Art Kavanagh

Criticism, fiction and other writing is an interesting app/site, but it’s not for me

I’m happier when I’m not keeping track of my reading

Just over a week ago I stopped using, a site and app that helps members to track their reading. I had joined in late September and been using it for two months. It’s a bit like a smaller, friendlier alternative to Goodreads, and my impression is that many people who have recently joined Literal did so because they were fed up with Goodreads and were looking for a substitute. That’s not my story — not quite. I stopped being an active user of Goodreads 3½ years ago, and finally deleted my inactive account the following year.

As for Goodreads substitutes, I tried out Litsy for a few months in 2018, but soon came to the conclusion that I wasn’t getting much from it, and that it was more trouble than it was worth. So, long before Literal came along, I’d discovered that I don’t need a Goodreads alternative, and that I’m probably happier without one. But I decided to try it anyway because, well, I like trying new things.

Literal has a much cleaner, lighter design than Goodreads, which is a good start. It has the features you’d expect from an app to track your reading: several bookshelves, with the ability to add more, reviews and a rating scheme (number of stars out of five), as well as following of and by other readers. The other prominent feature of Literal is that it allows members to form clubs: there’s a club, for example, of which I was a member.

In the two months I was there, I posted reviews, some very short, of 12 books that I'd read during that period. As I've said before (more than once), I'm not enthusiastic about book reviews: I wrote these ones only because the opportunity was there and I felt that I ought to take it. When I decided to delete my Literal library, I found that only 3 of the 12 were worth preserving: the other 9 just duplicated what I'd written elsewhere about the same books. So, from my point of view, the review feature was little more than a distraction.

I didn't rate any books: I've never been happy with the star-based rating scheme: three or four stars can cover a very wide range in terms of writing quality, subject matter or interest, and in the end tell another potential reader very little worth knowing. One of the reasons I had been glad to leave Goodreads was that it meant I'd never again have to rate a book out of 5.

The following/followers feature of Literal didn’t appeal to me either. Quite apart from the fact that I’ve long been convinced that following is broken, I don’t tend to look to friends and acquaintances for reading recommendations. Perhaps it’s a mistake not to, but I usually have a fairly good idea of what I want to read next. I’m inclined to think that including a “social” element in an app focused on reading is a bit of a mismatch.

But the immediate reason for my decision to depart from Literal were the bookshelves. I felt that adding books to a “Want to read” shelf, then (ideally) moving them to “Reading” and ultimately to “Read” was really a waste of time and something that, at some stage, I was going to fall out of the habit of doing. The “Reading” shelf is particularly redundant — it exists only as a stepping-stone between the other two. I know what I’m reading at any one time — and if I’ve lost track of that, it’s probably because I don’t want to finish the book anyway. There’s no need for a reminder.

I don’t need to keep track of what I’ve finished reading. I reread a lot in any case, so if I start to reread something without realizing it’s a reread, it’s no big deal. I’m probably not going to consult the list before starting on a book in any case. And do I just keep adding things to the list as I finish them, and let it keep getting longer and longer? If not, surely it would be less useful as a list of things I had read recently (and had a better chance of remembering) than of books I had read long ago. But how do you go about compiling that kind of list? Have a rule that automatically deletes everything you’ve finished in the last, say, 18 months?

But the real problem is with the “Want to read” list. Every time I compile one of those, I end up with different books on it — and not because I’ve already read all the ones that were on the previous version. I sometimes feel that adding books to a “Want to read” list makes it less likely that I’ll eventually read them, because I’ve already dealt with them in some way, so they’re no longer pressing. I react to a “To read” list in much the same way as I do to a “To do” (tout doux) list: I resent and resist the expectation that I should follow a program or set of instructions, even though it’s a program I’ve compiled myself! In all honesty, I can’t claim to be spontaneous about many things but I’d like at least to aspire to being spontaneous about what I read next.

So, that’s broadly why I’ve concluded that Literal is not for me. I just hope I remember this, and the reasons I’ve given above, the next time a potential “Goodreads killer” comes along. I also hope I’ve managed to persuade myself not to spend too much time trying to figure out the intricacies of moonbuck’s Bookshelves plugin for, so that I can display all three of the shelves that Manton Reece added to on one page!

Posted by Art on 29–Nov–2021.