Books.Books.Books.Net

Want to give your favorite bibliophile a meaningful gift? I suggest bookmarks.I'm not talking about the traditional slips of cloth or paper used to mark pages in actual volumes. I'm referring to bookmarks of the cyber variety -- those virtual Blue Routes that cut travel time and zoom you to your destinations when you're surfing the Net. Sneak onto your loved ones' PCs and spend some truly grueling hours sifting through the sands of book-oriented information available online to create a menu of quick connections catered to your recipient's special tastes.The Internet is a boon for booklovers, but there's a serious risk of overload. So, to save the sanity of your favorite Stephen King fanatic, pick your way through the hundreds of King fan pages to find the one with real substance. For the biography aficionado, track down the ultimate discussion group on the biographer's art. Then embed 'em in your recipient's interface! Use hot lists, buttons, whatever bookmarking tool your giftee's software allows.It's a gift that can save your loved ones from drowning.Like almost anyone who dives into the Internet with a fairly broad topic in mind, the bibliophile can find himself entangled with an octopus, which will yank and suck him in many directions at once, flinging him out along the length of a tentacle, then reeling him back in only to unfurl him in another direction. Depending on how you look at this, it's either interconnective bliss or a free associative quagmire.If you've got a hot-button kind of brain, it can start out as loads of fun. Online, it's not unusual to find paragraphs such as the preceding one abrim with bizarre built-in links. Clicking on the word "octopus" might take you to the online, full-text version of The Octopus, Frank Norris' great 1920s novel of American capitalism (It's included in www.cs.cmu.edu/books.html, which corrals hundreds of public domain texts, from the works of Herman Melville and L. Frank Baum to Pat and Jan Works' recent United We Fall, a surprisingly lyric opus on skydiving in group formation). Clicking on "sucking" could zip you to Suck, one of several excellent online-only publications (others include Slate, Feed and Salon) that include super-savvy reviews and book-oriented features that, to my mind, are often better and more provocative than the literary coverage I can find in mainstream print publications.Suck, a San Francisco-based 'zine which offers two new articles daily, recently featured a characteristically snarky essay offering surprising praise for retail book superstores as opposed to the burgeoning world of online bookselling. (Among the best general-interest online bookstores are Amazon.com, Bookstacks and Wordsworth.) Argues Suck in its deliriously baroque style (On non-pay websites: "99.9 percent of the content on the web that doesn't feature limber coeds in various degrees of sexual contortion remains freer than the verse of even the most improvisational Swarthmore undergrad..."), superstores have, in addition to commerce, brought us new community centers, town halls full of literate folk, whereas online bookstores lack human interaction and are simply about moving product.While old Frank Norris might agree, this critic would beg to differ. Online bookstores not only do many things that superstores can't, they're also a good first defense against feeling lost online. I'd rather start my book-world surfing with the clearly delineated and well-directed dialogues featured on Amazon.com than with the morass of 63,467 entries that arise when I choose "Book" as a search-engine keyword.Seattle-based Amazon, which has been around for 16 months, is the premiere online bookseller, largely because it provides a real sense of fun and community. I spend a lot of time there, not buying, just playing (I did make one purchase recently, and had the autobiography of New Zealand poet Janet Frame at my doorstep in five days, as opposed to the two-to-four weeks a special order from one of my usual local bookstores -- none stocked it -- would have taken). Through a system that allows users to post their own reviews of any book Amazon carries (pretty much any book in print), the website not only turns every customer into a potential salesperson, but lays the groundwork for an enormous amount of dialogue between booklovers: "I feel like a complete sucker for wasting any time on this book..." writes one Amazon browser about Nicholas Evans' recent bestseller, The Horse Whisperer (Hey Suck , that's hardly a hard sell!), while another praises it as "a rare look into the world of mothers and daughters." Both of these folks are fine writers and go on at some length. Plus e-mail addresses accompany reviews, allowing you to make further contact if you find a kindred spirit with whom you'd like to share further reading suggestions. It's not just blockbusters under discussion, either. On a single recent Sunday (reviews can be searched chronologically as well as by title), dozens of reviewers clocked in with opinions on obscure science fiction, classics, an unauthorized Oprah-bio ("Was a worse book ever written?" the reviewer asks) and non-fiction volumes on chemistry and magic. What are the odds of finding fellow magic book customers in a real world superstore at any given time you may be shopping? While the in-person spark of browsers chatting together in a shop