LibraryThing: State of the Thing
Dear Reader,

Welcome to the August State of the Thing. New this month: a book spine poetry contest, and the launch of our new recommender for library patrons, BookPsychic! We have author interviews with Rebecca Stott and Dustin Thomason. There are 3,344 free Early Reviewer books available in August.

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News and features

Book Spine Poetry Contest. Try your hand at book spine poetry in our first-ever Book Spine Poetry contest, happening now! The deadline for entry is September 7, so you still have plenty of time to post your poems. LibraryThing staff and special guest judge Nina Katchadourian (see her work here) will pick the winners, and they'll receive some great LT goodies, plus everlasting fame and glory!

For instructions on how to enter, info on prizes, and the fine print, see the blog post, or view the gallery of entries received so far. One of them, by member HouseholdOpera, is pictured here.

BookPsychic! We're thrilled to announce our newest product for libraries, BookPsychic. It's a simple, fun, personalized recommendation system for library patrons, based entirely on the library's own collections. You can try BookPsychic here through Portland Public Library in Portland, Maine. See the blog post for info on how to get BookPsychic in your library, or come discuss in the Talk thread. If you like how it works, tell your local librarians you want it for your library!

Free books: Early Reviewers

Read and review free books, before they even hit the shelves! We've given out a grand total of 119,349 books so far through Early Reviewers.

The August batch of Early Reviewer books contains 3,334 copies of 133 different titles. The deadline to request a free book to read and review is August 27 at 6 p.m. EDT. The September batch will be up at the beginning of the month.

The list of books

The most requested books so far this month:

Interview with author Rebecca Stott

Rebecca Stott is the author of several novels (Ghostwalk and The Coral Thief), as well as numerous non-fiction works. Her latest book is Darwin's Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution, published by Spiegel & Grau.

Tell us about Darwin's Ghosts—how did the idea for the book come about, and how did you select which subjects to profile?

When I wrote Darwin and the Barnacle back in 2003 I was struck once again by the dangerousness of the work Darwin was doing. I knew there had been others who had entertained ideas about the evolution of species before him and I became curious about the risks they might have undertaken. I started with Darwin's own list of his predecessors—there were 38 men on Darwin's list—and began to assemble as many more names as I could find. My book begins with Aristotle, even though Darwin was mistaken to call him an evolutionist, because the questions he was asking and the empirical methods he used would shape the long history of evolution in important ways. My aim was to try to understand these people as human beings not just as vehicles for ideas. I wanted to know what vexed them, what woke them up at night, what drove them.

What was it that persuaded Darwin to add his "Historical Sketch" to the third edition of Origin (and to expand it in the fourth edition)? Was there any contemporary reaction to the essay itself (distinct from reaction to the book as a whole)?

There was a kind of protocol in Darwin's time that if you published a groundbreaking book of science you would begin by paying tribute to all the thinkers who had walked that path before you. Darwin failed to do this with Origin partly because he was rushed into print and partly because he was unsure just who his predecessors were. In 1860, when he was chastised for not including such a preface, he resolved to write one. The project took him six years to complete and was a source of enormous anxiety to him; he was never quite sure who had said or written what and when. Because he kept finding new people the historical sketch was always to some degree a work-in-progress.

You write in the preface about growing up in a household where the Darwin entry was literally razored out of the encyclopedia. Do you think that contributed to your interest in Darwin and his ideas?

Undoubtedly—as far as one can know about these things. I was a curious child, and I remember the intense frisson of curiosity I felt about Darwin and his ideas, because they were regarded with such derision and horror by all the important men in the religious community I lived in. Prohibition acts in mysterious ways.

Which of Darwin's predecessors were you most surprised to learn about as you researched for this book?

Probably the eighteenth-century French intellectual Diderot. I lingered longer over that chapter than any of the others. I think I fell in love with him a little. Diderot was intellectually restless, a rule-breaker, a risk-taker, clearly also fascinating and charismatic in conversation. I think he might well be the most original thinker I have encountered. Because he was forced to hide his ideas—he was under surveillance from the Paris police—he developed a series of rhetorical strategies for evading responsibility often by using devices from the theatre. The results are often surreal and highly inventive.

Read the rest of our interview with Rebecca Stott.

Interview with author Dustin Thomason

Dustin Thomason is the co-author of the 2004 bestseller The Rule of Four, as well as a television producer. His first solo book is 12.21, published this month by The Dial Press.

Do you recall what first made you think about combining prions and Mayan prophecies for the plot of 12.21?

That was actually what brought the entire book together for me and is one of the key secrets of the book! The connection is deeply rooted in the culture of the ancient Maya, and closely connected to the original way that prions were discovered. But to really find out, you'll have to read on ...

Your book features a fictional Mayan codex, but there are a few of these that actually exist. Tell us about the codices and their importance in our understanding of Mayan civilization and culture.

Four ancient Maya books still exist of the thousands of screen-folded codices that probably once filled the royal libraries. You can find images of several of them online and see the wondrous work of the ancient scribes that served as the jumping off point for the codex in 12.21. The scribes were meticulous bookkeepers, and in these codices they kept close records of rituals and astronomical matters, all dated according to the all-important cyclical calendars responsible for the 2012 phenomenon. Amazing naked-eye astronomers, many Maya books were almanacs that tracked the movement of Mars and Venus, solstices and equinox, as well constellations eerily similar to our own zodiac. Over the last century, Mayanists have been able to use these four remaining books—named the Dresden, Madrid, Paris and Grolier codices—to bring the most advanced civilization in the pre-Columbian new world back to life.

Why do you think the whole 12/21/12 phenomenon has attracted so much interest and so many "adherents" over the past few decades?

What's fascinating about 12/21 is how people believe such varying things about what's going to happen. I’ve met people who believe an apocalypse that ends humanity as we know it is coming, people who believe it will bring a religious rapture, and Luddites who believe it'll cause the kind of technological implosion people expected on Y2K. The end of the Long Count cycle has taken on so many meanings to so many people over the last decades, and that's probably the stickiest part of the 2012 phenomenon: let people believe what they want, create their own projections and you’ll get a lot of adherents and interest from all sides. Finally, at least for me, the disappearance of the ancient Maya five hundred years before Columbus lends a great mysteriousness to their prophesies, imbuing them with an even more mystical quality.

So, the big question: is the world going to end on December 21?

Modern ideas about the significance of the end of the Maya Long Count actually started with a desire by new-age spiritualists to imagine a new world, in which we questioned progress and technology and reconnected with nature and the people around us. That seems pretty reasonable to me. And those who believe the apocalypse is nigh can't be dismissed so easily either: from nuclear weapons to unknown microbes to economic collapse to global warming, we live in a very fragile time. When put that way, I'll say this: I sure hope the end of the Long Count cycle brings about some kind of change.

Read the rest of our interview with Dustin Thomason.

More free books: Member Giveaways

At any given time, there are hundreds of books available from our Member Giveaways program. Member Giveaways is like Early Reviewers, but isn't limited to select publishers—any author or member can post books. Request books, or offer your own!

Hot titles this month

  1. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
  2. Fifty Shades Freed by E L James
  3. Fifty Shades Darker by E L James
  4. Fifty Shades of Grey by E L James
  5. Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
  6. Insurgent by Veronica Roth
  7. Quiet by Susan Cain
  8. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
  9. Rules of Civility by Amor Towles
  10. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

That's it.

Questions, comments, ideas, suggestions? Send them our way.

—Jeremy (jeremy@librarything.com)

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