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Our Reading Lives

Why I Still Use — and Like — Goodreads

Kelly Jensen


Kelly is a former librarian and a long-time blogger at STACKED. She's the editor/author of (DON'T) CALL ME CRAZY: 33 VOICES START THE CONVERSATION ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH and the editor/author of HERE WE ARE: FEMINISM FOR THE REAL WORLD. Her next book, BODY TALK, will publish in Fall 2020. Follow her on Instagram @heykellyjensen.

There’s been so much ink typed up on the internet about Goodreads. It’s good for books. It’s bad for books. It’s good for readers. It’s terrible for readers. It’s necessary for authors. It’s a sand trap for writers. Some of the pieces explain the challenges the social media site has experiences since becoming part of Amazon, while others continue to point out the limitations that exist on the site for discoverability or accurate reader assessment. All of these pieces have their purpose and value, as do all of the pieces offering alternates to Goodreads for those ready to make the jump.

As challenging as Goodreads can be, it’s still one of my favorite tools as a reader, and no matter how much people want to convince me to switch to another way, I’m not sure I’ll be ready to jump ship any time soon.

Goodreads isn’t about book discovery for me. As a former librarian and someone deeply entrenched in the book world, I know how weak the recommendations are. When you scroll through the books similar to the one you’re looking at, you might see some similarities, but chances are, the algorithm bringing them to your attention is just like Amazon’s: based not in actual similarities in terms of theme, mood, genre, or similar appeal factors, but based instead in the behavior of other users of the site. This makes the discoverability aspect somewhat challenging, since what you are discovering isn’t necessarily books similar to what you like but rather, behaviors similar to the ones in which you’ve engaged.

Instead, Goodreads is about recording my life in reading. I do keep a spreadsheet with information about everything, one modified from the annual reading log created here at Book Riot. I also keep a small spiral notebook, dating back to my years in high school, listing every single book I’ve ever read. But as someone who is a visual person, Goodreads is unsurpassed in allowing me to revisit my reading habits as reference.

It’s not about what I find. It’s about how I find it.

I label my reading with the year in which I read the book on Goodreads, and every year, I have a perfect encapsulation of what my life in books was. I like this method as it’s allowed me a really powerful perspective on where I was in that span of time in my life and how my reading life was or wasn’t reflective of my experiences.

Perhaps I’m alone in this, but I do recall reading a book at a specific juncture in my life, and when the title slips my mind, the easiest way for me to recall it is to peruse the Goodreads read shelves labeled with a specific year and scroll.

Compiling a book list, I might find myself remembering a book I read as a judge on an award committee in 2012, and while I could find a note I left myself in my paper notebook, it won’t have the same visual cue or context that perusing that virtual shelf does. Asking myself what that book was I read in graduate school that made me realize the importance of good design means clicking two shelves, 2007 and 2008, and knowing it’s going to be on one of them (chances are, I remember what class it was I read the book in, so I can drill down to the exact year as well).

Goodreads is tremendously helpful for offering backlist recommendations. Whereas my reading logs only go back to 2017 and my paper reading journal is literally a list of book titles and authors, on Goodreads, I generally write a few sentences to jog my memory about the feel of a book. In some cases, there are lengthy reviews, highlighting the merits and downfalls of particular titles, alongside books that would pair nicely with the book being reviewed.

While blogging about books has been part of my life since 2008, the reality is that I don’t write about every book I read. But I committed to doing so on Goodreads around the same time, updating my shelves to reflect books read prior to my creating an account, and it’s a commitment I’ve kept since. Goodreads is for me and only for me—and indeed, while other people can and do comment on my reviews, either agreeing with my assessment or choosing to chastise me for (fill in the blank reason that someone is told they’re wrong about not liking a book), I don’t care about them. I engage in conversation when I feel like it, and I’ve made it a hard and fast rule that I don’t read or respond to comments on books added over six months prior.

A few years ago, I wrote about how giving up star ratings put far less pressure on me as a reader to perform in a certain way on social media like Goodreads. I still stand by it. It’s this practice, coupled with the way I treat my Goodreads shelves as an extension of my memory about books, that keep it a site I don’t hate, don’t feel the need to constantly criticize, and don’t feel angry about when book recommendations offered up by the machine are laughably bad.

It’s been in recent months, though, I’ve found a major community aspect of Goodreads valuable for me as a reader and as someone who writes about books for a career: creating lists. If I am researching books and notice that a book isn’t on a list that would interest readers, I make a note to myself to create that list. Certainly, this gets unwieldy and Goodreads users can and do add anything they wish to, whether or not it fits the topic well.

But I don’t care about that.

What I care about is sharing my knowledge as I can, using the resources I’ve created for myself on the site. If I notice a trend, it’s fun to pull those books into a list. As announcements are made about new books hitting shelves in the future, I find great satisfaction in adding them to annual lists—and those annual lists become powerful tools for me as a reader and book advocate.

That they are messy and imperfect is fine by me. That is, after all, what makes a community a community.

I may never be able to name a book I read and loved because of Goodreads recommendations, but I am able to see what folks whose reading tastes I know and respect think about those titles. This adds a lot of value for me as a reader, knowing I can adjust my preferences to see just the reviews of those who I want to see. Same as I can adjust my use of Goodreads to look at just the shelves, the periods in time, the specific labels I attach to books I read.

I’ve tried other sites that describe themselves as alternates to Goodreads and see their utility, but nothing has had the same staying power with me as a reader. I like how I’ve adapted the site to fit my needs and modeled my thinking patterns around how I can make the tools available to me useful for me, as opposed to trying to fit my needs into the buckets Goodreads offers.

I could worry about how much data Goodreads—and therefore Amazon—has on me. But what neither can or do know about me is the context from which they’ve gathered that data. They don’t know about the reasons behind the upswing in my reading East Asian noir one spring nor my reasons for listening to so many audiobooks of a certain genre one fall.

But I do.

Perhaps I’m a reader mired by my own habits. But at a time when habits become valuable reminders of normalcy, I’m okay with sticking to them. Using tools like Goodreads makes my life just a little bit easier and allows me to keep the records of my reading life that I find most useful for the future when it feels as though the future is but a big, gaping question mark.