Saturday 1 September 2007

Books do furnish a social networking site profile

Today’s musing is brought to you by over-exposure to Facebook; specifically to its Visual Bookshelf application. As a survey of current literary tastes it is deeply flawed, but fascinating nonetheless. For a start, it is one of at least three such applications on Facebook. Assuming that anyone with a passing interest in showing off their bookish can-do will only select one such widget, there is already a random division of the sample on show.

The second problem is that since the programme takes all its book information from Amazons .com and, which counts each imprint of any given book as a separate item, there is no quick way of discerning overall readerships for any given title. And moreover, since there are vastly more Americans on the site than anyone else, the snapshot deals pretty much exclusively with American tastes. The last point, and one worth making, is that mention of any given book is self-electing - that is to say, the reader needs to actively note that they are reading a book for it to make an appearance. This will be influenced by hundreds of factors, but most significant is probably whether the book has either been read since the reader joined Facebook, or else it made such a good or bad impression that a reader was moved to record it. Bearing this in mind, it is perhaps not surprising that the top ten books recorded as read by Facebook Bookshelf application owners looks like this:

  1. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: 56,479 people; 8,963 reviews
  2. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: 43,956 people; 1,037 reviews
  3. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: 43,317 people; 1,176 reviews
  4. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (Philosopher’s Stone in UK): 42,997 people; 1,984 reviews
  5. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: 42,641 people; 1,138 reviews
  6. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix: 41,784 people; 1,333 reviews
  7. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince: 41,777 people; 1,468 reviews
  8. To Kill a Mockingbird: 24,166 people; 1,323 reviews
  9. The Catcher in the Rye: 21,440 people; 1,238 reviews
  10. The Da Vinci Code: 20,589 people; 1,478 reviews
Obviously it’s nice that the American reading public managed to get two literary classics onto their list of Harry Potter books before careering off into Dan Brown country, but then it is probably worth remembering that both Mockingbird and Catcher are probably ninth grade set-texts, and the 45,000-odd readers who logged them were quite possibly recording or recalling a fact of life.

More interesting is the Most Reviewed category. Although still top-heavy with Potter it also throws up a couple of surprising results:

  1. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: 56,479 people; 8,963 reviews
  2. Twilight (by Stephenie Meyer): 8,372 people; 2,131 reviews
  3. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone: 42,997 people; 1,984 reviews
  4. The Kite Runner: 16,008 people; 1,586 reviews
  5. The Da Vinci Code: 20,589 people; 1,478 reviews
  6. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince: 41,777 people; 1,468 reviews
  7. Harry Potter Boxset Books 1-7: 4,441 people; 1,439 reviews
  8. Angels & Demons (more Dan Brown): 19,652 people; 1,380 reviews
  9. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix: 41,784 people; 1,333 reviews
  10. To Kill a Mockingbird: 24,166 people; 1,323 reviews

Most interesting is Ms Meyer’s Twilight. I’d never heard of it before, it has significantly fewer readers than everything else on the list (if you discount the Harry Potter box set, which is clearly cheating) and yet more than a quarter of its 8,372 readers felt moved to comment. Having looked at these reviews, I can reveal that Twilight sounds like some kind of post-Anne Rice vampire fiction. A lot of its fans professed themselves to be “in love” with its leading man. It is the first of at least a trilogy. No doubt we can look forward to a dreadful film sometime soon. Staying with films, I was much more heartened to see Khaled Hosseini's novel The Kite Runner doing so well. Not least because my friend Khalid is playing the lead role in the forthcoming film adaptation (of which, more another time, possibly).

So what is the substance of these reviews? Here are the top ten most recent posted on the most reviewed book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows:

Brooke Phillips, 35 minutes ago*:
Excellent ending to the series. The epilogue was too much.

Saira Khan, about 1 hour ago:
A bit of a downer but a great way to end the series. Too many of my fav characters died. :-(...

Erika Sologuren, about 1 hour ago:
An excellent end to Harry Potter. Before the book came out, I tried to predict what would happen, and some of the stuff that I thought of as a joke actually happened (ie. Sev becoming HM) I will never get tired from reading this book, it was brilliant!

Christy Clark-Heaslip, about 2 hours ago:
Good! Couldn't put it down at the end!

Riaan Bosman, about 3 hours ago:
Awesome... die einde is bietjie corny, maar dit is eintlik goed so!!

Jacqueline Bronzage, about 3 hours ago:
It is beautifully clever. ( a.k.a missing out - if you're not reading it.)

Sean Ryan, about 11 hours ago:
Just started book number 7 in good old Harry’s life. Saw the movie, it was the worst one yet unfortunately. Will let you know how the book is.....:)...Yip Finished..... Riveting...!!!!! Go JK.

Caitlin Menzies, about 12 hours ago:

Shruti Bhutada, about 12 hours ago:
severus snape is my favorite character from the harry potter now! and no matter what the psuedo intellectual, anti jk rowling ppl say, the fact is that, JK is an amazing writer.

