Why I Suck at Goodreads

I have a slightly embarrassing confession, which if you read the title of this post you might have guessed: I suck at Goodreads. For those of you who aren’t obsessive book types, Goodreads is a sort of “social cataloging” site where you can make reading lists, make friends, compare friends’ reading lists, write blog posts, book reviews, see how many books you have in common with a friend, etc.

A wonderful idea, in practice. But that depends on you practicing things like logging in and participating. With pretty good intentions I updated my reading list some time late last year.

Between then and now, I haven’t stopped reading. I had Tinkers listed as the book I was reading, and the sad fact was, I stalled on page 81 (or you might say, I stopped tinkering with it). But that’s one of the problems with social media sites: despite heroic efforts by software engineers to make the sites robust yet easy to use, one of my apparent destinies on earth is to be a use case that throws a site’s shortcomings into sharp relief.

For example, I have every intention of finishing Tinkers. I’m leaving the bookmark in. I’ll come back to it one day.

Or maybe I won’t.

But how do you express that on Goodreads? The four default lists are good and commonsense: all, to read, currently reading, and to-read. But really, I start a lot more books than I finish. I get them out of the library, I get them as gifts, I swap them with friends …. I start some, some sit by my bed, others on my dresser, others in stacks around the house.

In the broadest possible terms, I guess my books fall into “to read,” “currently reading,” and “read.” But almost every book has its own shade of gray. Tinkers was a gift from a good friend, so I am more motivated to finish it because of that. I have three books by the same author. I’m about 100 pages into the first. Probably won’t read the other two. How do I express that on a list?

I’ll probably finish the ones on my list now (in the screen grab, above). But what about the music instruction book I have? It’s nonfiction, and not the kind of tome you read from beginning to end. You dip into it, you know? Am I reading it? Well, yeah. Also, no. Am I done with it? Yes. No. Depends. But since I’ve started it, it shouldn’t be in the “to read” list, right?

Except there’s a section that’s over my head right now, but when I can play more, I’ll go back. At some point I am going “to read” more.

I’d argue that I have a separate relationship with almost every book I could conceivably put on my list. And I could put books into groups, but the groups wouldn’t have simple names. For example:

  • Books that I was hot about when I bought them, but then I cooled off (Cloud Atlas, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle)
  • Books by authors who are friends of mine
  • Books I picked up on a whim
  • Books I stopped reading because I’m a feckless dilettante
  • Books I read because everyone else had, yet I felt slightly icky and disappointed with myself for having finished them (Da Vinci Code, Dragon Tattoo)
  • Books I ought to read because they appeared on some goddamned BBC Book List challenge, and despite having an MA in English, I somehow missed

Can’t you just see some programmer shaking his head at that last list, and saying, “No no, that’s much too long to fit into the book-list-name parameter string”?

That’s sort of my point. Zadie Smith makes this point too, as does Jaron Lanier. Smith wrote a good essay for the New York Review of Books about Facebook, and mentioned Lanier’s book You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto. Here she is summarizing him:

Lanier is interested in the ways in which people “reduce themselves” in order to make a computer’s description of them appear more accurate. “Information systems,” he writes, “need to have information in order to run, but information underrepresents reality” (my italics).

Smith asks whether we’re reducing ourselves to fit into the software. My answer is, of course we are.  She floats an extreme stance (though her piece is, as is all her writing, considerably more nuanced)

Shouldn’t we struggle against Facebook? Everything in it is reduced to the size of its founder. Blue, because it turns out Zuckerberg is red-green color-blind. “Blue is the richest color for me—I can see all of blue.” Poking, because that’s what shy boys do to girls they are scared to talk to. Preoccupied with personal trivia, because Mark Zuckerberg thinks the exchange of personal trivia is what “friendship” is.

I’m not so naive to think social media would be possible without limits. That’s actually part of the fun, to work within parameters. And for all its shortcomings, social media allows me to keep distant friends visible on the periphery, to get a condensed version of what’s happening in their lives. And there’s no better break from being a productive worker bee than a little slack-jawed happy time on Facebook or Twitter.

On the other hand, Facebook’s mobile app asks for my location EVERY SINGLE TIME, and its contact fields don’t include a field for Twitter. For its part, Twitter has the de facto effect of quantifying your popularity, either by number of followers, number of retweets, number of favorite stars (don’t ask), or even third-party algorithms with crappy spelling, like Klout. If there had been numeric popularity rankings in my high school, I might have seriously considered moving to Alaska to work as a fry cook.

On the other hand, one thing I like about Twitter is its lists. I don’t actually use them much, but it’s fun to see the lists I appear in. A short list of list names:

  • Sweet supportive saints
  • froods
  • inkpunk-types
  • 1-800-400
  • locomocos

Do I know what those mean? Not really. But the randomness is what makes it great.

To its credit, Goodreads allows you to edit your “shelves,” which is to say you can make up your own names for your own lists. Naturally, I had to try it. How did it work?

books-i-ought-to-read-because-they-

… Yeah. I sort of figured.

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5 thoughts on “Why I Suck at Goodreads

  1. Hilarious. You’re thinking about it too hard! :-)

    My sister has a couple of books that are permanently on her currently reading list. I made a didn’t-finish list for myself, for books I just gave up on.

    I enabled daily notification emails letting me know what my friends are reading. This also reminds me to log in and update. Sometimes I still don’t do it, though.

  2. Hi John,

    Interesting perspective on Goodreads. I’ve never heard of any of these books you mentioned!! Well, except Stephen King. Did you know he tossed his Carrie novel in trash?! Thank gawd his wife had better sense to retrieve it. I hope you’ll read my children’s action-adventure novel. Maybe, I should go retrieve from trash. ;)

  3. Haha, I have a feeling I’ll have a couple of books permanently on my to-read list, too. I suck at Goodreads because the interface is so funky. It’s weird to navigate. Much could be improved there.

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