Saturday, 2 April 2011

Goodreads: Baring your soul to the world

Over recent weeks I've found myself becoming increasingly evangelical in relation to a web site that's now my spiritual home on the internet. I refer to Goodreads. The more time I spend on this web site, the more amazing it seems to me: that this simple concept, implemented with such wonderful attention to detail and design, can create so many possibilities. It's been said here before, repeatedly I'm sure, that there is a danger of spending so much time just browsing the site for books that there's no time left for the real business of actually reading books. It's a genuinely serious problem. This is a thoroughly addictive experience.

I'm in the business of writing this kind of software myself and I'm simply blown away with the work that's been done here. From the very clean and elegant design - with the most immaculate use of fonts - right through to the very clever functionality, this site, for me, is the best implementation of its kind I've seen anywhere on the internet. I would dearly love to be working as a developer here. There are just so many neat things that can be done with all these ratings and links. It's a fabulously rich network of data. I'd love to get my hands on it!

Just as it's hard now to imagine how we ever kept in touch with people and organised our lives before the mobile phone, it is difficult for me now to work out how I ever found the books I wanted to read before Goodreads came along! I feel almost ashamed to admit that there are classic books which I had never even heard of before I came across them here, but which are now on my to-read shelf. Serendipity has thrown up many books for me to read over the years but I can't help feel that there are many She's missed (or for which I've missed the signs!). She has never had such rich fields to furrow as these on Goodreads. If there is a book out there with your name on it, so to speak, then spend some time on this site and you will surely come across it.

Indeed, it's so easy to stumble across an interesting book, so easy to be seduced by the beautiful presentation, the ratings and reviews, so easy to click on that button to add it to your shelf, that before you know what's happened you are staring at a towering pile of books. There is this sense of not wanting to miss out on the chance of reading any book that piques your curiosity. You don't want to lose that connection you've made. But there are just so many books out there that I want to read that I can foresee myself easily getting overwhelmed at the sight of them all stacking up on this virtual shelf. It serves as a rather poignant reminder of my mortality, that I'm never going to have enough time to read all the books I want to read. Mind you, that's always been the case. Nothing has changed in that respect, it's just that Goodreads reminds you of the fact every time you log in!

A friend on Goodreads helped me out with this problem. She has almost two hundred books set to-read - which is nothing I now realise compared to some (one person I came across recently having over 50,000 books marked as such!) - and simply regards them as a resource for her journey. The right book will be there at hand to be picked at the right time. I rather liked that way of framing it and I've adopted that philosophy for myself. I still think there is a need to be reasonably selective, though, and I'm trying to restrict myself to books that I can't imagine not reading at some point in my life. Perhaps Goodreads should help us out by implementing some sort of realistic load factor for our shelves such that they start to buckle under the weight past a certain point, perhaps even collapsing if you try to add too many books!

For me, the most wonderful thing about this site is the simple ability to take a favourite book and then see who else is enthusiastic about it. You can then see what else that reader has enjoyed - because, of course, there is a good chance that you're on the same book wavelength and will also like those same books. It's a fantastic way to make serendipitous discoveries. It's also just fantastic fun, reminding me of when I used to browse second-hand book stores looking for nothing in particular but ever open to a book calling out at me. Goodreads is giving me a chance to relive that experience from the comfort of my own home, enabling that phenomenon of having a book jump out of the page demanding to be read.

I must be honest here and admit that I often find myself browsing reader's bookshelves for no better reason than simple human curiosity. Now, whenever I visit someone's house for the first time I always find myself gravitating towards their bookshelves, often somewhat furtively. I love to see what books people own, but this has always been a slightly guilty pleasure for me - perhaps because of some deeply-rooted reserve (the curse of being English) around seeing so much revealed of someone's inner life. The books we acquire are nothing less than an outer narrative of our inner life. Each set of books will be unique. They tell, for every one of us, a very personal story. I consider my books to be a window upon my soul indeed. From my passions to my peccadilloes, everything about me is revealed in the books I own and that have informed my life. I've only entered a small portion of my book collection so far, but I intend to put them all up there for the world to see - with perhaps the exception of a couple of embarrassments. I think it is wise to keep one little corner of your soul from prying eyes!

I'm grateful then that a majority of readers here are generous enough to leave their front doors open to me. It really is an astonishing privilege to be able to just walk through that open door and spend as long as I like browsing a book collection. Complete strangers bare their soul to me! But even though it's entirely anonymous, and I've clearly been given tacit permission, I still feel like a voyeur. I'm still a little furtive in my browsing. I can't help but regard it as just a touch clandestine. I'd rather not be caught!

This is an abridged version of a piece originally posted to my Goodreads Blog.


  1. I'm a big fan of goodreads as well. I also think it's beautifully designed. Only thing missing for me is the ability to find others who have similar tastes (I think librarything does that).

    I also used to get lost in a neverending trail of review - user - new books list - review - another user..... lol

  2. The ability to find other readers with similar tastes will probably come at some point, but it's a hard software problem to solve. I suspect that someone is working on it in a backroom somewhere. Actually, I'd love to be that person!