The Goodreads Debacle

For many readers who spend time online, Goodreads is a boon for keeping track of books. I started using it about four years ago, as eager as I was to get the “Books I Want to Read” list out of my head so I wouldn’t miss out on the great books out there by forgetting them. Much to my dismay I discovered that, when not limited by memory, my to-read list has 252 books on it, enough to take five years reading at a fast pace, not counting rereading or thousand-page books, and don’t even think about adding more books to the to-read list.

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Despite this fact (hey, at least I’ll never run out of good books to read) Goodreads has really been wonderful at keeping track of the books in my life. So I was more than a little surprised when, first, Amazon bought Goodreads, and when recently, Goodreads announced that they would start deleting certain reviews and bookshelves.

I’m not among the folks who instantly hated Goodreads or even among those who publicly cried out against their choices. But I was a little disappointed. For one thing, Amazon’s ownership of Goodreads makes every move part of Amazon’s statistics. Every star on a book becomes Amazon’s marketing information. And I for one would prefer to keep that information for my own personal use, not for a behemoth company. Maybe it’s the whole support-the-underdog and fear-Big-Brother bias, but I wish Goodreads could have kept to itself. Here’s hoping Goodreads can stick to its independent nature.

As for the more recent news, Goodreads recently announced that they would start being more strict about reviews and bookshelves, meaning that they will exercise the ability to delete said items. According to Goodreads, they will delete a review if it does not focus on the book, but rather the author. They write: “The reviews that have been deleted – and that we don’t think have a place on Goodreads – are reviews like “the author is an a**hole and you shouldn’t read this book because of that”. In other words, they are reviews of the author’s behavior and not relevant to the book.” Goodreads user Emma Sea brings up a good point brought up in many college literary classes: among multiple forms of literary criticism, one such form includes analyzing the author, including their history, their intentions, and how that all connects to the meaning of the book. As such, is it not a form of censorship to ban such reviews?

I have mixed feelings about calling it censorship. But the word “censorship” is a fiery word that pushes buttons, and it’s certainly getting me thinking. Some may argue that the author and their work are completely separate beings, where the relationship between the reader and a book is a new, unique relationship where author consideration is unnecessary. But it’s still an inherent part of reading culture to ask why an author included such-and-such scene, or symbolism, or weird plot point, or what made the author so twisted as to want to write about a father and son in a post-apocalyptic world on the road fighting for their lives when everything is against them (thanks a lot, Cormac McCarthy).

I agree that authors should not be harassed. That’s the golden rule, and no one should have to undergo personal criticism for a work they slaved for months or years over. But where does one draw the line between a critical reading and a personal criticism? How does Goodreads choose that line, and how will they prevent crossing it?

Personally, I’d like to see the reviews that Goodreads has deleted in order to weigh their judgment. I still have trust in Goodreads, but they’ll have to be careful. One too many slipups and they’ll be losing their users.

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Book Discussion: The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

I’m not that into sports. The only reason I went to football games in high school was because it was the social hub of a Friday night. And while I appreciate the occasional baseball or football game, I can’t remember the last time I went to one.

So it defies logic that I would pick up a book centered entirely around baseball: The Art of FIelding by Chad Harbach.

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But sometimes the best books are the least expected. This one came to me at an important time in my life; it was in the back of my mind after seeing its recommendation by John Green, whose opinion I highly value when it comes to books. I wasn’t planning on reading it — sports! Why would I want to read a book about baseball? But then I spotted its timeless blue-and-white cover in a bookstore last summer and I thought, what the heck.

I was in a profoundly lonely point of my life at the time, somewhere I never want to go again if I can help it. While Fielding did not solve this loneliness, it instead acted as a balm that distracted me and comforted me for all of its beautiful 605 pages. It was able to do so because the characters in its pages practically make the book into a living, breathing thing. Its characters and their stories are so real that for the whole length of the book I felt as though I had a part in their life. I felt there was no way that their world was not real.

The story follows shortstop Henry Skrimshander as he goes to college to play with the Harpooners, a mediocre baseball team at the small liberal arts Westish College. Henry is a prodigy, destined to join the big leagues, but then an accident begins a descending spiral of self-doubt which effects everyone around him. The story follows other characters as well; Goodreads puts it best: “Henry’s fight against self-doubt threatens to ruin his future. College president Guert Affenlight, a longtime bachelor, has fallen unexpectedly and helplessly in love. Owen Dunne, Henry’s gay roommate and teammate, becomes caught up in a dangerous affair. Mike Schwartz, the Harpooners’ team captain and Henry’ best friend, realizes he has guided Henry’s career at the expense of his own. And Pella Affenlight, Guert’s daughter, returns to Westish after escaping an ill-fated marriage, determined to start a new life.”

All of these characters are intensely flawed which is what makes them incredibly real and endearing. They’re not perfect, they make mistakes, but they keep trying and never give up. I don’t know what it is about Harbach’s writing; often a fiction novel like this would not appeal to me. But there’s no denying that its pages simply sparkle.

Have you ever had a “right book right time” happy accident? What about other sports books? I’m hankering to read The Brothers K, another book centering around baseball that’s about a thousand pages.