Friday, February 19, 2010

How Web 2.0 services empowered the bookworm in me

For the last couple of years, as an organizer of the Science And Religion In Fiction book club at the Center For Inquiry Austin, I've been continuously faced with a nontrivial task of finding books that match the focus of the club. We discuss books that have promiment science or religion themes in them. They aren't all that easy to find, and it's been getting more difficult as the club is nearing its 4th year of existence. All the low-hanging fruit, such as Mary Doria Russell's "Sparrow", Neil Gaiman's "American Gods", or Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy, has been picked. We read mostly fantasy and science fiction, but some mainstream fiction too. Most genre fiction, however, wouldn't qualify for our club's reading list. 98% of science fiction employs science only as "furniture" (e.g. cool gadgets), but we want to read books where science and/or religion is the central theme. It's non-trivial to find them even if you spend hours searching Google or Amazon. I could not think of a right keyword combination to show me just this kind of novels. A simple query like "novels about science" or "fiction about science", would merely return tens of thousands of science fiction titles.

I concluded that my best source for replenishing the list of candidate books for the book club were book reviews. Unfortunately, there is a metric gazillion of book review sites around. You can't limit yourself to just one site, even as distinguished as New York Times book review, because you don't know where you might find one crucial insight that would tell you a particular book would be a good fit for our club. Different reviews focus on different aspects of the book, and they might overlook what's important to us. Then again, a random customer's comment might unintentionally point out a characteristic of the story that makes it a good fit for us.

But there are thousands of book reviews generated every day, and I don't have time to read even a small part of that. So I've been doing it haphazardly, discovering useful reviews by serendipity rather than purposeful search. And then I forget their URLs, and don't know how to get back to them. I tend to remember about them a year or two later, long after they expired from my browser's history. "Oh, haven't I seen a mention of a novel about Einstein? Or a string theorist? What was its title and author?"

This rumination was prompted by a discovery that I had, in fact, saved on my computer an entire New York Times article about a "recent" spat of science-themed novels. It was recent as of 2003, long before the CFI book club was even a glimmer in anybody's eye. I saved it with a vague intention of "reading some of this stuff some day", and then forgot about it. Buried in the hundreds of thousands of other documents on my hard drive, this file was essentially unfindable.

That's why we need lifelogging, I say! But short of complete lifelogging, this particular problem can easily be solved with simple Web 2.0 tools. These days I save such articles, along with all science-themed book reviews I come across, to my bookmarks, and tag it with proper tags. now I have no problem finding them again.

So when people wonder who needs all those millions of online services, I raise my (figurative) hand., in particular, has been serving as an extension of my brain the way even Google can't.

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