I I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed reading a book where my enjoyment was unrelated to the euphoric sense of accomplishment I got upon finishing it. It’s not because I don’t like to read or prefer to watch TV. No, it’s because of a little app on my phone called Goodreads.
Home to around 90 million readers worldwide, Goodreads is a website that allows users to follow their readings and spread their likes around the world – or, in my case, to a few vague friends and acquaintances. At its core, it’s a harmless concept: an online community for bookworms and an opportunity to discover new books your friends have loved.
It is also extremely satisfying. Since I joined Goodreads a few years ago, the annual roundup I get counting the books I completed that year has become the turning point of my reading experience. I get a buzz by increasing my reading goal every 12 months and comparing the number of pages I have turned or the hours of audiobooks I have listened to with other people’s numbers. I get a sense of accomplishment every time I update my “progress” with a book.
But that’s exactly what’s wrong with Goodreads: it turns reading into an achievement. Quantifying, dissecting and disseminating our favorite hobbies sucks in the joy of it. I look towards the corner of the page to see everything I’ve read. I compare the thickness of the read pages I hold in my left hand to those unread in my right. Even absorbed in the climax of a story, an eye is always on my proximity to the end, when I can post everything on Goodreads.
It’s not just our reading habits that have been gamified. From our errands on Strava to the movies we watched on Letterboxd, there is now a popular app to quantify all of our hobbies. But with reading come the associations of intelligence and work which are not attuned to our habitual consumption of other art forms; if I documented the amount of television I watch, I would feel more self-conscious than triumphant. This is why tracking my reading activity on Goodreads is much better than I’ve admitted before: I love reading, but I also love the feeling that people think I read well.
While some people’s qualms with Goodreads are rooted in its clunky interface, or the fact that it is owned by Amazon, mine lies in its very concept. Reading is something I do to relax, learn and enjoy. It’s not fair that I don’t need a pie chart detailing my reading habits, the chart plagued the whole experience. Even if I were to switch to another book app without the social aspect, I know I would still be obsessed with finishing the books rather than enjoying them.
It is human nature to have a sense of satisfaction in seeing something through to the end. But, without Goodreads, it doesn’t matter if I give up on a book that I don’t mind halfway, because no one will know or care – like it does anyway. I won’t be embarrassed if I read yet another thriller bought from a supermarket business, instead of something others would consider smarter or better.
If Goodreads provides a sense of community, great recommendations, and doesn’t obsess over what or how much you read, then great. Maybe these are just a few of us who are not compatible with this and end up developing a toxic relationship that hijacks the magic of getting lost in a book. But right now I’m reading my first book without Goodreads since installing the app. It’s like when I was a kid, not being aware of what other people think about what I read, how quickly I read it, or what I haven’t read. From now on, my reading habits remain between me and my book.