January 2, 2022

What Is Garfunklr?

What do you get when you combine Art Garfunkel with OG photo-sharing service Flickr? Garfunklr. But why?

“Since the 1960’s, Art Garfunkel has been a voracious reader. We are pleased to present a listing of every book Art has read since 1968.”

The list is massive and fascinating. He’s reading Catch-22 at the same time as making the movie in Feb 1969, while Paul Simon is back in NYC writing the bulk of their masterpiece last album Bridge Over Troubled Water.

By the end of November that year they’re ending a tour playing a sold out Carnegie Hall, and their TV special is aired and instantly banned. Either Artie takes a break from reading around this time, or he’s really struggling with Wuthering Heights.

In June 1979 his partner dies, and he enters a deep depression. Are his feelings there in his book choices of the time? The Sheltering SkyHeart of DarknessGood Morning, Midnight.

If you’re a voracious reader, books are always there at the important moments of your life. They can reflect the times as well as your personal inner/outer life. They can mirror what’s happening, or be an escape. When you read a book, you spend a lot of time with it from start to finish. Hours. Days.

What can be learned about those hours and days when looking back at what you were reading?

Bottling The Feeling When You Finish A Great Book

I’ve been carrying a book around with me since university days. I’ve done a lot of touring in bands, and a lot of long commuting and travelling with my work as a UX Designer. Whether it’s after soundcheck and before the show, or on a long train journey, books have always been there.

One day, I started taking a photo of a book right after finishing it. Then Instagram came along.

Those photos started to be a reminder, not just of the books I had read, but where I had been while reading them. I found that this visual reminder was more vivid, and I could recall more easily the feeling of finishing the book, how I had found reading it, what had been happening in my life during my time with it.

Most people just use Goodreads to log their reading, but I’ve never got on with it. I’m a UX Designer by trade and I find it horrible to use. It just feels like Amazon and, as a passionate supporter of indie labels and publishers, that doesn’t click with me. So, in my day job, while designing interfaces, services and information architectures, I started wondering how a website could harness my behaviour (reading, taking photos of books) into a service that intelligently tracked my reading habits. What do you get when you combine Art Garfunkel with OG photo-sharing service Flickr? Garfunklr.

Hashtag garfunklr

The MVP of this is the hashtag page on Instagram. Many many people are taking photos of books on Instagram. It was already a thing. #bookstagram and #finishedreading are two massively popular examples with audiences of millions.

The whole feeling of that is already there. A collection of memories. The only thing is they’re not all mine because, right after I started using #garfunklr and told a few people about it, they started using it too. That’s no biggie as it’s great to have a little local community of voracious readers collecting their book photos into an under-the-radar hashtag.

But I was also interested in how these photos could be connected or expanded upon by data. I’d done some prototype web services for BBC Connected Studio with a lovely web developer called Jake Noble, so I told him about the idea and we decided to build something to see if it would work.

garfunklr.com

2017. We started by grabbing an open source database of books and created a relational database schema for users, books and authors. We had a simple set of user requirements:

See how many books I’ve read

See info on the authors of those books

See the books I’ve read year by year

Here’s what we built:

There was a dashboard with top level data. A wall of books. A wall of authors you’ve read. An author page showing how many of an authors published works you’ve read. And a year wall, which we thought would make a good shareable thing when it was published at the end of each year (like all that Spotify artist stuff that happens at Christmas).

The problem we ran into was that most of the books we were reading were not in the database. The open source one we got was really really out of date, and it seemed that any up to date database of books was too expensive for us to get access to. Also, the job of users tagging their books with titles and authors (connecting their photos to the book data) was ultimately too arduous to expect anyone to do intuitively. We trialled some AI at one point, but without any startup capital or real business model there was no way for us to scale that feature ourselves without losing a tonne of money.

So, while our small group of alpha testers and intrigued Instagram followers really got into it, we decided that we’d learned enough through the process and moth-balled it.

It was super fun, and I’m really glad we tried it.

In the time since I have stopped posting on Instagram very much at all. It’s changed character completely since 2017, as have I. I’m a different person. I still read consistently, but don’t travel as much or tour at all.

These days I just keep lists, which I publish here once a year along with some thoughts about the previous twelve months and the books that I’ve spent time with throughout…

Garfunklr 2021
Garfunklr 2020

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