about is required for PDF and other file formats, apparently you have to pay to have content emailed to your Kindle.
  • The wireless coverage is still quite limited, which means the US heartland and other rural areas are mostly out of luck.

But what about Kindle as a Bible study device: would it work, and how might it compare to Logos Bible Software? These seem like the relevant features:

  • There’s no way to beat the convenience of having a library in your pocket (also one of the main selling points for Logos), even more so when you can bookmark pages, write notes on passages, etc.
  • Kindle provides word-based search of your whole Kindle library, another unbeatable feature of digital resources over print. I don’t have a Kindle to try out (but i’d be glad to review it, Amazon, hint hint): but what we’ve learned from a decade of web search is that word-based approaches only get you so far. I’d be interested to know what additional search capabilities it provides. For example, as your library grows, can you search only a subset? How flexible is the search syntax: wildcards? data-type specific searches?
  • Kindle currently provides hypertext links to other resources like a dictionary and Wikipedia. So it’s not hard to imagine providing links to other resources as well.
  • Will third-party vendors be able to provide books in Kindle’s format? In particular, will they be able to enrich them with their own hypertext markup? That’s where these digital formats really shine. As a personal user of Logos software, the ability to hover over a Scripture reference and get the text in a popup has become second nature: now i find myself putting my finger on footnotes and cross-references in print books, waiting for the popup (just kidding, but wouldn’t it be great?).
  • While there are quite a few books by well-known Christian authors (Max Lucado, Rick Warren, etc.), the collection of Bibles is quite small: KJV, NIV, TNIV. Likewise, there are relatively few Bible study resources. Maybe this will change over time, and it may say something about how little reading most Christians do.

Bottom line: i don’t see Kindle today as any kind of competitor for Bible study software, when so many more specialized resources are available. But it will be interesting to see if it succeeds, and to see how this market changes over time. Certainly the future of reading has to include e-books: while paper will never go away, the advantages of digital resources are simply overwhelming.

Reading: the Long Tail

Long Tail (cover)If you have any interest at all in business, economics, and the Internet, Chris Anderson’s Long Tail is a must-read. He explains in very understandable terms how scarce shelf space dictates a “hit”-based economy, and how the essentially unlimited inventory available through the Internet fundamentally changes the equation.

The most compelling ideas have to do with the three forces of the Long Tail (p. 54 and following):

  1. Wide availability of the tools of production means more stuff gets produced (a longer tail)
  2. Democratized distribution means more access to “niches” (a fatter tail)
  3. Connecting supply and demand (esp. through improved search, filtering and recommendation) means more business moves from the “hits” (the steep head of the tail) to the “niches”

Logos seems in many respects to be a good example of a Long Tail business: though we have initial production costs associated with producing titles in digital format, we aggregate demand across a much larger group than a typical bookstore, so we can support our “niche” (and sub-niches within it). And our community pricing model provides a very effective mechanism for determining which titles to produce when and for how much.

As some other reviewers on Amazon have noted, the book itself has a bit of a long tail: most of the interesting stuff comes early on in the book. And i could quibble that, while he’s appropriating as “his curve” something that Pareto and Zipf noted a long time ago, they don’t actually get mentioned until halfway through. That doesn’t seem quite fair to history, but he does have some interesting comparative comments about how the Pareto Principle or 80/20 changes with the Long Tail. Overall, though, i can’t be too critical since he was willing to comment on, and link to a post on our blog about the Zipfian distribution of names in the Bible (which Blogos readers saw first).

Context is Everything

Our friend Elesa got Donna and i to sign up for GoodReads, a social bookmarking service that lets you share with your friends what books you’re currently reading (and then aggregates the information in ways similar to LibraryThing, mentioned in yesterday’s post). Wanting to play along, i entered a couple of books i’m currently working through (some of which i’ll review here when i get time):

My brief review of the Python Cookbook read “Lots of practical recipes for using Python more effectively. ” Elesa was very puzzled until her husband, looking over her shoulder, pointed out that Python is a programming language…

Visualizing Text with LiveInk

Bob Pritchett recently blogged about visual text formatting: one example is LiveInk. I’ve wondered for some time how we might improve reading now that we don’t really need to have one-fontsize-fits-all, linear textual arrangements (for example, sizing text by prominence).