is great, there's lots to be said for conversations and tips that, though less spontaneous, are concretized in writing on the web.Online, bookstore staff members can share their tips with customers in a more indelible way, too. Just check out Borders' website for proof. While not actually selling online (yet), Borders is up and running with well-considered reading recommendations (and the occasional pan) written by employees at their headquarters and at stores throughout the chain. Barnes & Noble, by the way, simply offers the latest information on its corporate stock market performance. Borders also happens to be a major sponsor of Salon, the best of the general-interest web magazines, which gives plenty of attention to books. In Salon's archive of its book coverage, you'll find meaty interviews with William Gibson, Amy Tan and John LeCarre, a trendspotting piece on the re-emergence of Ireland as a literary capital and a terrific forum in which authors from Michael Chabon to Joyce Carol Oates discuss the most influential books they've read.Salon is also a super source for links, offering instant transit to lots of likeminded sites. Through Salon, I discovered BookWire, which, while largely geared to publishing industry insiders, can be fun for the layman as well. Here are literally thousands of connections to book review magazines (The Hungry Mind Review, Boston Book Review), the websites of publishing houses (usually little more than advertorial material) and truckloads of information for would-be authors (including good leads on getting an agent).For the truly compulsive follower of the biz, BookWire provides data back to 1991 on the Publisher's Weekly charts, allowing you to pull up quick analysis and comparison of your favorite titles' high positions, average positions and endurance on the bestseller list. (With these summaries so readily available, there will likely soon be online gambling pools, betting on a title's performance prior to publication and tracking it here. The biblioholic drools.).BookWire, while not comprehensive in its content, can well be used as a start-up search engine for bibliophiles on the Web. It's packed with enough detail and diversion for the mildly obsessive without the complete confusion of the Net as a whole. Then again, using a genuine Web-wide search engine can lead you to some compelling curiosities. Take David Neto's Books Page. Please. David is a Toronto doctoral student in computer science. He likes to read. And he wants to share with us:"Some people have wondered how I manage to read as much as I do. The trick is to read one book at a time. It works. The other trick is that I have a half hour streetcar commute between home and school; that's a precious hour a day of reading time..."There is good weirdness to be found as well. I recently surfed into a company called Bad Dog Books, which publishes brilliantly titled parodies that I've never run across but now plan to seek out. The lure of When I Am An Old Woman I'll Wear Mixed Plaids and Rubber Chickens for the Soul is irresistible. Bad Dog's site also had a sharp marketing essay for retailers, suggesting that parodies not merely be relegated to humor sections, but also be shelved with the books they make fun of. Really good advice. I wonder who will ever find it.Please find Readers Forum (www/shore.net/~drc/bin/mod), a cool experimental site that will be improved through heavy use. Visitors are asked to give numerical rankings to volumes they've read from a list of books by everyone from Tolkien to Tolstoy. You can also add your own titles for others to rank. Then, after formulaically comparing your mix of books and the points you've given them to those of other site users, a personalized list of recommendations is provided.Right now, this is all very crude because there are under 150 regular users of the site, but as more books and rankings get incorporated in the database, Readers Forum may prove to be pretty nifty.In addition to all the Web-exclusive material out there, the Net is a great way to cull book reviews from publications you may not regularly read but can easily access online. I probably read five times as many book reviews now as I did before I was online simply because it's so easy to pull up everything from Entertainment Weekly to The Nation to Mirabella and zip to the book reviews. The New York Times and Washington Post have new reviews every weekday. (The Post also has its Sunday Book World section available, along with a service that allows you to read the first chapter of about 50 new books a month.) I guess you could make a big pile of magazines and newspapers and flip through them in the coffee bar of your favorite superstore, but this is really more tasteful. Plus, you can print out any reviews you want to save.Popular pay services such as CompuServe, Prodigy and America Online are rife with book chat rooms, bulletin boards and meet-the-author Q & A sessions, offering further proof that the online world is not the aliterate, illiterate or post-literate place some would paint it. But for all its variety and potential value, the world of literature online comes without a real index or table of contents. Making sense of it all -- wallowing, winnowing, editing and, at last, bookmarking -- is a task to be reckoned with by each diehard reader.

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