Reading By The Numbers

Goodreads see what your friends are reading

Accessed 12/25/2018 at 8:20 pm ET

Yesterday, I wrote about reading resolutions. I noted that of all the reading resolutions shared with me, none had to do with numbers. Nor did mine. Yet numerical reading challenges are a big deal among many bibliophiles.

The most famous is Goodreads’ yearly reading challenges. You have to have a free Goodreads account. Each year, you can set your own challenge goal beginning a few days before January 1. People set a variety of challenge goals from reading one book to hundreds. As you can see from above, the average is 60, a healthy goal of more than one per week. Your home page will show a progress bar, and whether you are ahead, behind, or on track to reach your goal. All your friends can see how you are progressing as well. You can also see how many pages you’ve read and compare your statistics to past years, what reading you’ve done in various categories and more.

LibraryThing also offers challenges at different levels (50, 75, etc.) and allows you to join groups and post what books you are reading. People make up a variety of creative challenges of reading different genres, reading through the alphabet (each book title starts with a successive letter of the alphabet), and a variety of other creative challenges.

Other groups I’ve seen offer monthly challenges. These involve the whole group reading a different type of book each month: eg. science fiction one month, a book about presidents the next. I know one group that is trying to read consecutively biographies of each U.S. president. I could see such challenges building a sense of community–physical or virtual.

I think if this sort of thing is fun and life-giving and occurs in the context of reading that enriches your life, then there is no harm in this, and even positive value in encouraging you and others in your challenge to read, and maybe get exposed to books they might not otherwise read. Personally, it is not something I pay a great deal of attention to. For the fun of it, I always set a goal on Goodreads, but it is a low one for me. I don’t want my reading driven by one of these goals.

It is interesting to me to see how people actually do on Goodreads in comparison with goals. For example, people pledged to read an average of 60 books. So far this year (as of the evening of 12/25 when I’m writing this), they’ve actually read just under 13, a bit over one a month. More striking to me is that slightly less than 0.7 percent of people have completed their challenge with a week to go. Maybe there will be a spurt in the last week. I wonder how many will read a bunch of really short books to reach their goal (I’ve heard of people doing this).

This suggests to me that this reading challenge thing isn’t working for quite a number of people. I would propose, instead, thinking about the number of minutes a day you want to read and figuring out where you will set aside that time in your day. A rough guide is that for every minute you read, you will read that many books in a year (15 minutes, 15 books; 60 minutes, 60 books; etc.). That might vary based on length of the book and the type of book.

The real point is figuring out where in your life you will make space for reading, if you share my belief that reading is a valuable, life-enriching activity. It might mean something as simple as deciding to read a book for the twenty minutes of your mass transit commute each day instead of flipping through your phone. I get 30 minutes of reading in on my Kindle each day while on my treadmill. Hopefully some of your time is in a comfortable chair with your favorite beverage.

Mortimer Adler is reputed to have said, “In the case of good books, the point is not to see how many of them you can get through, but rather how many can get through to you.” It seems to me that the only benefit of any of these number games is to set us up for books to get through to us. If that isn’t happening in our number games, it might be better to abandon them, or at least ask ourselves why we are reading. What good is it to read 52 books if we can’t express what the value of any of these was to our lives? By the same token, a single book that changes our mind, that captures our imagination, that informs a critical choice, that gives us hope, or that inspires by example counts for more than all those forgotten books.

What it comes down to for me is that I don’t want to read more; I want to read well. I hope that for you. My reviews started and continue to function as a way of helping me read well, by trying to capture the essence and significance of a book. At least some times, that seems to be helpful for others, in figuring out what is worthy of their time and attention.

So, my hope for all of us in 2019 is that we read well, however few or many books we read. It seems to me that this is what the precious gift of literacy is all about.


LibraryThing’s New Android App

LibraryThing Android App home screenAs an Android phone user and a member of Library Thing for the last year and a half, I’ve lamented the lack of an Android app. Why should the iPhone users have all the fun. Well, I no longer need to lament. The middle of last month, LibraryThing announced that its Android app was finally available. They even accompanied it with a fun video, showing how easy it is to catalog your whole library using the bar code scanner on the app.

Let’s begin with that function, since it is probably one of the most useful aspects of the app. From the Home screen, you hit the button labeled “Add to catalog.” That will take you to a screen that allows you either key in a title or ISBN number, or much more easily scan the bar code for the book. To do this, tap the bar code symbol with a red horizontal line through it. You will see a frame appear using your phone’s camera. Hold it over the bar code on your book, wait for the beep (a bit startling the first time you hear it), and then it will pull up a small image, title, and author of the book you are scanning. It’s worked accurately every time I’ve used it, has always retrieved the correct title, and in my experience, does so more quickly than the scanner on the GoodReads app. One complaint I’ve heard is that you cannot use the bar code scanner to search for books already in your library.