Apropos of this, i’m reading Robin Williams’ Non-Designers Design Book (hat tip to Coding Horror), a good starting point for people who aren’t professional designers but still have to do some kind of design (pretty much all of us these days). Two of the basic principles are Alignment and Proximity: elements that are close or aligned will seem related (whether they really are or not!).

Back to LiveInk: here’s one of their demo examples.

LiveInk Sample

While breaking the sentence up definitely makes it more scannable, i have some trouble parsing the result, and i think Williams’ principle of Alignment helps explain it. For example, the alignment of “means” and “among adults” makes me think they’re somehow related. But they’re not: “among adults” modifies “physical activity”, and the linguist in me thinks it ought to therefore be moved farther to the right. Of course, you can only push right so far before running out of room, and maybe that’s the practical explanation for the alignment here (LiveInk’s site suggests they have solid research behind what they do).

Add Some New Blogs!

Just what you need, more blogs to follow, right? But i have two suggestions for Blogos readers:

  • Many of the issues i blog about are now closely related to my day job at Logos Bible Software. So if you’re interested in Blogos, you really ought to read the Logos blog too, if only because some of my material will now get posted there rather than here. In fact, my inaugural post appeared today (though it’s mostly a repeat of the series here on name weights, which means if you’re reading this, you probably already read that).
  • Several others have pointed to Amazon UnSpun’s blog lists, including one for blogs about Biblical Studies. I read many of these regularly, so you should check out the list and perhaps discover some new perspectives. If nothing else, it’s entertaining to read the titles (i wish i had thought of Sean the Baptist!). While you’re there, you can vote for your favorite blogs (Blogos is currently down around 96, which isn’t too bad given how eclectic my perspective is compared to many of the more traditional biblioblogs).

Reading: Clock of the Long Now

book cover: Clock of the Long NowSteward Brand has a long history of thinking ahead, going all the way back to the Whole Earth Catalog. He also has a taste for symbols that communicate powerful truths: one example is his involvement in the Long Now Foundation with Danny Hillis, founder of Thinking Machines, which aims to build a clock that will run for 10,000 years. Another founder, musician Brian Eno, had an experience with a friend in New York that demonstrated how small our frame of reference typically is:

“I realized that the ‘here’ she lived in stopped at her front door …’Now’ meant ‘this week’. … No one had any investment in any kind of future except their own, conceived in the narrowest terms. I wrote in my noteback that December, “More and more I find I want to be living in a Big Here and a Long Now.”

Brand’s book is an eclectic mix of reflections on history, religion, what moves fast and slow in civilizations, digital permanence, book burnings, and Big Ben. It’s also chock-full of one-liners:

  • “Fast gets all our attention, slow has all the power.”
  • “The great problem of the future is that we die there.”
  • “The debt we cannot repay our ancestors we pay our descendants.”

I recommend Brand’s book as a helpful and readable reflection on the importance of the Long Now. The way we think about our actions definitely changes when we consider the long-term impact on the world our children will inhabit. Joel 1:3 is one of many passages in the Old Testament enjoining a long-term view by passing information across the generations: Joel’s response to the horrific plague of locusts he described was

Tell your children of it,
and let your children tell their children,
and their children to another generation. (Joel 1:3, ESV)

Christians, of all people, ought to be invested in a Long Now: an eternity in which we have only begun to live.

Google Books Provides Out-of-copyright Works

TechCrunch had the news recently that Google now allows downloads of out-of-copyright books. While Project Gutenberg started down this road, Google is digitizing books at a much larger scale, and their holdings are different in many respects. For example, here’s the table of contents for “A Harmony of the Gospels for Historical Study”, by William Arnold Stevens and Ernest De Witt Burton, published in 1893.

Of course, works in the last 70 or so years are still protected by copyright: if you think only those recent works are worth reading, this won’t matter to you.