ON THE Internet you can find atleast three other people who share your unlovable, shameful habit. Any unlovable, shameful habit. Even book cataloguing. A dozen new social networking sites allow you to share lists of books that you have read or want to read with thousands of other people. That rude girl who sniffed at you at a poetry reading, the quizzer whose houseful of books you covet, the former CEO of a national bookshop chain, hundreds of Indian fans of Paulo Coelho and a thousand others whose favourite philosopher is Ayn Rand; you can meet them all on these sites.

With all the bookblogs, booksellers’ sites and social networking sites we already have did we need a social networking site for booklovers? Apparently we did but didn’t know it. Goodreads, LibraryThing and Shelfari, like many phenomena on the Internet, turn previously amorphous, even unknown
desires into necessities. These new sites understand that very few committed readers have ‘favourite books’ and allow you to upload as many books as you want. (Library Thing allows you to add only 200 titles for free. Beyond that you will have to pay a fee to support your habit).

Beyond the basic similarities, each of these second-generation social networking sites have tiny addictive details. Library Thing, the oldest of these sites, has the Unsuggester which tells you the names of books that you are least likely to enjoy. If you liked The Road to Serfdom by FA Hayek you are unlikely to like The Devil wears Prada, it informs you. Goodreads has an understated, quiet interface but appeals to the compulsive listmaker for the ease and efficiency with which you can add books to your ‘read’, ‘currently reading’ and ‘to-read’ shelves. First sessions on Goodreads are typically difficult to end as each book you add reminds you of another book you just have to add. Then each time you log in you find yourself screwing your eyes shut to remember the books in shelves you have left behind in other cities.

Balasubramanian, a 25-year-old management student at IIT Kharagpur likes Shelfari for its extremely attractive interface that puts large images of book-jackets on your “shelf that you can gloat over. So much better than stupid people’s faces.” Goodreads allows you to compare book lists with other users so you can find out how many books you have in common and how closely you agree on the rating of books you have in common. All the
sites have groups based on location, genre or an abiding passion or hatred for an author. So far Goodreads is the only one with a private messaging system, an absolute necessity in any site with social networking ambitions. It also points you to users in your vicinity and user online at the moment.

These sites have definite value for new enthusiasts who want to go beyond Paulo Coelho and Robin Cook, but don’t knowwhere to start or for people in the same locations who want to swap books. But what value do these social networking sites have for the serious reader, a notoriously antisocial being? Gayathri Venkatadri, a consultant with a software company in Mumbai only uses Shelfari to track her current reading. She says that she has no interest in joining any of the groups on the site because she would rather read the book than “some chappie’s idea of lit-crit.” Vivek Nityananda, scientist at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, who frequently leaves bookshops in a penurious state, was immediately addicted to Goodreads. For readers like him these sites indulge the affectionate remembering of books read. But his sessions on these sites mostly leave him with a boa constrictor-like whole. What sites like Goodreads, Library Thing and Shelfari do is tap into the communal, exhibitionist and competitive behaviour patterns in readers. They are built to let readers greedily browse other people’s bookshelves, nod at old hardbound friends and smirk at unfortunate choices. If your hubris acquires some knocks when you find a 19- year-old’s bookshelf with everything ever written by any author with an Eastern European surname (including those from Slavoj Zizek’s wilderness years) then the Internet is the better to hide you with, my dear.

PROFILE-BUILDING on these sites is not the exhausting, encyclopedic, Sisyphean affair of other social networking sites. What do we care when your
birthday is, what your favourite colour is and what kind of boyfriend a Facebook quiz says you will make? Your list says you own everything that Charles Bukowski ever wrote? You have a hardbound copy of Ian McEwan’s Saturday? Your favourite book is The Unbearable Lightness of Being? We now know all we need to know.

Can one discuss social networking sites (or anything on the Internet) without alleging that something sordid awaits the imprudent?Nityananda wonders whether one Good – reads user ‘Bookpig’ with 4,000 books on his/her ‘read’ shelf is actually a pretty code absorbing all booklists around it. Venkatadri
also has her healthy dose of scepticism about the massive tomes listed on some profiles. “Beowulf? Who do they think they are kidding?” When asked whether she thinks there may be Shelfari users who hope to make non-cerebral acquaintance with other users, she was inclined to agree. “I had my pictureon the site for a while. Now I have a picture of a tree instead.”

Anne Fadiman says there are two kinds of book-lovers, the courtly lover and the carnal lover. The carnal lover’s books have broken spines, yellow stains and and more than a nodding acquaintance with the nether regions of households such as the kitchen and the loo. This lot adore literature but not are not reverent towards the corporeal form of books. The courtly lover’s books, on the other hand, tend to live in dust-free cathedrals of cellophane. Now with a Mac, a webcam and decadent software called Delicious Library this community can display their book collection and also presumably ‘out’
their catalogue love of epic proportions. By scanning the barcode on the back of any book Delicious Library places the bookjackets on your digital shelves along with reams of information downloaded from multiple web sources. The Delicious Library usercan browse, search and sort books on their
digital shelves. You can synchronise your library with your iPod and even keep track of the items your friends are borrowing using Delicious Library’s loan management system. The only worm in the Apple is the idea of a Delicious Library user ever lending anyone her books.

Carnal lovers of books too have their place in the electronic sun. Bookcrossing.com (Motto: Don’t be shelf-ish with your books) is not from the current crop of booklovers’ sites. Founded in 2001 “bookcrossing: the practice of leaving a book in a public place to be picked up and read by others, who then
do likewise” entered the Concise Oxford Dictionary in 2004. Bookcrossers “release books into the wild,” (a coffee-shop, a friend’s house, a cyber-café)
and register this on the site.) Another bookcrosser picks it up, reads it and releases it in turn into the wild. The incredible adventures of innocuous books are thus charted on the site.

To courtly lovers bookcrossing is a punishment out of the Old Testament. Having joined the Mumbai Book Exchange Group on Shelfari in a weak moment Venkatadri is loathe to lend her books. “When I imagine lending my book to someone from an online book club, I think ‘hello stranger take my
firstborn.’ ” Bookcrossing.com is the online manifestation of a rare trait even among carnal booklovers: an altruistic desire to have other people read a particular book that is so strong you are willing to never see the book again. Perhaps not so rare? As of 10 September 2007, the site had over 586,000 members, with over 4,200,000 registered books.

Bookcrossing has entered popular culture having featured in a soap opera subplot, in tirades by angry authors who genuinely believe we should buy not borrow their books, in endorsements by captivated authors like Neil Gaiman and of course having given rise to book-crossed lovers. Even in India where bookcrossing is not really popular yet, an intrepid book La Centurie: Poemes Amoureux de l’Inde Ancienne is currently somewhere in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands waiting for a reader to come along. There is no doubt that it really is a successful social network. Despite Shelfari’s spamming abilities that resemble the Black Death of 1665, we can only speculate whether the new dedicated sites will still be a fix we can’t live without

First published here.