Several years ago, back when I was paging at the county library HQ, a friend recommended I give Goodreads a try. The way I remember it, she described the site as a great hub for readers to connect with each other and with their favorite authors. For someone who once cried when she missed the chance to have John Green autograph her copy of Looking for Alaska, it sounded like the greatest thing ever; I’m fairly certain I heard chamber music and saw a nimbus unfold behind her head as she talked. I considered myself well-read; even though I wasn’t familiar with every major literary text, I had never limited myself to one particular genre. Reading enough books from different genres, I thought, made me a serious reader. From the beginning of our acquaintance—and in a variety of ways—Goodreads begged me to reconsider.
The first blow to my self-esteem came with the initial round of book rating. This is not an invalid request on Goodreads’ part. After all, if your intention is to create a social media hub based around books, it is entirely logical to have some sense of connection between the individual users who read and write them. When I looked at the wall of genres and classifications, however, I felt a twinge in my gut.
Historical Fiction, I mused. I read Wolf by the Ears ten years ago. Does that count? Do they even have YA fiction on here? Children’s books? If they snubbed Harry Potter, I don’t think I belong here. Historical Fiction was far from the only puzzling classification. Contemporary: what does that even mean? Memoir: do people actually unpretentiously respond with, “Memoirs,” when asked what they enjoyed reading? Crime, Mystery, and Suspense: aren’t they all the same thing?
After cursing my ineptitude and deciding which categories to pick—being seen as a poseur was a fate worse than death—I confronted the extensive Goodreads’ catalog. In the Classics section, I discovered, a simple inclusion of public domain texts in general was too simple an approach. I looked at Frankenstein; here was the Dover Thrift edition, there the Penguin Horror, and in the bottom corner I saw that not even the one-of-a-kind original—printed in gold ink, bound in human skin, with a foreword by the Lindbergh baby—had been overlooked.
The twinge in my abdomen became an ache. I started second-guessing old reviews: deleting them, redoing them, deleting them again. Had I read that edition? The cover wasn’t familiar. Maybe it was this one? No, it was in Portuguese.
More frustrating than the bevy of versions Goodreads provided for any particular text—and infinitely more agonizing for the anxious—is the population effect caused by rating a book. You start with rows of four or five books. Every time you leave a rating, you’re given a new row of four or five books, squeezed between the current row and the next. These new suggestions aren’t polite enough to leave when you’re done with them, either. No, they stick around, and suddenly you are on the third category out of the five you selected from the Great Wall of Genre and you’re convinced the authorities will find you mummified at your laptop before they’re all finished.
The pain in my midsection reached such heights that I was forced to press on my bellybutton every five minutes just to make sure the switch to my appendix’s doomsday clock hadn’t been thrown on. I felt crippled. Not only had I read less than half of what Goodreads listed in any given genre, but the site’s shelf system suggested I catalog every book I owned, read, and planned to read. I was so overwhelmed that I couldn’t remember ever reading anything. I didn’t know things were going to get worse.
As of this writing, over 7,000 people have rated Finnegan’s Wake, and 82% gave it three or more stars. Despite the fact that this number is undeniably low for a book of such stature, I have a hard time believing all of these users have read the book. As with all social media, it is entirely possible that a large portion of Goodreads’ populace is lying about their reading habits. I tend to believe that most people are truthful. I could be wrong, but the philosophy that people are innately good keeps me from devolving into a complete cynic. Still, it was this belief system that drove me into a reading depression after my first encounter with Goodreads.
It took a few years to pull myself out of that rut. During that time, I read only incidentally, finishing only two or three books in a year, and avoiding bookish conversations for fear of revealing my inadequacies as a reader. It wasn’t until I started majoring in English and taking literature courses that I rediscovered my love of reading.
Networking with clients and partners through social media is a necessity today. As a freelance writer and editor, I would be remiss to spurn Goodreads as a connection hub. So, I recently decided to rejoin; you can find a link to my profile at the end of this post. The site still intimidates me, but if I bow to every challenge, I’ll never finish—or even begin—grad school. I’ve learned that my own shortcomings are nothing to be ashamed of, and that I am the only person to whom I will ever owe an apology for not having done something. I haven’t read Finnegan’s Wake; so what? Chances are high that half of those 7,000 people who claim to have read it are lying anyway.