A line in Neal Stephenson’s The System of the World comparing the streets of London to bookshelves crystallized something I had been thinking about in an informal way since I first played with the A9 Yellow Pages Search. Well, a few things. First, seen edge-on a shelf full of books does in a way resemble the variegated facades of an urban streetscape. But more than the physical resemblance, there’s a kind of functional similarity. The front of a building, like the spine of a book, is both its human interface and its metadata. Not only do you judge a book (and a building) by its cover, but you must. This is how we apprehend reality, at least initially. One of my favorite tricks in a library is finding the location of a book I think I want then browsing in the region of the book once I find it. Kind of a physical fuzzy search. Same thing with urban streets, especially where businesses cluster based on some similarity (wares, targetted demographic, etc). And this is why the A9 Yellow Pages search is so cool. Amazon merely used the experience of bookshelf scanning as a model for browsing businesses by their building facades. (Though, strangely, you can’t browse Amazon’s book collection this way.) Seems that, at heart, Amazon’s still a bookstore. And I love that.
Anyone know of any other city-as-bookshelf conceits out there? Seems ripe for exploration, especially considering the many relationships between cities and narratives. Also, if urban streets resemble a bookshelf what about suburbia? How can we tweak the analogy to account for strip malls and parking lots?
UPDATE: OpenPlans has an office-length bookshelf that is a map of Manhattan, complete with a Central Park full of wall-hung plants.