A Dilemma of Tracking Books

Or: A rambling mini retrospective about leaving social reading sites and switching to a personal database for peace of mind.

I have a terrible memory compounded by my adhd so keeping track of everything that I do/feel/think is absolutely essential in confirming my existence as a multifaceted human being and not just a single note of “whatever-is-happening-in-the-here-and-now”.

The additional layer of autism on my neurodivergent brain sandwich means that I tend to obsess over tracking things but I also get immense satisfaction in seeing data put together with all its fun trends and patterns.

Which brings me to reading.

A big part of reading is keeping track of what you read in some way. As a result, anyone who’s ever been a reader for more than 5 minutes on the internet has most likely heard of or used Goodreads at some point. This is the de facto method for all literary inclined folk to track their reading, leave reviews and engage in the bookish community.

I joined Goodreads as a teenager who had just discovered the YA genre via the Twilight boom and was amazed at the sheer numbers of books there were to be read. Not to mention the droves of people having wonderful gif-filled emphatic conversations about them.

After being on it for several years, my personal experience of the site was a TBR list of gargantuan proportions, ever increasing bookshelf tags (the thing to do at one point was express strong feelings through shelves entitled things like, “this-book-owns-my-soul” or “made-me-want-to-throw-up”), abandoned book clubs and a growing anxiety around meeting my yearly reading goal.

This was all self-inflicted of course but the annual Goodreads Reading Challenge never failed to make me feel like I was perpetually falling behind while everyone else somehow managed to read so much more.

I eventually deleted my account in large part to trying to support Amazon as little as possible, in small part to the realization that my TBR was impossible and I was spending more time looking for books to read than reading them and in tiny part to the secondhand embarrassment of seeing all the books my teen self considered the height of literature.

I recognize the hypocrisy in that I still sporadically use Kindle Unlimited to discover indie authors in the romance genre but it is what it is.

After leaving I became increasingly aware of what can be summed up as “Goodreads review drama” where the review sections of books become a platform for authors to bully reviewers, reviewers to bully authors and for reviewers to bully each other. There is an ongoing debate about whether authors should even read reviews of their work much less comment or offer public backlash if the review is not positive.

External reads:

Author Goes on a Viral Rant About Four Star Review “Ruining Her Average”

As someone who enjoys reviewing and recommending books I can easily imagine the added stress of wondering if a less than favorable review will make you a target from the author themself. On the flip-side and perhaps more damaging on a wider scale, many indie and marginalized authors have experienced having books that were not even released yet spammed with low ratings (called “review bombing”) which negatively affected their press and sales.

External reads:

How Extortion Scams and Review Bombing Trolls Turned Goodreads Into Many Authors’ Worst Nightmare

The Wrath of Goodreads

It’s a morbidly fascinating topic but either way, the growing consensus is that Goodreads has been largely abandoned by Amazon and is doing more harm than good for reading

External reads:

Goodreads Is Terrible for Books. Why Can’t We All Quit It?

I still needed to track everything I read so I switched to The Storygraph in 2019 which is billed as a more ethical, black-owned alternative to the Jeff Bezos Empire. The design of the site helped reduce the social media element to book reviews that permeates Goodreads and added an additional element of content/trigger warnings which could be added to a book by the readers after completing it.

The community aspect is still there too but hidden well enough that if you are someone who prefers simply tracking then that’s all you really need to do. I don’t think I’ve ever felt compelled to read reviews of a book on Storygraph before starting it. Overall, their stats are comprehensive and the team behind the site is open and responsive so new features get added regularly like buddy reads.

I enjoy and still highly recommend The Storygraph but finally made the choice a couple months ago to move all my reading stats to a personal Notion database.

The problem is that even with a less socially inclined site like The Storygraph I’m still far too easily influenced by what other people are reading. To be a bit dramatic, it’s that internet panopticon phenomenon and I find myself caring way too much about the optics (ha ha) of how I read. Even though the option of having a private account is there, just being able to see what other people are reading or what’s popular/not popular affects how and what I read.

In the back of my mind, I’m always wondering what my book lists and my shelves say about me as a reader. Am I starting the right challenges? Everyone’s talking about this one so should I bump it higher on my TBR? Did I read too many short books in a row? Can I count a comic book as reading? Posting on platforms like Instagram or blogs adds an extra element of the performative. Suddenly there’s the extra, “how do my books actually physically look?” Not to mention how it all stacks up to other people versus, just…you know…actually reading.

The linked article below says it best where:

There’s a desire stirring in our culture, both in reaction to the digitization of life and in line with the trendy factor that digital platforms foster, to be seen as someone who reads overshadowing the reading itself

- The Gamification of Reading Is Changing How We Approach Books

On top of that, book communities (especially for romance and fantasy fiction which I read the most of) still heavily favor books that feature characters who are white, able-bodied, cisgendered, heteronormative and young. Not that any of these denote a bad book but even with all of the wonderful work that has been done to mitigate it, we can still do more to promote diverse books.

Increasingly I’ve found myself extremely underwhelmed or disappointed by books that are constantly raved about in book circles so I’m making the effort to choose books based off of personal interest only and not simply because, “everyone is talking about this one” because eventually things become an echo chamber.

The shift to visual versus text platforms means that there is a constant push and demand for new or more books (what’s a single TBR book against a sexy, sexy bookstack) with the added consumerist pressure of gorgeous special editions and subscription book boxes. I love sprayed edges but these seem to be coming in faster and faster as everyone tries to build up the prettiest bookshelf. As someone with a limited book budget even on the best of days I wish that there were less special edition hardcovers and more paperbacks but the market is understandably skewing towards the former. With the rise in popularity of book annotations (which I personally love) there is also the precedent of owning the book in order to annotate them.

Maybe I’m just salty and poor but I wish a community that centered reading didn’t also focus so much on acquisition and if I’m not careful I fall into that trap.

The best part of switching to Notion is that I can no longer add books to my TBR list on autopilot. I am also not affected by the community rating of a book before I read it so I can start books with less expectations and hopefully a more organic reading experience. I see fewer books in general and so I feel less pressure to buy all of the new releases and can instead focus on saving for the ones that I really want.

I’m still learning to use all the available tools so this is fairly basic but my tracker so far uses multiple databases and two-way relations in order to populate the different categories like in each table like author or genre.

I also have a calendar to keep track of upcoming releases that I plan to purchase or borrow from the library. I’ve included a couple screenshots of my current setup and I fully acknowledge the irony of making a public post about choosing to make my reading private…

It is more work and not as snappy but since everything is manual, it has forced me to spend a bit more time with the books that I read and the books that I want to read which I hope makes for more intentional consumption.