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Learned Volume 3, Issue 38
Welcome to Learned, a short, weekly look at language, education, and everything else under the sun. I’m Joel, linguist and professional slacker. This week, we're reviewing what we’ve read.
According to my profile, I joined Goodreads in 2007 and have read a little over 2000 books. That number is more than a little deceiving as I have read far more than 2000 books in my life. Those were just that those were the ones I remembered at the time I began using the site or the ones I have added since. More accurately, and perhaps more interesting is that I've reviewed just under 400 books in the past decade and change.
So. Let's talk about Goodreads. Goodreads calls itself a social network for book lovers. In reality, the site is more akin to a collectors site than an actual social site, although it's not for lack of trying. Users have several sorting and organizing tools at their disposal through the creation of "shelves" which can track what you have read, what you want to read, etc. There are also lists that can show everything from just what books are in a given series, to the best (your interest here) books of all time. And then there are the social features you would expect: mail, groups, following authors, etc. None of which excuses how bad Goodreads user interface is.
It's hard to find new books by authors you like, and actually doing anything on the site requires a bunch of clicks through to different subpages. And, given that it's owned by Amazon, it has absolutely no reason for being as bad as it is. (Then again, all you have to do to see how bad Amazon is at user interface design is to look at their shopping sites and their user sites.) Honestly, Sarah Manavis, writing in the New Statesman, sums it up much better than I can:
Many now use it purely to track their reading, rather than get recommendations or build a community.
Suffice it to say, the site could use a little more work.
Why then, do I keep using it? The answer is in those 400 reviews. Goodreads has long been a great place to record one's thoughts about a given book through its reviews system. Users can select the exact copy of a book that they've read (e.g. publication method, publisher, date, printing, etc.) and log both start and end dates for multiple read-throughs as well as their "review," which, because of the open format can mean everything from quick notes to full-fledged editorials. And, because I've been using the site for so long, my own past reviews have become an interesting point of contrast for any rereading I happen to do.
For example: one of my favorite series is Glen Cook's Garrett Files. I first began reading them in 1991 when the first three books had been compiled into an omnibus I found at my local library just a couple of shelves down from Ray Bradbury. At the moment, there are 14 books in the series, the most recent of which was published in 2013. I have, on Goodreads, reading notes, ratings, and reviews for many of the books in the series.
A large part of my reading this year has been a re-read through the entire series. I've been making notes along the way, paying attention to how the writing style and attitudes changed as time passed. Being able to compare notes I made after reading a book I read for the fourth time in 2007, or even those from a book I read for the first and only time in 2013, with my notes from this year's reread has been...interesting.
(Although, to be honest, most of the insights gleaned from this project would not be exciting or even make sense to anyone who is not me. This has been wholly an internal project.)
But I've been thinking about deleting my account. Because, the truth is, none of the value I've gained from having these reviews up on Goodreads is reliant on Goodreads itself. There is nothing I do on the site that couldn't be done in a journal. Like the quote above, I rarely use the community features. People do not often comment anything of value on my reviews and I never even read reviews from anyone else. I do not participate in any groups and I do not use many of the non-book-tracking features. For that matter, I haven't even updated my profile since I first made it. Why bother?
We're at an interesting time for social media right now. On the one hand, we are seeing a loud, public, congressionally-approved backlash against Facebook and Twitter and the entities that run them. On the other, there is a much quieter effort to take an earlier generation of social websites like Flickr and Tumblr back to their community-oriented roots. Maybe Goodreads will, too. We can do not but hope.
New issue of the Glossary out this Friday. Until then, stay safe, stay sane. Learn something.