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In Conversation With: Book Maven Vicki Ziegler (@bookgaga) on How to Make the Most of The 49th Shelf

Vicki Ziegler is an early adopter. Read on to learn her thoughts about oneupmanship in online reading communities—gasp!—and how she exploits The 49th Shelf with glee.

Canadian Bookshelf member Vicki Ziegler.

Vicki Ziegler.

Vicki Ziegler is an early adopter. From the moment went into public beta, Vicki was building lists, rating reads and carving out a presence for her publishing client, the Griffin Trust For Excellence In Poetry. On Twitter, she also has one of the most public online personas in Canadian publishing, tweeting as @bookgaga and on behalf of one of this country's most distinguished (and lucrative) awards—@griffinpoetry.

I caught up with Vicki to ask about her thoughts on the appeal of online reader communities and how she's helping shape our community right here at The 49th Shelf.


Julie Wilson: When I visit The 49th Shelf to check out member activity, you're always in the mix. What is it about the site that appeals to you?

Vicki Ziegler: I come at something like The 49th Shelf from multiple angles that all intersect at the point of loving books, loving fellow book lovers and wanting to share, both as an outlet for my own enthusiasms and for the opportunity to learn from others' enthusiasms.

  • I'm a book lover who loves to record what I'm reading, review books and share my thoughts about/reviews of books.
  • I have a personal book blog and Twitter feed and I like to share (aka cross-promote) those within other book communities.
  • I realize over my reading history that I'm particularly proud of and keen to tout Canadian literature and writers.
  • The 49th Shelf's apparent commitment to being a resource for teachers and librarians inspires me to share as a way of helping and hopefully sparking future readers.
  • Professionally, I'm privileged to work with publishing and literary clients, assisting with their Web and social media presence and strategies. No Web site, however comprehensive, can be an island—it has to both extend out into the broader Internet commons and communities, and it has to draw in from those channels. A simple way of doing that is ensuring that ways of grouping and articulating what you're about appear in the popular or soon-to-be-popular hangouts. It seems like a simple proposition to me that things like literary awards, for instance, should be grouping and curating its winners and shortlists in places such as the The 49th Shelf.

(Ed. See the Canadian shortlisted Griffin titles list Vicki built here. She also created a member profile for the Griffin Poetry Prize and has been reviewing past Griffin finalists and winners such as The Certainty Dream, by Kate Hall.)

In addition to my personal blog and Twitter feed (and the Web sites, Twitter feeds and Facebook pages of my literary clients), I've been using other book sharing sites and systems, such as Visual Bookshelf (Living Social, via Facebook), Goodreads and Bibliocommons. All of them reach reader and writer communities in somewhat different ways, and all have elements of sharing ratings, reviews and other commentary about books, authors, reading experiences, etc. One feature that I like that The 49th Shelf puts to the forefront, however, is the ability to categorize and thematically arrange and curate selections of books.

JW: You've got me thinking. Let's talk about territory, because it seems to me that at its core the reason online reader communities work so well is the pride we take in owning the books we've read and loved, as well as the ones we covet or perhaps just want to be seen as soon-to-be-reading. Would you agree that readers enjoy the opportunity to stake a claim in the stories and authors that have moved them?

VZ: I like the care with which you have chosen the words "territory" and "pride". I agree with you that online reader communities work well for the reasons you mention: giving book lovers various ways to showcase the books they own, read, love, covet—which could all be different things, eh? However, I also sense across some of this blogging, tweeting and listing/compiling terrain a sense of turf, competitiveness or oneupmanship that seems a little odd considering we're dealing with supposedly mild-mannered, bookish sorts. Is it just me, or do some of these reading challenges seem a little excessive at times, a little more about racking up the numbers than really reading, savouring, understanding and sharing the books? And do some book reviews and bloggers—professional and civilian—seem a little too concerned with their followership numbers and whose getting which ARCs (advance reading copies)?

That's where, in fact, I think entities such as The 49th Shelf can potentially transcend these sorts of distractions. Curated topical lists and reviews really make you think about how books relate to and perhaps play off each other—and you really need to have read and know the books in question in order to create those classifications. Taking the time to put that thought into books, and then providing that to others and to fledgling young readers is, well, a beautiful thing.

Am I making any sense so far?

