An antisocial network for readers

April 21, 2008

I’m trying to gradually reduce the number of books I own, in part by the simple expedient of keeping track of what I’m reading. I use a site called Goodreads, which does an OK job of helping me maintain a reading life-list.

However, the site has mostly made me realize what an incredibly anti-social thing reading is at heart. Goodreads is billed as a social network, and I’m connected to a few friends on there… but the social aspect is so desperately awkward that I’m considering disconnecting from it altogether. I’m not at all sure that I want to have a social relationship with anyone at all based around books; and if I did, I’m REALLY not sure I’d want it to to be with people I know from other contexts.

For one thing, the overlap between my reading tastes and those of my friends is essentially nil. I can’t get enough of books about death and cooking, with only occasional forays into other fields. I imagine my friends find notifications of my endless mystery novels and food essays as tedious and unenlightening as I find their literary bestsellers and modern classics. It’s unfortunately rather rare to like someone better once you suss out their taste in reading, although of course it can be a notorious deal-breaker.

The intriguing bit is watching the disparate ways in which different people use the site. A not-insignificant number of casual users seem to think the point is to list all the books they’ve ever read. I’m sure there are a bunch like me, who just decided to keep a list from some arbitrary starting date, never looking backwards. A lot of the hard-core readers use their lists to keep track of the books they want to read aspirationally; I personally list the books I tried but failed to read, because I’m big on failure. Almost everyone seems to go along with the five-star rating feature, but I steadfastly refuse because I’ve come to believe that sort of thing cheapens the relationship between a reader and a book.

In a sense I already belong to a fairly big social network based on shared reading… alumni of the College of the University of Chicago. We’re the lucky few these days who were force-fed a small set of great books (I use the term unironically) which we can assume all the other members are familiar with. But let’s face it, this type of education is clearly an eccentricity and a shibboleth at this point, and I understand it’s been quite a bit eroded even there. When you meet a fellow Phoenix, it’s practically a secret-handshake situation… except, you know, with more embarrassment.

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