Penguin Classics--publisher of lit guides, special editions, and classics ranging from The Odyssey to On the Road--is doing for iPhone book browsing what Urbanspoon  did for restaurant searching.
The Penguin Classics app for iPad and iPhone, the publisher's complete annotated listing (free in the iTunes store starting Tuesday), lists every Penguin Classics release searchable by author, title, newest releases, essentials, and more. You can search for books about art in the 7th century or check out the list of Pulitzer Prize-winning classics; if you're using your iPhone, you can even shake your phone like you would Urbanspoon to find something new to read at random.
Users can also keep track of books they've read, what they'd like to read, bookmark certain pages, or share the info via email or on Facebook with friends. The app also redirects you to the Penguin shop, where you can purchase the books online--it’s the only clunky part of the app, since you’re directed to ways to buy the print editions rather than the e-books. Nothing disrupts the lean-back experience like a wait for the FedEx guy. E-rights are thorny with some classics, but Penguin doesn’t rule out the possibility of an e-book store in the future. For now, the app makes it less of a tool for a book-lovers' immediate gratification, more a tool to carry with you to your local shop. Who knows, maybe it’ll lead to more purchases of actual books.
Penguin releases a printed annotated guide to its special imprint every year, but not many casual readers outside of the deepest-burrowing bookworms and publishing insiders get their hands on it. Those who do grab a copy use it as a literary to-do list, Elda Rotor, Editorial Director of Penguin Classics, tells Fast Company. "We just wanted to be able to provide this to just a general book-lover. If it inspires people to go buy a classic title, we're really excited about that. If anything, it just also puts in one place a good resource for people that are thinking about books."
And if you’re the kind that thinks about books, you’ll want to test that brain power with what might be the most entertaining feature ever to be included in a catalog, the Penguin Classics Quiz, which comes in three speeds: five- and 10-minute games and the particularly humbling lightning round.
It’s “high-brow procrastination," Rotor says. "We were just brainstorming about what classics readers would love, and I think there are these fans with encyclopedic knowledge of whatever classic author they're crazy about."
Although right now the only social media functionality is its integration with Facebook, there's definitely a social aspect to the quiz. "What I really want to see are people posting or tweeting about their scores. And it would be really great to know if people, like high-profile literary folks, how poorly they do on these tests," she says, laughing. Meanwhile, Penguin has plans to keep the application fresh and updated based on ideas from tech-savvy bibliophiles.
[Image: Flickr user shashish ]