An overly complex hack for finding books on cluttered shelves

20.02, Thursday 15 Oct 2020

I have a ton of books. I can never find the one I’m looking for. Here’s an idea.

Quick backstory first. I use books to think – if I’m writing, I pull a half dozen relevant books (topic, tangents, tone) and stack them next to me on the sofa. I may never consult them, but they influence me via some radiative field in the noosphere.

(I asked friend and cognitive scientist Tom Stafford about why this was, and he said you gotta prime the latent conceptual space your thoughts move around. And THEN he said: related: did you know that the UK population is, on average, slightly slower to pronounce the word “breakfast” since it acquired a novel word neighbour in the last few years (“brexit”)? – so, whoa.)


One of the pleasures of having many books is shelving. Fiction is to my left. On my right is non-fiction, and here is my system, with topics varying in size from maybe only a quarter of a shelf to, well, four shelves.

  • Design
  • Physics/Reference
  • Cybernetics
  • Business
  • Psychology
  • History and nature
  • On writing
  • Mythology
  • Religious books
  • Animals
  • Oversized
  • Misc (which is by far the largest)

And, you know what, that is mostly enough to find any book that I care to look for.

And also - and this is the critical quality of any good shelving system in my opinion - loose enough such that, when I’m looking for a book, happy serendipity will lead me other related titles that I had temporarily forgotten, but that will then become vital.

BUT: sometimes I can’t find a book.


There’s an iPhone app called Memos: A private search engine for your photos and screenshots.

It indexes my entire photo library, without any of the photos leaving my device, and makes it searchable. I can open the app, type in a word, and see photos of newspapers and menus, screenshots of apps and emails, receipts and the rest – it’s wicked fast.

My regular use case: I take a picture of a page in a book, open Memos, then immediately copy and paste the words. But I also take pictures of instruction manuals, and notices and signs I see in my neighbourhood. All searchable. It’s wonderful.

It occurs to me that I could

  • take high resolution photos of all of my shelves
  • index them with Memos
  • find books simply by typing in the titles.


Shouldn’t this be built in?

I would love a button labeled “Index Your Room” and, on pressing it, it would simply prompt me to wave my phone around, and do optical character recognition on everything it sees, and additionally remember how all the images stick together and where they are.

Then months later, when I say to my phone Hey where did I put ‘The Elements of Typographic Style’? (earlier this week, I couldn’t remember whether it was under Reference, On Writing, or - out of an abundance of confusion at the time of categorisation - Misc), I would then hold my phone up to my shelves, and it would draw an arrow over the live camera view to navigate me to the correct location of the spine. Cold… warmer… warmer… hot… getting there… there it is.

I can use Memos in the meantime I guess.

But yeah please build that, it would be great thanks.

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