After I built a proof of concept of using OPML to share and federate book lists yesterday (UPDATE: description of the data structure for booklists), Tom Chritchlow asked me about subscribing to OPML lists in the comments. I also reread Matt Webb’s earlier posting about using OPML and RSS for book lists.
That results in a few remarks and questions I’d like to make and ask:

  • OPML serves 2 purposes
    1. In the words of Dave Winer, opml’s creator, OPML is meant as a “transparently simple, self-documenting, extensible and human readable format that’s capable of representing a wide variety of data that’s easily browsed and edited” to create and manipulate outlines, i.e. content structured hiearchically / tree-like.
    2. the format is a way to exchange such outlines between outliner tools.
  • In other words OPML is great for making (nested) lists, and for exchanging them. I use outlines to build my talks and presentations. It could be shopping lists like in Doug Engelbart’s 1968 ‘mother of all demos’. And indeed it can be lists of books.
  • A list I regard as an artefact in itself. A list of something is not just iterating the somethings mentioned, the list itself has a purpose and meaning for its creator. It’s a result of some creative act, e.g. curation, planning, writing, or desk research.
  • A book list I regard as a library, of any size. The list can be as short as the stack on my night reading table is high, as long as a book shelf in my home is wide, or as enormous as the full catalogue of the Royal Library. Judging by Tom Critchlow’s name for his booklist data ‘library.json‘ he sees that similarly.
  • A book list, as I wrote in my posting about the proof of concept, can have books in them, and other book lists by myself or others. That is where the potential for federation lies. I can from a book point to Tom’s list as the source of inspiration. I could include one of Tom’s booklists into my own booklists.
  • A list of books is different from a group of individual postings about books as also e.g. presented on my blog’s reading category page. I blog about books I read, but not always. In fact I haven’t written any postings at all this year, but have read 25 books or so since January 1st. It is easier to keep a list of books, than to write postings about each of the books listed. This distinction is expressed too in Tom Macwright’s set-up. There’s a list of books he’s read, which points to pages with a posting about an entry in that list, but the list is useful without those postings.
  • The difference between booklists as artefacts and groups of postings about books that may also be listed has impact on what it means to ‘subscribe’ to them.
    • A book list, though it can change over time, is a steady artefact. Books may get added or removed just like in a library, but those changes are an expression of the will of its maker, not a direct function of time.
    • My list of blogsposts about books, in contrast is fully determined by time: new entries get added on top, older ones drop off the list because the list has a fixed length.
    • OPML is very suited for my lists as artefacts
    • RSS is very suited for lists as expression of time, providing the x most recent posts
    • Subscribing to RSS feeds is widely available
    • Subscription is not something that has a definition for OPML (that you can use OPML to list RSS subscriptions may be confusing though)
    • Inclusion however is a concept in OPML: I can add a list as a new branch in another list. If you do that once you only clone a list, and go your own seperate way again. You could also do it dynamically, where you always re-import the other list into your own. Doing it dynamically is a de-facto subscription. For both however, changes in the imported list are non-obvious.
    • If you keep a previously seen copy and compare it to the current one, you could monitor for changes over time in an OPML list (Inoreader did that in 2014 so you could see and subscribe to new RSS feeds in other people’s OPML feed lists, also see Marjolein Hoekstra’s posting on the functionality she created.).
  • I am interested in both book lists, i.e. libraries / bookshelves, the way I am interested in browsing a book case when I visit somebody’s home, and in reading people’s reviews of books in the form of postings. With OPML there is also a middle ground: a book list can for each book include a brief comment, without being a full review or opinion. In the shape of ‘I bought this because….’ this is useful input for social filtering for me.
  • While interested in both those types, libraries, and reviews, I think we need to treat them as completely different things, and separate them out. It is fine to have an OPML list of RSS feeds of reviews, but it’s not the same as having an OPML book list, I think.
  • I started at the top with quoting Dave Winer about OPML being a “simple, self-documenting, extensible and human readable format that’s capable of representing a wide variety of data that’s easily browsed and edited“. That is true, but needs some qualification:
    • While I can indeed add all kinds of data attributes, e.g. using namespaces and standardised vocabularies like schema.org, there’s no guarantee nor expectation that any OPML parser/reader/viewer would do anything with them.
    • This is the primary reason I used an XSL template for my OPML book lists, as it allows me to provide a working parser right along with the data itself. Next to looking at the raw file content itself, you can easily view in a browser what data is contained in it.
    • In fact I haven’t seen any regular outliner tool that does anything with imported OPML files beyond looking at the must have ‘text’ attribute for any outline node. Tinderbox, when importing OPML, does look also at URL attributes and a few specific others.
    • I know of no opml viewer that shows you which attributes are available in an OPML list, let alone one that asks you whether to do something with them or not. Yet exploring the data in an OPML file is a key part of discovery of other people’s lists, of the aim to federate booklists, and for adopting better or more widely shared conventions over time.
    • Are there generic OPML attribute explorers, which let you then configure what to pay attention to? Could you create something like an airtable on the fly from an OPML list?
    • Monitoring changes in OPML list you’re interested in is possible as such, but if OPML book lists you follow have different structures it quickly becomes a lot of work. That’s different from the mentioned Inoreader example because OPML lists of RSS feeds have a predefined expected structure and set of attributes right in the OPML specification.
    • Should it be the default to provide XSL templates with OPML files, so that parsing a list as intended by the creator of the list is built right into the OPML list itself?
    • Should we ‘dumb down’ lists by moving data attributes of an outline node to a sub-node each? You will reduce machine readability in favor of having basic OPML outliners show all information, because there are no machines reading everything yet anayway.

