catalog news 004: a space for book people
by roryjanuary 6, 2024

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As we've been opening up catalog for the first time for friends & family to play with, and with the launch also of our homepage, a tagline just sort of emerged for me from the ether: a space for book people. Those five words immediately felt simple enough and right enough to roll with, without any need for hand-wringing over e.g. marketing considerations. It's simple, but there's a lot baked into that phrase that encapsulates why we are building this at all, and what we envision for it.

First of all, what are book people, anyway? I credit Charlie Becker's (soul-expanding) A Pilgrimage for Book People with planting the term in my head, which in itself instantly clicked for me. In his essay, it's more specifically referring to sellers, buyers, and appreciators of used books—people who devote their whole lives to seeking out and distributing old, often forgotten books—though around catalog we use the term more broadly. To me, book people was the term I needed for a concept in my mind that was not quite the same as book readers or even book lovers.

As Charlie puts it:

What separates book people from others is that they regard a book as more than the sum of its parts. Once the words are down and the book is printed, something special happens, and the book ascends to a new dimension of meaning. It would be a mistake to think of book people simply as enthusiasts, the way you would other collectors or hobbyists. Particularly with the type of book person who showed up to Brandeis, there are better words to describe them: acolytes, adherents, devotees, fanatics.

For me, on top of the "devotee" sense, the term carries this additional connotation of a sense of duty or guardianship, almost like "keepers of the book." As book people, we don't just buy books and read them and tell other people whether or not to buy/read them; we keep the book tradition alive, each in our own personal way. It's not the stance of the consumer of entertainment, but a sort of whole-being responsibility to human culture, past and present.

Book people are (as we say on our homepage) people who still collect paper books and lend them to each other, people who read the acknowledgments page and care what goes into the making of a book, people who get their best book recommendations from fellow humans. Book people are also people who notice when the British Library has digitally disappeared, people who would write (or read) a book about a library or make (or watch) a documentary about a library, people who would devote their life to digging up neglected books or mining gems from old ones.

One decides for oneself whether one is a book person. No one can bestow it upon you, and no one can take it away from you. Yet one need not be a book person, with all its weighty responsibility, to enjoy using catalog. I mean only to say that we intend to build a space where a book person can feel at home, and in community.

So that's book people. But secondly, what does it mean to build a space for people?

Here is something that happened on catalog. A friend of mine signed in for the first time, noticed Pilgrim at Tinker Creek in my top 4, and it gave them the nudge to finally start reading it, as they already had a copy sitting around that they'd been meaning to read. And it more or less changed their world. (All just in the week or two that catalog has been live!) This is a friend of many, many years, and we talk at length somewhat regularly. Yet we'd never discovered this crossing of paths on Pilgrim until the app simply surfaced it. (And I've since found surprises in the top 4's of all my friends on catalog.)

I told this friend that what I want catalog to be is a thousand, or a thousand thousand, interactions just like this, but in every flavor and variation. I picture someone going to post a link to an obscure article about an obscure book and then seeing that someone else has already posted the same link, and those someones becoming friends online or in person. Or someone looking for people to talk to about a book they're excited about, and finding upcoming online talks, local meetups, reading events from the author's book tour. Or someone being able to send a shoutout to the specific bookseller whose staff pick led them to try a book that saved their life. Some of these things are still a ways off from what you can do in the app now, but dreams like these are what keep me working on it day after day.

So you see, the point isn't book tracking, but serendipity.

In an interview with George Saunders (h/t @popp), Zadie Smith says (of reading Saunders' novel Lincoln in the Bardo):

I went onto Goodreads because I wanted to find somebody else who had read this book. There were only eight or nine people who had at that time, and they were having a kind of spiritual convening. Normally, it’s 30 people on there bitching about a book. But this was like a church meeting. It was very moving. And finishing it, I’d become part of this small community of readers.

There are many book-tracking apps that have sprung up (other than Goodreads), including The Storygraph, Hardcover, and many more, both current and defunct. Every such app or platform has its own take on things. I have been struggling to articulate (to myself, and to others) what it is that feels different about what we want for catalog. The way glenn put it that stuck in my brain was that many of these apps feel heavier on "single-player mode," which is one thing that catalog aspires not to be. Your basic personal book tracking is table stakes in this town, and so we will try to provide that as everyone does, but I can tell you right now that catalog won't be the best app for book tracking, because that's simply not our focus.