[all very much sic, btw]

And here are some of those raves about Twilight:

Magan Glidewell, 3 hours ago:
This is the first of the series and probably my favorite. (Although the third is very close). I love Edward. : )

Alyssa Hamilton, about 12 hours ago:
this is the most amazing book i have ever read! its my favourite

Mallory Armstrong, about 12 hours ago:
I was sitting, bored in the library when this book caught my attention on display. I recognized the cover and realized someone had recommended it to me. It was absolutely amazing. It was my kind of book. The author's style of writing was really fantastic, and just the story in general was so good. I can't wait to read the next one. The word vampire has a whole new meaning to me now.

Alexandra Voyles, about 13 hours ago:
wow, amazing, if you have not read this book i really would reccomend going out, buying it, and reading it.

Sasha Leigh, about 13 hours ago:
Bella Swan falls in love with Edward Cullen. Later to find out that he is a vampire.

?, about 14 hours ago:
[I’m trying very hard to resist the temptation to comment on all these. Suffice it to say that I’m getting strong Hippo World flashbacks]

Amy Wilkinson, about 14 hours ago:
I loved it :) The characters all seemed very realistic

Andrea Churchill, about 15 hours ago:
Absolutely AMAZING book. The next 2 are just as good. Awesome author.

Marrianne Pappas, about 15 hours ago:
Greatest book I have ever read part 1

So now you know. You’ve read the reviews. Judge for yourself.

Like much else on Facebook, this study very quickly becomes addictive. There is a way to find out the top reviewer using the application. This honour currently rests with one Sandra Crease Ryan, whose current profile photograph is of a rooster. She is top reviewer because she has “reviewed” 520 books. It is possible to see what she is currently reading (Dreaming: Remembering, Interpreting, Benefiting by Derek Parker), and some of many books she has read in the past (Funk & Wagmalls Hammond World Atlas Including World History Section by Unknown; Fundamentals of Marketing, 6th Canadian Edition by Barnes, Stanton, Etzel, Walker Sommers; Leadership, Management and the Five Essentials for Success by Rick Joyner; Straight As Never Made Anybody Rich: Lessons in Personal Achievement by Wess Roberts; Chancing It: Why We Take Risks by Ralph Keyes). It is also possibly to enjoy her enormous back catalogue of reviews:

Of her current read, she deems Derek Parker’s opus: “Pretty good. It doesn’t have all that foolishness in it that this genre seems to spawn.”
Not all of it. Thank God. That’s the whole review, by the way.

Next up is her review of Pinches of Salt, Prisms of Light edited by Carmel Leal, a collection of essays, stories, and poems, which according to the publisher’s blurb promises, “you will experience and behold the divine in the world around you”. According to Ms Ryan (Ms Crease Ryan?):
“This was written by a friend of mine. It’s OK”
With friends like Sandra, who needs publicists?

Of The Frances Parkinson Keyes Cookbook she has more to offer:
“An old cookbook written by a woman who seems to have a high opinion of herself and her talents.”

Sandra Crease Ryan’s legendary literary powers don’t come without a price, though. She was clearly fatigued when forced to comment on Armistead Maupin’s Babycakes (Tales of the City series, v. 4) allowing herself only the desultory summation:
“Another instalment of the series about the inhabitants of a boarding house.”

It’s tough getting to be number one book reviewer on Facebook’s Bookshelf application. Sometimes detail has to be sacrificed. And so it continues.

Nicholas Lezard will no doubt be loosing sleep for weeks to come.

For the record, my own reviewing activity has so far been limited to very brief raves for my own book, books by a couple of people I know, and one for Unity by Michael Arditti - a quite brilliant and apparently largely overlooked recent novel about Cambridge students doing a play at the Edinburgh Fringe, getting picked up by a Fassbinder type figure, becoming involved with a Baader Meinhof-analogue terrorist cell all mixed up with a history of post-war Germany, British fascism and the Mitfords. If I've not just killed it for everyone with that Crease-like despatch, I can't recommend it highly enough. It's hugely intelligent, literate and acute, and possibly my favourite novel written in recent years.

*All correct at time of copying and pasting.


Richard Hurst said...

I love you, Andrew Haydon.

Anonymous said...

I love it! My reviewing powers are obviously not on par with the greats..not even close! And yes, I have read the Funk & Wagnell's Atlas. When I met a junior high school classmate many years later, the first words out of his mouth were, "I remember you, you're the bookworm."

Thank you for the giggles!

Nay said...

LOL, c'mon; who was ever going to base a literary opinion on a Facebook review?
The Visual Bookshelf app is a slice of bookish fun for people to add to their profile. I'm sure it's a case of better the devil you know: 'reviews' as you see them on FB are simply notes on the readers impressions of the books and not designed to be all-encompassing. In the case of the Devil you don't, anyone who submitted in-depth novel synopsis to their Visual Bookshelf would have waaay too much free time on their hands.
It's just a little bit of fun, bud...Sandra et al willingly leave the intellectual snobbery up to your good self, I'm sure...

Sam Jordison said...

great post - am v happy to return the compliment.

Not sure how best to add you on facebook as there seem to be quite a few a haydon's on there. Would love it if you joined my 'people who screw up' group, of course.

And even better if you do want to review the book. It is of course destined for the smallest room, but I'm rather fond of it.