Probably the other most significant button on your app is the “Your Catalog” button. Tapping it will display all your books either in a list or tiled covers. Tapping on the book will take you to a page on that book, allow you to edit what “collections” it appears in, see publication information, member tags and go to links on LibraryThing or Amazon for the book. At the bottom, you are able to delete the entry from your library, or edit your own information, including your tags, ratings, review, and other comments on the book. I would say this is much easier to do on a computer (and often I cut and paste reviews from a blog, which is easier to do on a computer).

You can also search your collections by title, author, ISBN, or even tags. This is quite convenient if you want to see how many books you’ve read, or own, of a particular author, or find books on a particular topic. This comes up often when I’m asked for a book recommendation and the ability to do a quick search comes in handy.

The “Cover Explorer” button is one I’m not quite sure of why it is included. It’s basic function is to tell you the source of the cover image–Amazon (ISBN or ASIN), and low or high member-uploaded cover images. The only reason I can see for this is that the book data from Amazon including ISBN is probably more certain to match their image.

The “Account” button allows you to sign in or out and an “add to catalog resources” section (where LibraryThing looks to find a book you are adding to your library). The defaults are Amazon and the libraries connected to LibraryThing’s database. This accounts for the amazing ability LibraryThing seems to have to find books (and other media).

Finally, the “News” button takes you to the news articles that appear in the right column on the internet version of LibraryThing–including Early Reviewer posts, and information about other changes on LibraryThing.

As an app, it is simple and uncomplicated and accomplishes speedily one of the basic things many people turn to LibraryThing for–cataloging books. It doesn’t have the newsfeed showing you what friends are reading. It’s not especially “pretty.” It shows you your catalog and helps you organize and add to it. It is fast and accurate.

If you are already on LibraryThing or have considered getting on, another bonus of using the app is that it automatically qualifies you for a lifetime free membership on LibraryThing. It has been the case that membership was free for those with under 200 books cataloged and $10 a year or $25 lifetime otherwise.

The app is available at the Google Play Store, and is free as well. What a great way to use smartphone technology if you have a library you want to catalog, or just want to start a list of the books you’ve read!


Category Reading Challenges


LibraryThing’s Category Challenge Group

Many of us who read lots of books or want to read more have participated in reading challenges. Many have participated in a read a book a week challenge. Goodreads allows you to set up your own challenge and to see your friends challenges.

As I continue to get acquainted with LibraryThing, one thing I’ve discovered is they have a thing called “category challenges.” When they first started in 2008, the challenge was to come up with 8 categories of books in which they would read 8 books. Next year it was 9 and 9. Eventually they decided to let people set as many or as few categories as they please and read as many or as few in each as they want. People who sign up for this are in a group, each with their own page and thread of comments from other group members.

People are really creative with their challenges. One, for example came up with a “leap year” challenge, an acronym, which stands for:

L: Let Them Eat Cake — historical fiction
E: Elementary, My Dear Watson — mysteries
A: All You Need Is Love — romance and chick lit
P: Play It Again, Sam — re-reads
Y: Yer a Wizard, Harry — fantasy
E: Everybody! — CATs, dogs, and group reads
A: Age Before Beauty — from my TBR shelves
R: Roam If You Want To — set outside the U.S. and U.K.

I’m not sure if I like being that structured in reading, although I love the creativity! My reading follows what I tend to be interested in or exploring at the time. It is interesting, though, that most of us do have our default categories. Some of my defaults categories:

  • history, especially American, European, Civil War, and military history generally.
  • biographies, especially presidential biographies.
  • mysteries, especially some of the classic writers.
  • science fiction–currently I’m intrigued  with Philip K. Dick among others.
  • historical fiction–I want to read some Hilary Mantel this year.
  • sports–every year I read a baseball book. I also have a bio on Vince Lombardi, a legendary football coach.
  • higher education, because I work in collegiate ministry.
  • theology, biblical studies, spiritual formation and lots of “faith and…” books.

The one benefit of category challenges is they offer us the chance to break out of our reading ruts.  Here are four for me (we’ll see how many of these I get to):

  1. Different ethnic and cultural voices.
  2. Books on books, especially fiction, inspired by yesterday’s post.
  3. Different religious voices, including atheist voices.
  4. Youngstown books–I have a stack that I’ve browsed but not really read.

And one for fun is to read or re-read the mysteries of Dorothy Sayers.

How about you? What categories are your defaults? If you did a category challenge, what would be your “break out” categories?

Tim Spalding, Founder of LibraryThing

tim_1_grandeSomehow, it just seems like the kind of thing a Greek and Latin graduate student with free lance experience in web development would do. It began as a pet project of Tim’s to catalog his own books, and those of his book-loving friends. And so began the first social book cataloging site. launched on August 29, 2005.