What it makes me think of is how Chris McCandless, before he perished, alone, in the Alaskan forest (as made famous by the book and movie Into the Wild) (did you really think you'd get away with reading a long post from me without running into any mention of a Kristen Stewart movie?), he (Chris McCandless) is said to have written, in the margins of his copy of Dr. Zhivago:


After a hundred days alone in the wilderness, that was the conclusion he came to.

I won't presume to say whether I think that statement is generally true or not. (Because I have no idea, to be honest!) Only that when it comes to building catalog, it's the shared kind of joy around books that we're after. But that's the kind of thing that we can't just will into existence. It takes a little magic, and a bunch of people who are looking for the same thing.

Still, we try to build in such a way as to facilitate the magic. To that end, we've made, and will continue to make, some decisions that diverge from what you see in other book apps.

a few things that catalog does differently

I'm only going to include here a few things we have in our app already (or that are already in progress); we will do even more things differently as time goes on, but I don't want to overpromise.

Links, posts, and comments on links and posts. On a book's page you can post links to reviews, interviews, essays, podcasts, TikToks, events, memes, and anything else related to the book. (Text posts are upcoming, and are essentially for starting a discussion. Comments are also upcoming, so that you can reply to both of these post types.) All of this is about being able to see the context and conversation around each book. (As a form of shorthand for ourselves, we've been calling this approach "a subreddit for every book.") Books don't exist as isolated objects; nor do we think the only worthwhile type of comment on them is reader reviews. (For the same reason, we don't assume that you're writing about a book only to review it after you've read it; you can write notes throughout as you read a book, or even long after. Reading can be a process, of working through or living through an experience—an expanse of time, rather than just a single point.) There's a whole world of conversation around every book that gets read by living people (see: some of the articles and blogs linked above), and we want to be able to gather that up together.

No stars, only hearts. You can only "love" a book (or not); we don't have 5-star ratings. This is bound to disappoint some people, seeing as there are plenty of people who wish Goodreads had half stars for even more granular ratings. But when I'm looking at a book, I don't know what to make of it if I see that someone rated a book 3 stars as opposed to 4, or 2. Or what it means if you rated the same book a star lower than I did. (I also notice it affecting the way I read every book, too—constantly adjusting in my head the star rating I plan to give it, instead of immersing myself in the mind of the author.) What I really want to know is who absolutely loved the book, and why they loved it. I want someone to try to talk me into spending some of my finite time on earth with this particular book. Joe LeSueur, a longtime roommate and friend of the poet Frank O'Hara, wrote in his memoir of O'Hara that O'Hara was always passionately supportive of poets he admired, yet also never had anything bad to say about poetry he didn't appreciate:

At the same time he rarely put down poetry he didn't like, and this attitude held for the work of the poets who won all the prizes. "It'll slip into oblivion without my help," he said once.

No yearly book challenge. At least, not in the "quantity" form, as in, "How many books do you want to read this year?" You will certainly be able to keep track of how many books you read this year in catalog, but we won't make these quantitative goals "a thing," a constant presence around the app. I and others I've talked to have noticed the pressure from such goals (e.g. in Goodreads) subtly changing the way we read or think about reading: it makes me want to press on and finish a book I'm not enjoying, for the "credit", and discourages me from reading longer books or reading more slowly. Personally I'm ready to focus less on quantity this year, more on the process and the community of reading a good book. And we're building for people who are in a similar place.

highlights from the community

Finally, a few highlights from around catalog for you to check out (you don't need an account for this, the links are visible to anyone):

popp apparently went deep on a book called Psychonauts by Mike Jay, and has started to post occasional notes while reading it, as well as reference links to (presumably) things mentioned in the book, and even a link to a reading list (on catalog!) of books related to the book.

Some recent lists that caught my eye include bengo's skip the CS major, read books instead (a statement I wholeheartedly agree with by the way, having never taken Computer Science myself, and still managing to do all right in the field so far), Holly's Never-Ending Shelf Life: Books about Longevity (with its nice catalog pun), and Rizzo's Total Bangers ("Simply put, they just hit.").

with love in 2024,