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[Comments] (1) The Pocket Wisherman: I've got an Amazon wish list where I toss in whatever books strike my fancy in my online travels. The idea is that I'll know what to look for when I'd otherwise just be aimlessly staring at the shelves of used bookstores. The flaw in my plan, which you have no doubt realized, is that when I'm in those bookstores I don't have access to my wish list. Oh, the exquisite irony!

Yeah, I've had enough of that lousy irony. A while ago someone proposed the obvious solution: print out your wish list and keep it in your notebook. The problem is that while Amazon gives you a wide variety of ways to sort your wish list, none of them do you any good in a physical store. No alphabetical by author, or title, no sorting by genre. So yeah, you've got a hard copy of your wish list, but when you've got a wish list like mine with over 250 items, you'd spend all your time context-switching between the printout and the bookshelves.

I figured I could do better, because Amazon exposes their product and wish list info through a REST interface, and I've been messing around with it for a while (other bits of messing-around to show up in my book). So I wrote The Pocket Wisherman. It grabs a wish list, figures out the most-represented genres (for things that have genres), and sorts everything by genre and (where appropriate) author or artist. I wrote a formatter to print a big HTML card of the information that you can print out.

Except. I can't control printed dimensions in HTML. But I wanted 3x5 cards to put in my little birthday notebook. So I wrote a thing that generates the cards in PDF, four to a page. I also wrote a thing to generate a big HTML list, so now I can autogenerate the kind of obsessive page that other nerds would spend days keeping up to date (if only I could do the same for the books I've read... wait, I guess I can).

The Test

But how well does it work? Yesterday, I put it to the test by taking my printout cards to Black Oak Books in Berkeley. I'd made many previous visits, while my wish list was accumulating its items, but on any given trip I'd never found more than maybe 5 books I really wanted. How many would I find if I had easy access to my wish list? How easy would it be to correlate the wish list and the store bookshelves?

I ended up buying 11(!) books from my wish list, and 2 by authors on my wish list (Stephen Baxter and Fernand Braudel) where the bookstore didn't have the specific book I'd put on there. I got 3 books not on my wish list, which is about my usual total haul when I go to a used bookstore. Total elapsed time: about 2.5 hours, which is slightly longer than I would have spent in Black Oak without a list.

There were 6 books on my wish list that I didn't get because they seemed too expensive (including the out-of-print novel with the hilarious name, "Buddy Holly Is Alive And Well On Ganymede", available in a signed first edition for $45). There was also one book I looked at and then decided I didn't really want it. Total books found because of an entry on my wish list: 20. I'm confident I found about 70 percent of the books on my wish list of which Black Oak had used copies. Pretty good.

How easy is it to apply this program? For ze so-called "genre fiction" it is incredibly easy. The Pocket Wisherman automagically figures out which genres to sort by, so that science fiction is shown as Science Fiction and not Fiction (unless you don't have much science fiction). Genre fiction classifications are pretty monolithic, so you just go to that section of the bookstore and run through your list and the bookshelves in parallel. One pass and you're done.

For nonfiction it is difficult. The biggest section of my wish list is "History", but history is not a monolithic classification in most used bookstores. Black Oak has separate sections for the history of every region of the world. It puts biography in with history, though some bookstores have them separately. I went all over the place trying to remember what the books were about (the downside of the truncated author names and titles that make the card display so compact) and in which subgenre I might find them.

General fiction was also a pain, but I think that's just because there was so much of it and so little of it was stuff I wanted.

I had a big "unclassified" section that I didn't really check at all. It's made of high-hanging fruit: really obscure stuff, stuff I don't think a used bookstore would sell, and stuff that might be categorized in any of a number of places.

The categorization itself slips up in a couple places. Historical fiction in my list gets categorized under History instead of Fiction. Sometimes the Amazon data is just wrong (why is the big Far Side collection filed under "History"?)

Sumana points out that if the bookstore has a terminal where you can look things up, or has a lot of staff (unlike Black Oak), you can just hog the terminal or a staff member for a while and avoid a lot of these problems.

Anyway, give it a try. If there's enough demand I might host a web application version of it, but that could be pretty ugly due to the one-query-per-second-per-IP-address limitation of AWS.


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