Words in Boxes

Nouns, verbs, and occasionally adjectives.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Four Hacks for Your Books

If you're like me, you have shelves full of books, most of them old, many of which you've forgotten you even own. Even though some say you should throw away old books, I can't bring myself to do it. So they sit, unorganized, collecting dust. Here are three things I could do with them:

1. Pay someone to list them in a spreadsheet.

Visual effects expert Ron Brinkman conducted an experiment:

For some reason I’ve pretty much always held onto the books I’ve read - something I started when young and at this point it seems like it would be a shame to stop now. And I do love to be able to pull a previously-read book off of the shelf and dive back into it, even if only for a few minutes. But I also can’t look at them without contemplating how everything one has read contributes to who they have become. You are what you read, right? There’s a little part of each one of these books up in my brain somewhere…

At any rate, I’ve always thought it would be handy to have a list of them. (Okay, I’m not really sure why it would be handy… it just seems like it would, okay?)

Ron, like any sane person, had no intention of actually typing all this information himself. Instead, he took high-resolution digital photographs, uploaded them to Flickr, and paid someone $50 on Elance to read the spines and enter all of the information into a spreadsheet.


Once he had the data, he uploaded it into Shelfari, which is one of several social book organization web sites out there. Very cool, in an information-nerd kind of way.

(Via a tweet by Tim O'Reilly, founder of O'Reilly Media)

2. Arrange them by color.

In 2007, Los Angeles writer and blogger Callie Miller decided it would take less time to arrange her books by color than it would to sort them by author and subject. So she did.


Apparently she caught a some flack:

Now - I hear you. I, too, have felt that people who use books as props in their home (cretans!) and those who use books as decor (charlatans!) without ever really cracking one open are not to be taken seriously...or even considered.

What her experience shows is that people don't actually read their books nearly as much as they think they will. As a writer, Miller certainly uses her books more than most people use theirs, but to her the visual effect is worth (mostly) the extra effort to hunt down whatever book she needs at the moment.

I think economic reality is that in 10 years most publishing will be done over the Internet. It's already happening with newspapers. And as soon as there's a portable reading device good enough and cheap enough, it will happen to book-length writing. When that day comes, the visual effect of a physical book will start to matter more than the now elsewhere-available writing inside.

3. Categorize them with color.

Miller also posted about design student Valérie Madill's project, Looking at Libraries:


Knowing there are only 21 main subject it was important to colour coding the labels. This is a major part of having the content design the space, it is the subject that "paints" the space. ... My favourite aspect of the colours is knowing a law library's colour palette will be dramatically different then that of a Art & Design library. The colours are assigned to the subjects as a rainbow gradient since there is no such thing as 21 unique colours and the classification system is linear.

This is really cool. I'm a big fan of using color to convey information supplemental to words. Words are great, but you have to read and parse them. Not true of color.

4. Make a chair.


When you're tired of reading books, sit on them. Artist David Karoff made a chair out of recycled rebar and books from a library book sale. (Via Print is Dead)

I'm James Sulak, a software developer in Houston, Texas.

You can also find me on Twitter, or if you're curious, on my old-fashioned home page. If you want to contact me directly, you can e-mail comments@wordsinboxes.com.