I think for the coming weeks I’ll be on the lookout for sites that have book lists and book posting feeds, to see what commonalities and differences I find.

Back in 2012 E and I gave about half of our many books away as part of a BBQ party. We kept what we hadn’t read yet but still found interesting, as well as reference books and books we had read and felt attached to. In the decade since I’ve bought a lot of new books, based on interests, recommendations, or because they were mentioned in books I did read, and of course based on arbitrary reasons like the title and design jumped out at me while browsing a bookstore. Even though E and I don’t regularly descend anymore on a bookstore like a swarm of locusts on a field, something we did frequently in the past, over the years the collection of unread books I have has grown significantly. Those stacks of unread books carry a certain weight on my mind, a nagging backlog of books to read. I stopped buying for a long while because I ‘should’ read the others first.

Taleb in his book The Black Swan comes up with the concept of the Anti-Library. I don’t remember that specifically from reading The Black Swan, but I came across it again in this posting at Ness Labs. I do remember reading Taleb’s anecdote about Umberto Eco’s enormous book collection though, which concludes with the concept of the Anti-Library.

An Anti-Library is your personal curated collection of books, papers etc. that you haven’t read. Taleb posits that what you haven’t read, but did have reason to collect and adopt into your library constitutes a research tool. Because it has more potential value (in terms of new insights etc) than what you’re already familiar with and have read.

This puts the focus on how I can actively use the stacks of unread books around the house and on my devices, while at the same time letting go of the feeling of guilt attached to it (“I really should read that book I bought soon….”). This switches the perspective from ‘I bought this book to read immediately’ to ‘I bought this book so it’s there when I might need it’. From ‘backlog’ to ‘shelves of opportunity’.

Thinking in terms of an anti-library also allows paying attention to how you deliberately enlarge the collection of unreads, which is a curation task. The unread books aren’t random choices, they are a selected set of personal resources concerning themes you find interesting or that make you curious.

I de facto already have an anti-library, as the result of procuring books faster than reading them. To make it fully visible as such to myself and use it as a research tool, I probably just need to add a few tweaks. Such as:

  • Maintaining an index of unread books. I created a collection ‘Anti-library’ in Zotero, which also contains other collections with the references to things I did read. Zotero works well with both books and (academic) papers. I already had in my notes a list called ‘my reading list’ which is an overview of books I think would be useful to read at this moment in time, which I moved to Zotero. And I could make an additional round through my e-ink devices, and our home to add to the list of unreads.
  • When adding a new unread book, jotting down why I thought to add it. This is helpful context in evaluating it later. I do the same for bookmarks I store for later reading/turning into notes, where I write down why I thought it relevant and to which other things I think it might be connected.
  • Keep doing what I already do, which is checking out recommendations from peers, and what other books the ones I enjoy currently reading are referencing
  • I now post here about books I read sometimes, maybe I should do the same for books I acquired but didn’t yet read, and share the reason I think it might be an interesting book. Have an anti-library stream
  • When exploring a new question, consider which unread books may contain relevant insights (next to exploring what my notes already contain on the question at hand)

Book Case
The other side of a book case, image by Ton Zijlstra, license CC BY NC SA

I have now read several non-fiction books on my Nova2 reader. This is a marked improvement from before. I dislike reading non-fiction on my Kindle. Part of it is in the slightly bigger screen of the Nova2, and easier flipping back and forth between parts of a book. Part of it is that it’s a separate device, and not the same screen I read on for relaxation. An important part is also the ease of taking (handwritten) notes while using it.

A very pleasant additional side-effect of this e-reader, compared to the Kindle, is that in the past few weeks I have bought several e-books outside of Amazon. Because the tablet is a generic e-reader, I can now shop around for a much better mix of price, absence of DRM, and local/independent bookshop. This allows me to go outside the silo Amazon wants to lock you into more easily/often.