What made this thing go, it appears, is that Spalding is a computer geek who leveraged experience in Houghton-Mifflin’s instructional technology division to acquire the tech savvy for an enterprise like LibraryThing. As he put the site together, he realized it was better than anything out there at the time. To help finance the effort, he sold a portion of the company to Abebooks, now owned by Amazon. So Amazon, which also owns GoodReads and Shelfari, does have an interest in LibraryThing. Spalding still holds the largest share of his company. He is fairly adamant about providing alternatives to the Amazon/GoodReads world. He wrote on the “talk” page of LibraryThing:

“We need to embrace being the “un-Amazon” and “un-Goodreads.” If they zag, we should zig. This is the way I like it—I find Goodreads too pushy on the social side, too cavalier about user data and–on average–not as intellectual as LibraryThing can be(1). So I want to be unlike them. But it’s also good business practices. If you want a ham sandwich, Goodreads will give you one. We need to be the site for people who hate ham sandwiches…. Trust me or don’t, but my motives are pretty pure. I like my job and I’m not looking to flip the company to Amazon or anyone else.”

One of the big things Spalding has done is integrate capabilities to search and incorporate library information from over 1000 libraries using Z39.50 connections (a data sharing protocol) that allows users to access cataloging information available through Dublin Core and MARC records. At the same time, Spalding is zealous in protecting user privacy. No email is required to set up an account and collections can be set to private, so that no one need see the books you have.

In a 2006 interview with Abebooks, he describes the features of the site he developed in this way:

“The idea is simple: You enter an ISBN, a title or a keyword, and it picks up the rest from Amazon, the Library of Congress or over 30 libraries around the world. Deweys, LC Call Numbers and MARC Records are all available. Once you’ve entered some books, the system points you to other users with eerily similar tastes. You can start a conversation with them or just browse their libraries to get ideas. The system also generates great automatic recommendations; it turns out “people who OWN X also own Y” can be more interesting than “people who BOUGHT X also bought Y.” I had cataloged my books one way or another since childhood, and making LibraryThing was a dream for a few years before I went ahead with it. I barely hoped that it would eventually repay the month of programming it took to launch the basic service, but it took off beyond my wildest dreams.”

A significant part of LibraryThing’s business is with libraries. LibraryThing for Libraries provides information that enhances online library catalogs. This helped me understand how they stay afloat. I wondered how they did it on annual memberships of $10.

Tim Spalding lives in Portland, Maine with his wife, author Lisa Carey, and their son Liam. Among the books he is currently reading according to his LibraryThing page are John P. Meier’s A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Enrico Ascalone’s Mesopotamia: Assyrians, Sumerians, Babylonians, and J.R. Ward’s Lover Avenged.


First Impressions of LibraryThing


About a month ago I took the plunge and set up a LibraryThing account. Accounts are free for the first 200 books you catalogue on LibraryThing. For larger collections, you will need to pay $10 a year or $25 for life. Obviously, this is different from GoodReads, which is free, no matter how many books you have.

The name of this site and the term cataloging suggests the big distinction between GoodReads and this site. GoodReads is a social media site that allows people to share books they are reading or have read with their friends. Incidentally, it does allow you some capability to catalogue your books by categories you make up. LibraryThing is much more library based, allowing you to catalogue your books, and even access cataloging information used by librarians.

Let me give you a quick tour. Once you’ve set up your account, the first page you will visit is “Home” which is also your “Dashboard”. In the left column you can go to “recent news” “about you” and “discover”. From your Dashboard, you can add books, or import books from other sites like GoodReads and Shelfari (I haven’t tried that yet because I will then need to be a paying customer). You can edit your profile and add pictures. And you can access groups and forums, which, unlike many on GoodReads, seem quite active. Below this is information about your books, images of your most recently added books, your collections and tags, and automatic recommendations of books you might like based on yours, as well as member recommendations of other books similar to a book you’ve both read. Then there are conversation topics, local events for your area, and my favorites: authors who were born or died on this day.

If you click on a book you have added, it will take you to a page chock full of information about the book. You can see how many members have it, how popular it is, links to various sites that sell the book, including free sites. You can rate the book, add a review, put it in different collections, and tag it. The page provides a word cloud of popular tags. You can see who else has it, get recommendations of other books you might like, read other member reviews and extensive information about the book from publication date, to characters, places, awards, epigraphs, and quotes and book descriptions.

Perhaps the most fascinating page is the “Zeitgeist” page, subtitled “more information than your require.” For example, at the time this post was written, they had 2,052,484 members. eandino2012 has the largest library with 81,313 books. The Hunger Games is their most reviewed book with 2,930 reviews, and J.K. Rowling their top author. Their most prolific reviewer is “bluetyson” with 35,779 reviews (and you thought I reviewed a lot of books!).

Most recently, they’ve set up the ability through TinyCat to create a true library catalogue of your books that works with LibraryThing. It is free to LibraryThing members to use for personal use, as opposed to a public library. It is designed for small libraries, like what most of us have. Signup is at which may be accessed from your dashboard on LibraryThing.

My overall sense is that LibraryThing is geekier than the more socially-oriented GoodReads but has far more cataloging capabilities and connections to so many other book and library-related resources. I haven’t decided yet if I will plunk down for a membership, but I only have 21 books on the site so far. I have to admit that I’ve had lots of fun poking around the site, with lots more yet to explore and try out.

Tomorrow, I will do a post on the genius behind LibraryThing, Tim Spalding.