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Twittersourcing with Susan Orlean

August 2, 2010 |  6:15 am

PhantomtollboothOn Thursday, Susan Orlean, a staff writer for the New Yorker who lives in a part of New York rural enough to own chickens, was inspired to give her young son a new book to read. That's one way of putting it. Another is that she was getting mighty sick of the book he asked her to read over and over, and she was hoping to find something that might replace it. The nice part here is that she wanted to find a meaningful replacement.

Orlean has more than 67,000 followers on Twitter; she posed the question to them. They used the hashtag #booksthatchangedkidsworlds, broadcasting many responses. Some were from parents, thinking about what books have deeply affected their children; others were from adult readers thinking about books they'd found important.

Before the weekend arrived, Orlean had posted the list of the books-that-changed-kids-worlds suggestions on her New Yorker blog; it stretched to almost 250 titles. Many, in bold, had been suggested more than once. And while her list is in order of arrival, not merit, it seems appropriate that "The Phantom Tollbooth" is in the No. 1 spot.

Some books on the list, though certainly meaningful, aren't really what Orlean had in mind. Her son is 5 1/2 and his current addiction is "Magic Treehouse." Is the U.S. Constitution really going to be an appropriate substitute?

What's interesting is that while lists are fun -- and it is a fun list -- they lack for analysis. Orlean is a smart and insightful writer, but her insights are absent from this post. That's not to say it was easy to do. Indeed,  compiling those book titles must have been a tedious and extended task. But it's a task an intern might have done.

Having someone like Susan Orlean on the Internet, blogging and tweeting about everything from her  chickens (an unlaid egg led to lamaze-style ablutions) to books is a treat. It's like getting seated next to her on a plane on a day when she happens to be feeling chatty, or finding that she's in the office right next to you and wants to know what you think about donkeys.

Though I enjoyed reading the list, I wish there were a little more of Orlean's engagement with it. I want to hear when she might introduce her son to "To Kill a Mockingbird," whether she has introduced books on the list to him that haven't really stuck, whether the generational differences between "The Chronicles of Narnia" and "The Golden Compass" might be meaningful.

With its tiny, addictive exchanges, Twitter is really good for crowdsourcing lists like this. But we need writers like Susan Orlean to weigh in on them, lest they be weightless.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

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