JW: Sure are! Oneupmanship as distraction. That's an excellent point. I saw Andrew O'Hagan at last year's International Festival of Authors. When asked what he thought were the most important books of the past 20 years, he responded that he doesn't think we can feel guilty for not getting around to all the books in the world, a kind of non-answer-slash-common-fear couched in a quasi-apology. Only, because it's O'Hagan, it was no apology at all, and I recall surging with a sudden sense of relief that I was allowed to identify as a small 'r' reader without having to choke down 50 books a year. To a slow reader, that's how it feels, but I would hardly call myself an amateur. I find some online reader communities make me feel like an outsider for having more To Read titles on my list than Read and Reviewed. For instance, when I first signed up for Goodreads, I noted an immediate impulse to hoard books onto my Read, Currently Reading, To Read lists. In reality, I'd much rather create the Let's Face It, I'm Never Going to Get Around to These and open the challenge to other readers to convince me otherwise.

Now that we're really thinking, I wonder how you'd personally subvert The 49th Shelf and the features it has to offer?

VZ: The 49th Shelf isn't established and proliferated enough yet to warrant subverting it in any critical/criticizing fashion. I do think, though, that *exploiting* the site and features to its fullest can stretch the definition of individual books, conventional classifications and groupings. That full exploitation could take several forms:

  1. I would create a legitimate ID/persona for every client I represent that would have reasons to create curated lists on The 49th Shelf. That way, there is a clear multiplicity of voices contributing to the mix and discussion, and the content curation work reflects back deservedly on the individuals or organizations behind them. I've done that with myself (bookgaga) and the Griffin Poetry Prize. If I do something like this for other clients, I'd create unique IDs for them to, be they other literary prizes, publishers, authors, etc. Additionally, I'm pondering how organizations that are not directly "literary" per se could contribute subject matter curated lists like, say, great Canadian nature books from the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society or the David Suzuki Foundation, or maybe lawyers in CanLit from a law firm, etc., etc.
  2. One could create lists to editorialize or provoke just a bit. How about stuff like this, a Surviving Life in Ford Nation list? The 49th Shelf should maybe consider offering a few more ways to allow discussions and ongoing collaborations on or suggestions for lists. (Ed. I'll take that back to the team!)
  3. One could (possibly) create unconventional personae to curate reviews and lists (although maybe this is kind of pushing the bounds a bit, legally, philosophically/ethically, etc.) What would Robertson Davies be reading nowadays if he was still alive? How about Ethel Wilson? Would she be a fan of Zoe Whittall, Miriam Toews or Dionne Brand? (Ed. I'll take that back to the team and hope no one gets sued. Books are fun!)

JW: You and I have talked about this a bit before: I'm of the mind that there are readers and there are collectors. I like to purchase books and therefore consider myself a collector who happens also to be a reader. So, my approach to online communities, list-building and the odd bit of subversion stems from a desire to curate my own persona into a larger community of collectors, people who, aside from sharing a love of reading, also share pleasure in organizing their virtual shelves to show off their virtual wares. Do you consider yourself a collector/reader or a reader/collector?

VZ: I still consider myself a reader first and a collector second, but I think being part of various online communities and discussions has made me more *aware* of how my book reading and acquiring has gravitated into collections and classifications and themes, and how that has evolved over time and as I've changed as a reader, too. Some of those changes have been influenced by the very communities I've been part of online and the book enthusiasts with whom I've engaged, individually and collectively. In turn, having places like The 49th Shelf that facilitate collecting and grouping allows you to think about how you would group your own reading interests, or how you would group them to make them interesting and relevant to others. All kinda goes round in circles.

JW: If you were to pull a handful of books off The Shelf to revisit, which would they be? Maybe we can reach out to their authors to catch up and go back in time a little.

VZ: Funnily enough, a lot of the books I'd like to pull back off The Shelf to revisit are by authors we can't reach out to anymore, such as Swamp Angel by Ethel Wilson, The Wars and Not Wanted on the Voyage by Timothy Findley and Solomon Gursky Was Here by Mordecai Richler. But some others I might like to revisit where the authors might indeed be reachable would include: Cambodia by Brian Fawcett, Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje, Falling Angels and We So Seldom Look on Love by Barbara Gowdy, Such a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry.

I could go on, but probably shouldn't.

JW: Allow me to put the "should" in shouldn't? Thanks for your time, Vicki!

Check out Vicki's member profile. Not a member yet? Get started today!

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