I first noticed www.goodreads.com four months ago when a coworker at my bookstore sent me an invitation. The website tore through the Seattle bookselling community like an STD. Soon, every bookseller under 40 was a member. "Will you be my Goodreads friend?" we'd whisper to each other among the stacks. It was like MySpace, only better—it was all about books.
There is some literary culture on MySpace. I have four Haruki Murakamis among my MySpace friends, which means at least three people love Murakami enough to counterfeit his existence. This impulse is understandable—his characters are often replaced by empty, shadow selves. One of the counterfeit Murakamis claims among his influences: "the female form, isolation, despair," and "beauty," which sounds like what a seventh grader would believe an author would write on a MySpace page. It's a touching tribute.
MySpace also has at least seven people claiming to be Bow Wow (né Lil' Bow Wow), and I'm not sure they're making statements about the duality of self. MySpace has niche areas set aside for movies, politics, music, and comedy. Nowadays, the first thing a band does, before even practicing, is set up a MySpace page. But the stunningly small amounts of money publishers spend on advertising virtually guarantees that there will never be a MySpace books region. Goodreads crept in to provide that service.
Goodreads doesn't require as much personal information as MySpace—most profiles only include age, location, and a photo. There's no place to enter your dating status, or how lonely you get at night after you've had three beers. That's because Goodreads isn't about something as earthy as rutting. It's a weird monument to the solitary exhibitionism of reading, and it's addictive—the online equivalent of the glow you get while reading Anna Karenina on the bus, where strangers can see you reading Anna Karenina on the bus.
All book snobs secretly want to expose their reading habits to the world, and this interface makes that possible; it's book porn. There's a comments section attached to each book—user Sarah, for example, has a delightful pan of Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed: "I couldn't help but feel like she'd taken a vacation in my life and then made a bunch of money writing a book about it, something she could only have achieved because she had already been in a position of privilege."
Compared to MySpace's sad little nod to literature—the "Favorite Books" box—Goodreads is an evolutionary leap.
Does anyone over the age of 16 even have a favorite book? Claiming a favorite is only indicative of the fact that you haven't read enough: Out of the thousands of books that I've read, with the enormous palette of ideas and emotions they've represented, how could I choose only, say, five? Why not ask for a favorite orgasm, or laugh, or grain of sand?
Like all good flings, the Seattle bookselling community's dalliance with Goodreads faded before it got serious. Almost none of my friends log on nearly as often as they did during that first, blushing courtship. Most booksellers truly love books; they talk about them all day long. The idea of a place where you can compose epic monologues about books and keep an online diary of every book you've ever read is intoxicating. Then you realize that nobody but a few bored friends are reading your opinions and everything suddenly seems redundant. Even though it's pleasant to take bitch-slaps at other fanatics on Goodreads (I sniped at a friend who gave four stars to Rick Moody's atrocious memoir, The Black Veil; someone drily dug at my adoration of Ann Rule), it is, ultimately, a lonely pursuit, in which one spends hours quietly trying to discern order in a chaotic world.
We already have a hobby like that—it's called reading.