johnathan strange

A library in the clouds

A couple of weeks ago I joined paperbackswap.com, sent off about a dozen books, and just received my first book in the mail. All seven hundred and eighty-two pages of it. Oof.

I love the idea of this virtual library. Here’s how it works: you create a list by ISBN number of books you’d like to exchange. You create a second list, a wish list of books you’d like to read. People request books from you, you mail them off and accumulate points, each point you earn entitles you to a book. Many of them have a queue, but sometimes those queues move quickly. For instance it took me about seven days to get Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell: I placed an auto-request on that title, received an email notifying me of its availability, responded rightaway, and a week later it’s on my desk.

I use my wish list as a place to store anything I’m curious about. It all goes on there, books I find in the far corners of the internet, those that people tell me about, everything. We still have crammed shelves and some will always be around but I do enjoy giving books away. And if I feel like reading something again, I can simply add it to the magic list! Sending mail is fun, getting mail even better. I’ve had to hold myself back from enclosing little notes with each book and sometimes I can’t help myself, like when I mailed this paperback off. People are kind, they write back.

Have I stopped going to real bookstores? Of course not. I love bookstores and I want to support our writers. A favorite of mine is The Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle (and why can’t we have something like this in San Luis Obispo?). I bought four books this past week, two of which I discovered while in the store.

But I’m also now making myself read some of the novels I’ve always meant to and just kept putting off. I can take recommendations by a favorite critic and store them on my wish list. The only drag is that queues for some books are long, but the site promotes discovery: I can search to see what’s available on a writer and if I’m lucky there will be an ‘Order This Book’ button attached to the description (confusingly placed above an Amazon buy button, why?). One click and—points willing—it’s on its way to me.

Don’t you wonder about people who share your taste in books? What must they be like? And wouldn’t it be fun to see the book’s journey before it got to you?