On Cataloging Books
The Personal Weblog of Edward W. Farrell   
On Cataloging Books Saturday, January 26, 2002
I have always vascillated on cataloging my books.  I'll have to admit the "idea" is very compelling and is always there, but... Each time I get serious about it the effort has never lasted longer than an afternoon.  Every few years or so I do a "purge" and give a few stacks of things away.  I probably have a few thousand books but I'm not really sure. I try to keep the books fairly neat and categorized but many of them I've had for twenty or thirty years and sometimes I forget what I have.  The worst is when I happen to be in a bookstore far away from home and rack my brains over whether I have a copy of some find at home or not.  I've ended up with a few duplicates this way.  Some books I buy to immediately read, some are for reference, and some I buy because I've heard, through some reference or recommendation, then they are "classic" to an ongoing pet interest I've got.  The latter are the most likely to be forgotten over the years, particularly if I don't use them much or never get around to reading them.  On the other hand, the forgotten ones also account for the "pleasant surprise" category when I cycle around to some shelved interest after a few years and find that I still have a copy of something I'm suddenly anxious to read.

People who buy and keep a lot of books are likely to be financially challenged, certainly in their inclinations and possibly in their circumstances.  This does not mean that they may not be successful professionals who are well paid.  But the outstanding entrepeneur or businessman is probably a rarity in this crowd.

I've noticed that many if not most of the books I've read have been at the recommendation of writers I like.  Henry Miller was a great advocate and practitioner of this method and when I devoured his books in my early twenties I picked up the bug.  I was introduced to Knut Hamsun and Jean Giono among many others though Miller, for instance.  Some of these were very strange little gems, like Jaime de Angulo's stories.  Sometimes I've found great books through a perverse interest in what people do not recommend. In one of Francis Schaeffer's books he disparaged Reinhold Niebuhr, whom I'd never read but was suddenly inclined to read.  What a gold mine! Well, one man's trash...  Niebuhr in turn led on to Hannah Arendt and Waldo Frank.  And so on.

For me, the main trouble with a book catalog is that it is linear and cannot capture to sorts of relationships my mind forms when I research and read.  The mind is far more able to keep track of such relations that the most clever computer program, but memory is unfortunately fickle.  This problem has always interested me though and I recently designed and built an application to manage associative (yet non-relational) databases.  Any object in such a database can have any number of bi-directional associations with other objects in the database.  A database can also have any number of user-defined "tables." (These are really object classes that are defined much as tables are defined in a relational database.)  So, you can define an "author" class with author attributes (name, birthplace, birthdate, etc.), a "book" class with book attributes (title, author, publisher, etc.), and "join" the author class to the author attribute of "book."  This is pretty standard relational procedure. But if I also want to map the idiosyncratic course of my reading (as indicated above), I can create parent-child links between authors Miller, Hamsun, and Giono; or from Schaeffer to Niebuhr, and from Niebuhr to Arendt and Frank. Displaying the record "Reinhold Niebuhr" will then show me that author's attributes, the links to all of the books he authored, the link to the book by Francis Schaeffer that referred me to Niebuhr, and links to the authors Arendt and Frank who were suggested to me by Niebuhr.  These links can be "followed," (that is, clicking on a link will display all its relations in the new frame of reference) or displayed as hierarchical maps.  Links can be set and broken interactively or by means of (pseudo)relational joins, and so can be as systematic or as free-form as I like. There is also a built-in scripting engine that allows markup to be attached to records.  Using this, you can do things like create BibTeX formatted catalogs or bibliographies on the fly.  You can also keep a large collection of plain-text notes in their proper relations to topics, cross-topics, and references, and have a script automatically create a LaTeX (or HTML, RTF, etc.) formatted document by outputting the notes to a file along with the appropriate markup.  I won't kid you that setting up such a system doesn't require some careful thought, but once set up it will automate a lot of very tedious work as well as give the data a lot of independence.  It's also fun to browse through.

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