My husband grew up in a tiny town in the Adirondack Mountains. As a teenager, he and his friends were sometimes called out of class to fight fires on the mountains that surround the town. An enduring interest in the experience of facing down forest fires resulted. When we drop into a Barnes & Noble to browse, he often goes off in search of books about smoke jumpers, which, he tells me, is what the men and women who drop from planes to fight forest fires are called.
He almost always comes up empty.
This year, piling smoke jumper books like so much cord wood onto his pile of Christmas gifts will be easy. The unimaginably magic gift that is the Internet has made it so. It is now a snap to find books featuring the most specialized material. Do you have a yen to read about a young boy solving mysteries in the Pacific Northwest in the 1950s, or a menopausal woman living in San Francisco, looking for a publisher for her first novel, which is set in the Civil War? Doing so is now entirely possible.
Amazon’s keyword search (www.amazon.com). Just unveiled, this tool beefs up Amazon’s search engine. It peers inside hundreds of thousands of books, and pulls up short excerpts that include the keywords entered. "Smoke jumper" turned up just a few titles, so I added "fire fighter" and "forest fire." Up came a number of titles, fiction and non-fiction. There would have been no way to find most of them without the keyword search, since titles do not necessarily reflect a book’s content, especially in works of fiction.
Sometimes what you want is not so much a particular subject, but rather a setting or a mood, or even a good soak in a particular season. Plugging in "Maine coast" and "winter," pulls up a delightful selection of travel guides, and some fiction choices. On the list, for example, is "Frankie’s Place: A Love Story," by Jim Sterba. The quote listed under the title, taken from page 91, contains this passage:
"The weight I lost each summer found its way home, Lassie-like, through the calorie-filled canyons of Manhattan over the winter. This happened in spite of trips to the gym, where I replicated my Maine roadwork, even doubling and tripling the distance. This wasn’t easy . . ."
This snippet is somewhat enigmatic, to be sure, but its mention of Manhattan might further hook a reader who loves both the rural state and the grand city.
Still not sure if the book sounds right? For each book, Amazon has a link leading to more quotes that include the search keywords. For "Frankie’s Place," there are four more. Speaking of fog, a one-room schoolhouse, and that fact that "Frenchboro, like the rest of Maine, was ten months of winter punctuated by July and August, and that living off the coast of Maine in winter was not for the faint of heart," they add up to a pretty good flavor of the book. The experience is not unlike picking up a promising book in a bookstore, and reading a page or two before deciding whether or not to take it home or to give it as a gift.
Allreaders.com. There was a mention of this truly amazing website tucked into a long New York Times article on the Amazon.com keyword search. Allreaders (www.allreaders.com) is the sort of find that makes book lovers shudder to think of an Internet-less world, and turn eyes heavenward in gratitude for being around to revel in its riches.
Totally free, with no apparent link to commerce, Allreaders powers incredibly detailed book searches, which can be conducted in any number of ways.
There is a one-click plot search for specific kinds of stories within six genres — sci-fi fantasy, mystery/thriller, literature, romance, biography, and history. The default setting is mystery/thriller. It is important to note this fact because it is not obvious. But it is very easy to switch to another genre. Just click on the bar near the top of the homepage.
One-click plot searches for mystery/thriller include big vehicle disaster, crime thriller, natural disaster, nuclear disaster, horror story, legal thriller, religious overtones, water adventure, and Western. Choose natural disaster, and a list of 100 books comes up, ranked according to how central disaster is to their plots. The top-ranked book is "The Swarm," by Arthur Herzog. Allreaders first provides a summary of the book; it’s about what happens when Brazilian killer bees enter the United States. It then goes on to provide an unbelievable amount of information about plot, the main character, the main adversary, the setting, and structural options.
We learn that the tone is dry-cynical, the era is the 1960s and 1970s, the type of disaster is bug/animal attacks, the main character is a young male scientist caught up in events. We also learn how much violence there is in the book (a little), how much humor to expect (a little), how smart the main character is (smarter than most other characters), and how strong he is (average).
Allreaders, following a checklist format, goes on to state the number of deaths to expect (hundreds or more), to give the general setting. Inhabitants of this fictional lock-down, we learn, are dangerous and rude. Themes include a debate over technology, a search for self, and saving the government/country/world.
Finding a book by genre works wonderfully, but Allreaders offers a far, far more detailed search mechanism. It allows readers to "build" their own search. First choose a genre, and then, using pull-down menus, tell Allreaders just exactly what you want to read. The level to which you can drill down is mind-boggling. Choose a plot revolving around a professional dilemma, and you can pick from dozens of professions. Decide on an artist struggling to survive in the wild, and you can choose the type of adventure from another menu. Having chosen to look for a book about an artist in a water survival situation, you can then choose a secondary plot. Go for family conflict, and you will be presented with a list that leaves out no possible relationship.
