February 15, 2008

Offline Readers Meet in Online Community

By Pack, Thomas

But a large and growing group of internet users use their time with digital media as a way to enhance their offline engagement with text. "A book holds a house of gold," according to a Chinese proverb. But many people don't seem interested in gold houses, even though public libraries let you live in them free.

According to a report called "To Read or Not To Read," released in November by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), Americans- especially young Americans -are reading even less than they used to. And when Americans actually read, they read more poorly than before too.

"This study shows the startling declines, in how much and how well Americans read, that are adversely affecting this country's culture, economy, and civic life as well as our children's educational achievement," says NEA chairman Dana Gioia. (A PDF of the report is available at www.nea.gov/research/ResearchReports_ chrono.html.)

The NEA puts part of the blame for the declines on digital media. For example, the report points out that "literary reading declined significantly in a period of rising Internet use." It also notes that reading time for 20% of middle and high school students is "shared by TV-watching, video/computer gameplaying, instant messaging, e-mailing, or Web surfing." Such multitasking, the NEA reports, "suggests less focused engagement with a text."

But a large and growing group of internet users use their time with digital media as a way to enhance their offline engagement with text. Members of the social networking site Goodreads (www.goodreads.com) enjoy using technology and interacting with others in the digital realm, but they still spend a great deal of time with ink on paper. Here's how a member describes the site: "It's like if MySpace didn't suck and was occupied by book nerds."

Networking for Bibliophiles

Goodreads is part of a trend identified by The New York Times reporter Michelle Slatalla. Writing about Dogster.com, a social networking site for canines, Slatalla points out that "We live in an era where there is a social network to cater to any niche group you can think of, including infants whose parents create Facebook profiles for them and then expect the godparents to pretend to correspond with the babies. Why shouldn't pets arrange play dates online or blog about their health issues?"

And why shouldn't bibliophiles as well as more casual readers have their own online community for praising and panning titles? As one member wrote, "My geeky little Generation Y heart burst with joy when I found out about the social networking slash armchair critic book reviews site: Good Reads. More unaccredited, unsubstantiated, unfiltered streams of parboiled user-generated content! And you can meet others like you. Yes! The democracy of the web spreads yet further. Check out my profile, make your own and be my friend. I just listed the past 5 books I've read, the ones I'm on now, and what I'll be moving on to. Haven't quite finished all of my reviews, so stay tuned."

Otis Chandler, software engineer and entrepreneur, launched Goodreads in 2006. He says the idea for an online oasis for readers came to him as he was scanning a friend's bookshelf.

"When I want to know what books to read, I'd rather turn to a friend than any random person, bestseller list, or algorithm," Chandler says. "So I thought I'd build a website-a website where I could see my friends' bookshelves and learn about what they thought of all their books."

So far, Chandler's idea has appealed to more than 600,000 people who have reviewed more than 10 million books, according to the site.

Even Bookish Loners Need a Few Friends

Serious readers tend to be loners, but we sometimes venture into a bookstore or attend a lecture. We might even join a book club. Online social networking appeals to some of us because it helps satisfy our need for occasional but controllable human interaction: It helps us interact with other people, but we can turn off the computer anytime and retreat to our book nook.

And although Goodreads is trendy and still relatively young, it has not been hastily assembled. It has the look and feel of a solid online community with a lot of features that might appeal to even the most reclusive book nerds.

* In your list of books, you can import bibliographic details, add a rating and a review, and note if you have a copy to sell or swap.

* You can stock virtual shelves of "currently reading,""to read," and "read" books. You also can create your own categories. "From classics and canadabooks to childrenslit and geek, you can create any category that suits your personal taste," according to the site. "Our favorite shelves out there? To-read, to-reread, guilty pleasures, chicklit, and overrated-drivel."

* When you log in, Goodreads shows you recent reviews from your online friends, and when you view a book, you always get reviews from your friends first. You also can browse many different types of lists, including lists of popular books, unpopular books, popular books among your friends, unpopular books among your friends, recent reviews, top authors, and book discussions.

* A widget lets you add your own recent reviews to another social networking site, to your blog, or to your website. "This way, even if you're not interested in devoting time to building your friend base on Goodreads, you can still use the site to keep people up to date on your latest literary endeavors," according to a review on PCMAG.COM, which chose Goodreads as a Site of the Week (www.pcmag.com/article2/0, 2704,2152713,00.asp).

* You can buy books through Amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, and other sites, but Goodreads is not overly commercial. There are some ads from Amazon and Google, but you aren't constantly pestered by plugs to buy books.

* Published authors can create their own profiles to promote their works. Aspiring authors can upload their writings to get feedback from readers.

* You can join or create an online book group. Groups can be public, private, restricted by domain, or secret.

* You can import your book database from a .CSV, .txt, or .xls file. You also can export your list to a spreadsheet.

Goodreads.com or LibraryThing.com Yes!

Goodreads is a good place to track your book inventory, but if you're an avid collector who is more interested in organizing and a little less excited about online networking, you might prefer another site: LibraryThing.

Like Goodreads, LibraryThing (www.librarything.com) can connect you with other readers, but it provides especially robust organization features, including the ability to catalog with Amazon.com, the Library of Congress, or 175 other world libraries- and you can keep your list private if you like. (You can list 200 books for free, but if you want to catalog more, you'll have to pay $10 annually or $25 for life.)

LibraryThing also can analyze your entire catalog and provide a lengthy list of other titles you might like. There's even an UnSuggester that tells you about books you probably won't want. (To read a PCMAG.COM review of LibraryThing, visit www.pcmag.com/ articl2/0,2 704, 1992855,00.asp.)

Whichever site you join-and if you're a true bibliophile, you might even want to belong to both-you'll be glad to know that the NEAreport mentioned at the beginning of this article found that regular reading not only "boosts the likelihood of an individual's academic and economic success," but it also "seems to awaken a person's social and civic sense."

Ultimately, reading "correlates with almost every measurement of positive personal and social behavior surveyed," the report says. "It is reassuring, though hardly amazing, that readers attend more concerts and theater than non-readers, but it is surprising that they exercise more and play more sports-no matter what their educational level. The cold statistics confirm something that most readers know but have mostly been reluctant to declare as fact- books change lives for the better." Considering the growing number of people who ignore books'benefits, it reminds me of another Chinese proverb: "A book tightly shut is but a block of paper."

Thomas Pack is a freelance writer who lives near Louisville, Ky. His email address is [email protected] Send your comments about this article to [email protected] com.

Copyright Information Today, Inc. Feb 2008

(c) 2008 Information Today. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.