I grew to love and loathe my phone, not for its size or price or even the tendency for its software to crash, but because of all the ‘information’ I could access. The ability to scan thousands of headlines and taglines until your eyes numb, only to regret wasting that half-hour when you could’ve been working or reading a book. A few months ago I resolved to back away from social media. I deleted the apps and experimented with a “shut-off” period every day in which I didn’t touch my phone for any reason. It lasted three days. Until the first time my wife leaned over on the couch, “Hey, look at this.” I was wholly off the bandwagon in seconds, facedown in the gutter getting trampled by the 24-hour newsfeed.
I love reading. I strayed in high school, forced to read select titles without reinforcement of what we read them for, but rekindled the passion as an adult, today living surrounded by bookshelves overflowing with books read and books to-read. Nevermind the multiple lists of books to checkout or buy that ensure my to-read piles always dwarf the already-read piles. But I had no idea how to order all of these lists. Laws of recency dictated I would look for the newest books on the list, guaranteeing neglect of works I’d wanted to read for much longer. Compounding the problem were recommendations from friends or family that sent a title soaring to the #1 spot—and often a short order purchase at the expense of every other entry on the list. I tried a book journal dedicated to these kinds of lists. It was never nearby when I needed it. Then it was virtual notes on my phone, a running list always within reach. But in that case I still only had titles (assuming I copied them correctly), most without authors, and none with a picture or other identifying feature I could use to find the book later. Notepads, post-its, sections of a planner. None could support my heavy reading habit and desire to keep track of new releases as well as classics I’d yet to try. I gave up for a while, allowing whim to govern what I read and when. Then a weak moment of social media browsing led me to an article shared on Facebook. A list of reading recommendations compiled by Goodreads.
I clicked on the most interesting title and found a page describing the book complete with a cover image, publishing information, synopses, and ratings. And a drop-down menu encouraging me to mark the book “Read”, “Want to Read”, or “Currently Reading”. The book jacket was one I would’ve picked up at a bookshop, the synopsis enough to make me open to the first chapter. I scrolled through the ratings and comments. Of course some loved it, others hated it. But it was the replies to comments that intrigued me, people talking back and forth about what the book was about and why they’d read it … or stopped in the middle … or recommended it to ten friends. It was an impromptu book club, readers from around the world not complaining or commiserating over a passing fad or political rant, but sharing in something real. Something lasting. Literature endures in a way clickbait can’t. Yet here was a social media platform built around one of humanity’s oldest forms of communication and entertainment. I scrolled up and selected “Want To Read”. The next menu cued me to place the book on a virtual “shelf”, a chance to provide context and a way to organize your book choices by interest or idea. You can name shelves whatever you like, and I’ve yet to find a limit to how many shelves you can have.
Goodreads imports contacts from other social media platforms to connect you to other readers and their collections. You can share recommendations, likes and dislikes, compete in reading challenges. After a couple months, I had amassed almost 200 books on nine shelves, but remained skeptical. I used it like I used my Amazon wishlist, fostering a redundancy that would ensure obsolescence. That was until one of my Goodreads friends sent me a message asking how I liked a book I was currently reading. The book was on his “Want To Read” list and he’d seen I was halfway through. I shared my impressions and recommended the book. That’s when I became hooked.
Social media is a means to keep us connected across great distances. It’s power is in convenience and a ubiquity reliant on smart devices in every pocket. I had lost faith because of its keen ability to foment division and factionalism through algorithms designed for marketing that turned newsfeeds into echo chambers of singular perspective. But Goodreads proved successful a different model, a community built around reading and writing and the presumption of different worldviews. No two people react to the same book in the same way. You know you’ll be challenged by opposing preferences. I’ve come to enjoy the platform for its accessibility, versatility, and lack of an attention-grabbing interface that parallels more conventional sites.
I still reach for my phone, and still get caught from time to time swiping through an article online. But more often than not, the article describes a new book or presents the latest ‘top ten’ books in a category. When I come across a title of interest, I log in and slide another book onto the shelf, excited for the chance to come back online to select my next offline adventure.