Dispatches | November 09, 2011

I have surprised myself, recently, by liking a web site – not in the Facebook sense of “liking” it that doesn’t mean anything, but in the sense that I’ve spent time with it and haven’t felt like that time could have been better spent trimming my nails, which is how I feel about most of the web sites I spend time with.

The site I mean is Goodreads, which I’ve been returning to often in the last week or so, because I’ve just recently finished – temporarily – writing a big project, and I have time for such things as reading books and clicking on the Internet.  I have been keeping close track of the books I’ve been reading, as Goodreads permits me to do.  When I start one, I tell Goodreads that I’ve done this.  When I’m through, I make sure that Goodreads knows about it.  This is despite my wariness toward volunteering such information about myself for the potential use of just anybody.

I have been asking myself why I do this – why it is that it’s not enough anymore to simply read a book, and apparently I also have to check in with the Internet.  I think I do this thing in part because reading is lonely – even lonelier than writing – and while I don’t need a web site to help me get motivated to read, it’s nice to know that I’m not the only person in the world who’s currently reading Colin Dickey’s Cranioklepty, or who intends to read the recently published journals of Spalding Gray.

It’s something like how helpful I hear it is, when writing 50,000 words in a single month, to know that lots of other people are doing the same thing in that same month; you could do this on your own without them, but it helps to know those other people are out there.

Similarly, I will never forget what a thrill it was, when I was twenty, to visit a friend of my then-girlfriend in Charleston, West Virginia, and feel lost, as the two of them spoke with each other about people they both knew but I’d never met, until I finally began talking with this young man’s mother and learned that she had read Plato’s Republic, which I was then reading.  We had a really nice conversation about it, and while I can’t say exactly why this was, it made me feel better to know that there was someone nearby who had read this thing I was reading.  Goodreads comes close to hitting the same nerves as that conversation did.

The site, of course, has plenty of drawbacks.  It has ads on it.  It’s ugly.  I would add to this list my opinion that the discussions had on its discussion boards could be smarter, but I would risk sounding like a snob and I wouldn’t really mean it; I love those conversations.  Last month, somebody asked why there was a big, blue eye on the cover of his edition of 1984.  Someone suggested it was supposed to be Big Brother’s eye.  Someone else countered by pointing out that nowhere in the book does it say that Big Brother had blue eyes.  So who’s eye was it supposed to be?  It was suggested that perhaps it belonged to no one in particular; perhaps the jacket designer chose blue because it’s the most common eye color.  But then, as yet another person argued, that isn’t true at all.

Soon after I saw that conversation, a discussion of Into the Wild caught my giant blue eye.  In it, someone stated she was worried about this book by Jon Krakauer, because it presented Christopher McCandless as a Thoreauvian hero, when in fact his story is a tragedy and the example he sets is a dangerous one.  I thought this person must be crazy; Krakauer spends as much time in his book upbraiding McCandless for his reckless foray into dangerous Alaska as he does demonstrating his fascination with the young man, and the book is as interesting as it is, I think, because of the complicated relationship its author has with the story he’s telling.

Two thoughts came out of this reaction I had.  One is that I rarely resort to my brain like this, in order to respond to something I see on the Internet.  The other is that this person making the observation concerning Into the Wild might very well have not finished reading the book; it would be easy to come away from it thinking Krakauer makes a hero of his subject if you stopped reading after page 100 or so, if I remember the book right.

I wonder, then, if having “read” something on Goodreads is, or will soon be, equivalent to “liking” something on Facebook, in that it doesn’t necessarily have to mean a whole lot.  I don’t “know.”

I’m no social media theorist, and if I considered myself to be one it’s the kind of information I wouldn’t volunteer for the potential use of just anybody, but my hope is that a site like Goodreads is the next phase of social media sites.  I started with Friendster, then moved to Myspace, and have been spinning my wheels in Facebook for years.  Twitter is just something else altogether, so perhaps the shiny thing that will finally draw my attention from the other shiny thing that is Facebook will be Goodreads, or something like it – a site that has a very specific focus, one that I have a real interest in.  Most of the things I learn about my friends on Facebook – many of whom I don’t even know – don’t really interest me.  The information they offer usually doesn’t really tell me anything about them.  I always, though, want to know what people are reading.

Since I’m “listening” to Pete Seeger, I’ll close by referring to him.  I heard him on the radio once, years ago, talking about how, when he was growing up, great importance was place not only on reading books but on talking about them once he was finished with them.  He considered both activities equally important, and immediately I agreed with him.  You have to do something with all the stuff you’ve drawn from that book you’ve just read; you have to take what you’ve gained in solitude and share it.  At the time, I didn’t have a lot of people in my life to talk about books with; this is where something like Goodreads could be very useful.