Two useful things I found out today about my Nova2 e-ink reader/tablet, while trying to figure out how to retrieve and use notes made on it:

  • Any markings / scribbled note I add by hand to a book or pdf, are accessible as a table of content (under the TOC button even). These can be exported to PDF for all notes, or for selected notes.
  • Next to marking things in a text, you can split the reader’s screen to have the text on one side and a notepad on the other (it doesn’t automatically set it to the left hand side when the reader is set to left handed, don’t know yet if I can change that manually). Hand written notes are then connected to the book and like the notes made in the document itself can be exported and accessed as pdf.

Bryan Alexander has been holding online book club readings for both fiction and non-fiction books. The next edition will be reading Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. I recently bought a copy, and I will read along with the rest of the group in the coming few weeks. (I’m also thinking about a recently read book list here on this site. I track my reading anyway, and might as well share some of that here.)

Replied to Lezersblock by Frank Meeuwsen (diggingthedigital.com)
Frank reageert op Elmine's posting over lezersblock met herkenning en "Misschien een tip voor je Elmine? Timeboxed lezen."

Zo’n lezersblock, mooi woord van Elmine, herken ik wel. Vooral als het om non-fictie gaat. Ik heb een stapel papieren non-fictie boeken liggen nog van jaren terug, en een nog veel grotere virtuele stapel e-books, waar ik maar niet toe of doorheen kom.

Voor fictie heb ik dat timeboxing van Frank succesvol toegepast. Twee jaar geleden ongeveer ben ik begonnen met hoe dan ook voor ik ga slapen nog een half uur tot een uur te lezen. Dat zorgt ervoor dat ik gemiddeld een boek per week lees, soms iets sneller bij dunnere werkjes, soms langzamer bij kloeke werken.

Voor non-fictie is die timebox voor het slapen gaan ongeschikt. Dan wil ik geen input die me aan het denken zet. Voor het slapen gaan is een non-fictie boek een soort blauw licht voor me. Ik heb echter nog geen andere timebox kunnen bepalen. Misschien ook wel omdat ik nog niet weet waar ik heen ‘moet’ met alle associaties en ideeën die lezen in de regel bij me oproept. Die niet afgehechte draadjes blijven dan maar onrustig in mijn gedachten ronddwalen, en daar kijk ik niet naar uit. Een paar jaar geleden heb ik daarom heel bewust geen non-fictie boeken gelezen, want er was al veel te veel dat mijn persoonlijk en beroepsmatige aandacht nodig had. Te druk in mijn hoofd voor nog meer input.

Maar daarna is het niet gelukt wel weer te gaan lezen. Ik probeer het o.a. met Blinkist, een app die een soort samenvattingen van boeken geeft in hapklare brokken. Dat is alleen wel een beetje als een Michelin-kok die zijn naam onder vliegtuigmaaltijden zet. Het is niet voedingsloos, maar het geeft geen voldoening, en je hebt erna al snel weer trek. Het helpt me wel om snel door boeken heen te komen die op dat moment ‘de ronde doen’ en waar je een mening over ‘moet’ hebben, zodat ik in ieder geval weet wat de centrale ideeën in zo’n boek zijn. De stapel boeken die ik wil lezen wordt er alleen niet kleiner van.

One way I can estimate how stressed I am is looking at how much I read, and how I read it. Stress means much less to no reading overall, with sudden bursts of reading several books back-to-back as escapism. So I keep track of how much fiction I read throughout the year. The first half year looks good and stable when judged by my reading. I’ve read 32 books in the first 26 weeks, an average of 1.25 per week. My aim is to at least average one per week, but sometimes a bigger book slows me down, or an easier read speeds things up. Reading more I see as better, but only if it’s at a steady pace. Bursts are a sign of something being off, or of summer holiday, when I usually voraciously read books.

The pace of reading was stable at 1 per week until late May (21 books in 20 weeks), and a bit higher at almost 2 per week with 11 books in the final 6 weeks of this first half of 2018. This I don’t regard as ‘bursty’ reading just more books in the same steady pace, as it included several shorter reads.

The best reads this half year I think were, these Science Fiction books:

Walkaway, by Cory Doctorow (which felt like a literary version of what I call Networked Agency)
Long Way to a Small and Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit, by Becky Chambers
Children of Time, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

And these general fiction books:

Less, by Andrew Sean Greer, this year’s Pulitzer price for fiction winner.
The Scent of Rain in the Balkans, by Gordana Kuic, sketching 20th century Yugoslavian history through the eyes of one family
Perfume River, by Robert Olen Butler, of trauma and faulty communications through the generations
Ellbogen, by Fatma Aydemir, the raw story of a Turkish-German girl between Berlin and Istanbul.
After Dark, by Haruki Murakami, who takes you on a surreal night trip through Tokyo.