09 July 2008

Still haven't found what I'm looking for

I am not Tim Berners-Lee. I am not Vint Cerf. I am not even Al Gore, creator of the information super highway (or at least one of its many tubes). I have been wrong about almost every major Internet trend, and not just wrong but spectacularly wrong.

I dismissed the notion of online communities and 'friends' that you have never met in real life; after seeing how long an image took to download from alt.something.something I laughed at the notion of the internet as a distribution platform; I sniggered at the thought of someone paying for an mp3, purchasing data that had no real form or substance and existed only on their computer. But where I got it really wrong, and I mean really really wrong, was in the online purchase of books.

When I first heard the concept of an online bookshop, I knew the internet thing was never going to work, and a lot of people were going to loose an awful lot of money. For me buying a book was a very tactile and visceral experience. As a teenager I would come into town every Saturday and spend a few hours wandering around the second-hand bookshops, looking for cheap paperbacks. I would read a few pages before deciding whether to buy or not and browsing was an essential part of the experience. The thought of buying something online without first being able to hold it and examine it carefully was laughable.

Naturally I have since been proved massively wrong.

A few years ago Penguin issued a collection of short books, each priced at around £5. When the series was issued you could by a limited edition boxed set, but sadly no more, and so you now have to buy all the books individually, about twenty in all. Penguin sell the full set online, but postage to Ireland would add on an extra €80. Amazon sold all the books separately for less than Penguin's collective price, but for some reason decided to add on 21% vat because I live in Ireland, making it prohibitively expensive when shipping was included. Thus armed only with a print-out of all the books in the collection I made my way out into the really real world of Dublin bookshops in search of intellectual stimulation.

I knew exactly what I wanted and thought I would be in and out in a matter of minutes, but two and half hours later my spirit was broken and was already forming in my mind newspaper headlines of a berserk man force-feeding Cecilia Ahern and Harry Potter down the throats of random sales droids and dining on the exquisite fois-grais that would thus be produced.

Nothing is where you expect it to be. Works by Plato can appear in the Classics section, Philosophy or Ancient History. Orwell can be found in Literary Criticism, Politics, Fiction, Travel and Spanish History. Darwin is in both Biology and Classics, St Augustine in Religion and Mind, Body & Soul, and Confucius is relegated to Self-Help, the last chance saloon for any subject before it starts to appear on the Home Shopping Channel.

David Weinberger wrote about the challenges of classification in "Everything is Miscellaneous", one of the first crop of Web 2.0 books that appeared last year (available in Science, Computers and Business, though I would classify it as 'Airplane', in that it held my attention between San Francisco and London, but didn't over stimulate me and keep me awake between London and Dublin). He argues that traditional classifications are irrelevant as long as you have a good search engine. User generated tags allow a layer of artificial order to be superimposed upon chaos, for it doesn't matter how items are arranged when a searchbot can reach down from the sky like a giant claw game and pluck the right result and deliver it to the happy user.

Great in theory, lousy in the really-real world of a bookshop, where the staff could tell me where the book might be, but weren't sure as, "well, like, you know, our system says it's in stock, but, like, people move things, you know". RFID might be the answer, but I don't like the thought of all those books still being trackable when they leave the shop and wander back to my shelves. What someone would do with a 3D map of the path my book takes from the shelf to the bedroom and back to the kitchen is beyond me, but it still smacks to much of Big Brother and 1984 (located conveniently in Politics, Fiction, and oddly enough Media).

Two and a half hours it took me, and that was with knowing exactly what I was looking for. I can imagine browsing for something in a general non-fiction topic, like a gardening book, or something on elephants, but trying to decide on a novel now seems baffling, unless you adopt what I call the Sesame Street method - today I will be reading something by someone beginning with the letter "P". Easy if you have a prolific favourite author, not so good for J.D. Salinger fans.

Luckily for me I was wrong about books and the internet*, and after LibraryThing spits out a number of glistening new recommendations, anything I want is but a simple 1-Click purchase away.

With 21% VAT. Or €80 delivery.


*I was right about people loosing money though. Really right**.
**I'm going to be right about that again pretty soon. Then I can call myself a consultant with a proven track record. Everyone's a winner!***
***Except the people who lose all their money on the internet


Everything is Miscellaneous - David Weinberger
My LibraryThing


At 4:02 pm, Blogger Kate said...

we have a wonderful bookstore down our neck of the woods where the staff are knowledgeable (and a pleasure to talk to - and a never ending source of good recommendations (which I then shamelessly type into the intarweb-book-store of choice)(but only 50% of the time- the other times are split 25% good bookstore 25% library)

But this bookstore is a wonder - not only have a huge selection of books, intelligently laid out - you are invited to get a coffee and browse! By browse they mean good old fashioned sit down and read a chapter! I love it!

So much so that I have 'Book Centre-Book' books that I have read through multiple visits, an hour and a coffee at a time. It is a delight to go in on a Saturday morning and look around and see the familiar faces of other sneaky-readers absorbed in the latest instalment of their book of choice.

The win-win for the book shop is that we a) buy coffee b) are intensely loyal c) buy at least 4 or 5 books for everyone we read in store. This is the way all shops should be. I can't recommend it highly enough.

Buying book has always been an experience thing for me - from the first Saturday afternoons losing an hour in the wonderfully cramped spaces of Dandelion Books to relaxed Saturday mornings sipping coffee and reading the books I'd rather didn't show up on my recently viewed list online ;-)

Though the interwab has offered affordability in most cases, and is often a worthy supplier of recommendations nothing shall ever replace that feeling of sheer satisfaction I feel when the put my books in the paper bag at the till and fold the bag closed with a small piece of tape.


(ps. do you want me to see if the bookcentre can get those books in? they're pretty good for customer orders.)

At 1:51 pm, Blogger Unkie Dave said...

thanks for the offer, but I think my quest to find the remaining books will become something of a hobby.

I know the bookshop you're talking about, it is really cosy and I can certainly imagine having a coffee and surreptitiously reading a book or two.

The Winding Stair in Dublin used to be like that but alas it is now but a shadow of its former self. Book Trader in New Haven was like that for second hand books, great selection too because it was in a college town.

At 2:58 pm, Blogger 2BiT said...

if ya want ya can get stuff posted to me (and my UK delivery friendly address) and i'll bring em down to you on my frequent(ish) trips south...


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