If the artist in a water survival crisis is to be struggling with her relationship with a daughter, more information can be added. Is the young woman pregnant? Is there a psychiatrist involved?
It is even possible to decide on what percentage of a book is violent, what percentage is devoted to character development, and what percentage to developing a setting.
Strangely, once the absolutely perfect book is identified, there is no way to purchase it. This feels wrong. It feels like cheating. But wait, a review of the site in Wired Online says that Steve Gordon, its creator, a Harvard MBA, sold an earlier Internet venture, Allexperts.com, to About.com Perhaps he will ave a big payday with Allreaders, too. He deserves it.
BookCrossing. Finding a book using BookCrossing (www.bookcrossing.com) could involve a trip to the Trenton War Memorial or the Plainsboro SuperFresh. This website is part note-in-a-bottle, part worldwide treasure hunt, and all about readers sharing the books they love. Or even the books they hate, but want to talk about.
Readers register books on the site, receive an identification number for them, and then "release" them into the world, posting the release site on the website. The idea is for one person to read a book and leave it in a public place, where another reader will pick it up, and report the find — along with her thoughts on the book — back to BookCrossing. Then, ideally, the second reader will release the book, and the process will start all over — again, and again.
BookCrossing was founded in the spring of 2001 by Ron Hornbaker, who is involved with Humankind Systems, a software and Internet development company with offices in Kansas City, Missouri, and Sandpoint, Idaho. It too is completely free.
Readers are joining BookCrossing at a rate of 300 to 500 a day. There are members in dozens of countries. They have set loose 966 books in Spain, 1,256 books in Australia, 61 books in Iraq, one book in international airspace, six books in international waters, and hundreds of books in New Jersey.
Sopranosongbird from Cherry Hill, for example, released "The Villa" by Nora Roberts at the Trenton War Memorial on October 26. Biobooks released "Hampton Shorts" in the Frist Center on November 4, and usblues747 of Cranbury has released "Murder at the Marathon" by W.H. Denny at the SuperFresh in Plainsboro Plaza.
All of this information is available on the website. Just click "United States" and then "New Jersey," and a list of towns and other locations come up. There appears to be a BookCrossing movement in Allendale, which leads the state with 31 releases. There are 10 current releases in New Brunswick, and five at Newark Liberty International Airport. A book was also released on the Garden State Parkway. That one contains a note saying that its liberator "can’t remember which rest stop."
There are live BookCrossing meetings around the world on the second Tuesday of each month, the next meeting occurs on Tuesday, December 9. Each month, members decide on the location. In the running in this area are Small World Coffee on Witherspoon Street, Starbucks in Yardley, and Borders Books in Langhorne. Go to the website, click on MeetUp, and vote for a location. As of November 24, there were four votes for Small World, and two apiece for the other locations. Members are sent E-mails giving the location.
Book Lust. Moving out of cyberspace, "Book Lust," available as a paperback, lacks pull down menus, treasure hunts, and keyword searches. No matter, the book by Nancy Pearl is truly a pearl at a most reasonable price for anyone who loves books — and loves giving the gift of reading.
Pearl, a public librarian in Seattle, is the model for the somewhat controversial, almost certainly first ever, librarian superhero doll. There was a bit of a dust up over the doll, because, wearing a long skirt and glasses, it was deemed dowdy by many people eager to promote a more trendy image of librarians.
In media interviews, Pearl laughs off the criticisms, and comes across as a smart, warm woman — just the sort you would trust for sound book recommendations. Her book is divided into 170 short chapters, which give mini-capsule opinions of books. The chapters are organized by content, setting, or theme. There are listings for books about California, New York City, Big Sky Country, India, and about relationships between friends, fathers and daughters, and mothers and sons. There are lists of mysteries, sub-indexed by genre and even by the profession of the sleuth.
Interspersed are "too good to miss" chapters on little-known or under-appreciated authors. The book is well-worth its price — $10.15 on Amazon.com
Online discount book marts. After building a list of books to enjoy — and to give as gifts — the next step is to buy them. Using all of the fabulous new book-finding tools available, it is oh-so-easy to compile a list that even the strongest of Santa’s elves would have trouble lifting. Happily, it is easy to buy all of them for a pittance.
Amazon lists copies of books by independent sellers right under its own price for each book. If the book is not hot off the presses, and still hovering near number one on the New York Times’ best seller list, it is rarely more than $2, and is often less than $1. Shipping adds several more dollars. It is generally possible to get a brand new copy from a re-seller, sometimes at the same price as a used book.
Another good Internet source for deep discount books is Abebooks (www.abebooks.com). In hunting on that site, I came across a Pyramid Bookstore in Highland Park. Looking down a list of books I want, I found that none was more than $1. Shipping was $4 for the first book, but only $1 for each additional book. All told, Abebooks lists 173 New Jersey book sellers with a presence on its site. Descriptions for each include a list of specialties. Not all are selling at deep discount, but many are.