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I have turned into a major Goodreads fan.

For those of you who don’t know, Goodreads is a social networking site for book lovers, premised on the idea that recommendations from people you know are more valuable than recommendations from an algorithm that tries to discern what books a customer may enjoy based on what they previously bought (cough *Amazon* cough). 

Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem that many of my friends are on Goodreads. So, as you’ve probably inferred, I’m not getting as much value from that social side of the Goodreads experience.

It turns out that I  don’t know many people who (a) read voraciously and (b) are on Goodreads (I hope that the main reason for my social poverty is (b) and not (a)).

So how come I’m spending so much time on Goodreads?

Its value boils down to three things: (1) Memory (2) Anticipation and (3) Understanding. Goodreads has helped me get all three in relation to my bibliophilia. Let me explain how:

(1) Memory

Firstly, now that I’m reading again, I tend to forget what I’ve read, and I tend to forget what I thought about what I read. Goodreads lets me keep a list of books that I’ve read and approximately quantify my experience. It also lets me mark down what I’d like to read, so that when I find myself ‘high and dry’ without a next book to turn to, I at least have some suggestion as to where to go next.

Whilst I’m not reading anyway nearly as voraciously as I used to, I still have read enough, and for long enough, that I don’t remember what I’ve read during my younger years. Sometimes, covering forgotten ground yields its own rewards as books that I didn’t ‘get’ as much as a child make much more sense when you’ve experienced the adult world. Sometimes though, you find that books are exactly as you remember them, in which case the re-reading experience seems rather hollow.

(2) Anticipation

Secondly, Goodreads is amazing at recommendations. Although I don’t have many friends who are suggesting books to me, it has its own recommendation engine that gives suggestions about where it thinks I’d like to go next.

A lot my current reading is being directed by suggestions that pop  up on my radar from Goodreads, either based on what I’ve currently read or what I’ve been reading. And yes I know that I’m being fed choices by a computer algorithm from it. I just feel its a better algorithm than Amazon’s at the moment.

Goodreads also makes a concerted effort to keep up with, and make accessible, all the big book prizes, such as the Pulitzer, Man-Booker, Hugo or Nebula so that I can have a central source from which to identify what, at least in theory, should be better than average fiction.

One of the prices of reading in the real world, instead of reading in the world with infinite time to read, is that I feel the pressure to make good choices about what I read. I don’t have the time to invest in reading unsatisfactory books, or authors who just don’t resonate. Whilst I’ve learned that some things have to be left behind half-finished I’m still not entirely comfortable cutting the cord. I’ve still got Erin Morgenstern’s much hyped “The Night Circus” half finished, and its half-finished status vexes me as much as the stage-managed prose did. I’d rather make good choices at the start instead of trying to remove myself from bad choices at the end.

To an extent, both of these these benefits are amplified by the Kindle. Kindle samples has just been the most amazing blessing. I can test almost any book before committing to buy it.  I can test an almost infinite number of books. Once I find something I like, I can buy it with almost zero effort for a price that is less than a third of what a book costs on the shelf in Hong Kong (if you can find it). That destroys almost every significant barrier to trying out a new book.

(3) Understanding

The final thing, the most valuable thing, is that Goodreads actually told me a lot about what kind of books I enjoy.

Before I got my Kindle, and before I started paying attention to Goodread’s list of books, I was on a classics kick. Reading the books that were highly rated, highly recommended and considered immortal exemplars of the writers art.  And yet, I wasn’t getting as much satisfaction from reading. I wasn’t getting my storytelling fix.

Goodreads showed to me that a big part of the storytelling I enjoy  fits within three genres (1) history (2) sci-fi and (3) fantasy.  History, like sci-fi and fantasy, has to be epic before people will write about it. A historical moment has to matter, and what it reveals about people, nations and epochs is often the greatest lesson we can take away from history.

I get that same kind of satisfaction from sci-fi and fantasy.  If anything, because these genres don’t have to fit into the constraints imposed by reality (and often break those constraints in pretty fixed ways (e.g. magic, time travel, space drive etc) it lets us put people into positions which people can never actually encounter in the modern world. Good writers can make those worlds, those concerns, and those consequences, believable in a way that makes you riveted by the narrative as it unfurls. I like the unconventional ways of thinking, and the altered perspectives, that come from these genres.

I’ve taken that realisation to heart, and am making a much more focused effort to weave in fantasy and sci-fi into my reading. The price of that is that if feels like I’m making less progress in my desire to experience a more diverse palate of fiction.

Sometimes, you have to accept what you like for what it is and not what you think you ought to like.

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