Back to basics!

Back in January 1996, I had a simple goal of reading 1 book per week, or 52 books a year. It’s funny how simple things evolve. Not long after I set my goal, I decided I needed a way to capture the list of books that I read. I started, naturally enough, using an Excel file, which worked fine, but it had it’s limits. For one thing, at least back in 1996, it was not easy to post my Excel file on the web and I wanted to share my progress. So I switched to HTML. Of course, that led to ever more creative ways for managing the list. My HTML evolved into delimited list files, processed by a set of perl scripts. There was still quite a bit of manual work involved, but this worked well for a while. Years later, it seemed that the thing to do was to convert all of the perl scripts to PHP and store the lists in a relational database–which I did on my local machine. I then wrote scripts to upload changes to my website each night. This worked pretty well, too. Finally, I evolved an elaborate SQL database and a collection of massive PHP scripts all of which was hosted at my ISP.

But there was always a problem: I never had the time to fully develop the interfaces to these applications to make them easy to update and maintain. So while I had the scripts and the pretty HTML lists, I still was essentially typing SQL commands to update the database.

Over the last several months, I haven’t been updating my reading list the way I used to and it occurred to me that if after 11 years, I could not come up with an easy system for maintaining the list, I would never come up with it. These days, I have neither the time nor the inclination to do it, so today, I gave up and went back to basics on a number of levels.

First, I went back to a slightly more elaborate (and better designed) version of my original excel spreadsheet from back in 1996. It’s more elaborate only in that I know a lot more about Excel now than I did then and am able to do some things more elegantly. But it is incredibly easy to maintain. It takes me less than a minute to add a book to my list!

Second, I have fought a constant battle of page design, trying to keep up with various trends in look and feel, RSS, AJAX and all of the rest of the stuff that makes the web look so good these day. It’s a losing battle for me. I do this stuff constantly at work and I simply don’t want to do it at home anymore. So I decided to eschew all ornamentation and go back to basic, circa 1996 HTML. No style sheets. No fancy formatting. But it’s clear, easy to read, and presents the information without an effort on my part.

I’ve consolidated my new reading list into one single page, rather than a page for each year.

To make up for this retro look and feel, I’ve added some new things. First, I’ve reinstated my favorite books page, which went away several years back. This is a page that lists my all-time favorite books, books which I have given 5 out of 5 stars. Second, I update the FAQ for the list. Last, but not least, I developed a consolidated statistics page and packed it with all kinds of new information that I’ve never posted before. For people who are interested in that kind of stuff, it’s pretty cool.

These pages are easy to update from my master spreadsheet and so I don’t anticipate them getting stale again. I also don’t anticipate any fancy interface updates. It’s plain vanilla, but it works. And best of all, I feel as though a great weight has been lifted from my shoulders.