Conceptually, I think Goodreads is fantastic. It fills a niche online that needed to be filled, providing browsing and recording and recommendations for reading. In practice, I’m unsure about it – I don’t know if it is good enough at what it tries to do to be worthwhile.

To deal first with the good, there are a couple of benefits to Goodreads that are wonderful – for one, it brings back browsing. Before the internet, I bought most of my books in bookshops. I didn’t go into them with specific ideas, but with a general feeling: “I feel like militaristic fantasy” rather than “I want book three of The Forgotten Riftwar Saga (not a real series).

And then, with my vague idea in mind, I’d browse – I’d walk the shelves, pulling out books that looked interesting, leafing through them, finding books and authors that I’d never heard of.  I discovered forgotten series, less-popular books by well-known authors, recent releases by unknowns: all the books that I would never otherwise have heard of. Browsing let me expand horizons massively, letting me find things I would never otherwise have heard of.

Then came the internet and convenience, and I stopped going to bookshops as much. Buying online became more common, Amazon got into gear, ebooks started to exist. It was so much easier to simply make a couple of clicks and have a book arrive in a few days (or minutes, on a kindle). I didn’t need to deal with limited stock, or queue to pay, or even leave the house: I could just have books whenever I wanted, as fast as I wanted. For a brief time, it was wonderful and easy.

But buying online has a downside: you can’t browse. You need to either know exactly what you want, heading directly for it, or struggle with totally useless search algorithms (Amazon’s search function is fantastic for everything except books. Books do not, in my opinion, sort well or narrowly by keywords). Websites learn your tastes and then start recommending only those that match what you’ve already bought. Instead of expanding horizons, they start contracting them. You never get to find the unexpected, or the rare, or the unpopular but brilliant; what search term gives you books you’ve never heard of and don’t yet know you want?

The beauty of physical shelves is that you can stroll along them, looking at books bound only loosely together by an overarching theme. Shelves don’t attempt to push everything into narrow boxes, and only show you one. Shelves allow you time and space to explore. On the shelves in my living room, a copy of All My Friends are Still Dead sits next to a book of 1930’s marriage advice, which in turn is next to The Complete Chronicles of Conan.

No Amazon recommendation page, no forum thread of book recommendations, would ever put those next to each other. They don’t have an obvious and mechanical link. And yet, they’re all good, by their lights. I enjoyed reading all of them. And I found each one in the real world, by browsing, or by a friend’s recommendation. The internet does not encourage such discoveries.

Goodreads wants, it seems to me, to change that. Goodreads wants to let you browse – to wander through networks of recommendations and non-exclusive lists of vague ideas. To list all the books, not just the simple or easy ones. To allow you to discover new things, get recommendations from everyone, to have lists and shelves filled with books that didn’t have to be set by genre or purchasing history.

So when I found out about Goodreads, I thought it was great. It was, and still is, the closest thing to browsing that you can get online – you could read through someone’s shelves and come across books that you would never have found before. You could find lists that connect books by more than just a single, generic keyword. You could explore again.

I enthusiastically made an account, played around with it for an hour or so, and then didn’t go back again for months.

I left it because, while Goodreads is a wonderful idea, it does have issues, and those issues seemed to me to be rather fundamental. The first problem I have with it is not really the websites fault, but it does rather dampen my enthusiasm – Goodreads did not exist when I was learning to read.

As a result, there are umpteen books that I have read that aren’t on Goodreads. I read, when I have the time, both frequently and fast; I read even more when I was younger. This means that there are hundreds and hundreds of books that I have read that I would like to add to Goodreads – I find it oddly dissatisfying to have such a paltry “read” shelf, and the website only works if people actually record what they read. It just takes so long, and there are so many books that I would like to add, and I don’t have the energy to search for each one and shelve it.

I know that it isn’t strictly necessary that I do so, but I still find it disheartening to have those gaps, to feel like I’m missing out, or using the site incorrectly by not giving it necessary information. Most of all, I keep getting recommendations of books I read when I was much younger, so not having entered in all of the books I’ve read means that the recommendations are useless.

I’m aware that the above paragraphs sound incredibly spoilt and pretentious – that isn’t my intention. It isn’t Goodreads’ fault that it is only a recent thing, it isn’t anyone’s fault. It is just an unavoidable problem that niggles at me.

A more serious issue, though still not directly the site’s fault, is the way that lists work. Goodreads features lists – user-titled, user-edited, and user-voted on lists of books. If you want to find books which feature a female protagonist fighting a dragon, there is a list for that. If you want to find books with robot detectives, there is a list for that. If you want to find books which have wrought-iron fences on the cover, there is even a list for that.

It is a great idea, but the problem is the users. The users who vote on the lists, the users who include new books on the lists. They make the whole thing pointless.

Unfairly (probably), I picture the average Goodreads user as an idiot clutching the latest bestseller. To them, the book they hold now is the greatest book ever, and everyone should know about it. Looking at the list of lists, they can see how the book fits neatly into every single list, and should be the first book in each. So they add it in.

This makes lists totally useless. Every single list, it seems, has The Hunger Games, The Name of the Wind, Twilight, Mistborn and so on – all of incandescently popular works, put there by some rabid aficionado and voted for by all the others at the height of the books popularity.

I don’t mind the books appearing in lists at all – they have as much right to be in lists as any other book. Harry Potter obviously belongs in the “Magical School” lists, and should be near the top. Likewise, all other such books have their place. However, there are also many places where they don’t belong.

Harry Potter is not the pattern that all books with female protagonists should follow. Game of Thrones does not belong in a list of Bildungsroman just because some of the characters grow older. Wheel of  Time doesn’t have strong female characters or gritty, down-to-earth warfare; it definitely isn’t unconventional or trope-defying fantasy.

But list after list, no matter the topic, the same books appear again and again. They force actually relevant books to the bottom. They stop recommendations being at all useful. Every list has the same few titles, championed by people with seemingly no idea what the book they love so much is actually about.

Obviously, that’s bad because it makes the lists less useful. It is also bad because it’s really annoying, and makes me hate everyone with a Goodreads account, fairly or not. Most websites are less useful to you if you spend your time reading them filled with rage.

To return to my initial statement, I love the idea of Goodreads. Practically, it has issues, and they aren’t issues I can see an easy solution for. Recently, I discovered that I could import books I’d bought from Amazon, which made my “read” shelf much larger, and I’ve stopped getting annoyed by lists by never, ever clicking onto list links. But these are simply papering over the cracks – they don’t really solve the problems.

Combined, those issues break the whole idea: I can’t get decent recommendations from the site, and I can’t browse without every second book being Catching Fire. As those are the main reasons that I can see to use the website, I don’t go there much at the moment.

I’m hoping that overtime, Goodreads will start solving these problems – that it might become faster to add books, that there might be more curation of lists. Until that point, though I love the idea, and I really want to like Goodreads, I’m finding it hard to find it useful.

What do you think?

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