I came upon GoodReads again this morning, and decided to sign up and give it a go—I've been yearning for some medium-light stuff in English to complement my worthy trawl through the French classics, currently La Peste.
GoodReads is like Facebook for book lovers: 25 million users have shared their literary preferences, and, using the power of the social graph, once you do that too, those magical inklings about what you "didn't know you didn't know" become yours for the taking.
This technique worked dramatically for me. Told I needed to rate 20 books to start receiving recommendations from the site, I set off, but was being presented with digital screeds of books I'd never heard of, and didn't even care that I hadn't. After scrolling through many pages of this, I finally lighted upon Richard Feynmann's Surely you're joking Mr Feymann?, gave it a five star rating (heartfelt: I even bought it for a nephew last Christmas), and from that moment on, my universe at the site changed completely, and I started to be presented with much more plausible choices of stuff that I might actually want to read. I was reminded that I have yet to tackle much of Dostoyevsky and Kafka for example.
There was a slight dip when I came to rating my preferences in sport, where, as a simple matter of attentional survival (84kb PDF), I limit my reading strictly to cycling. Amidst a morass of recommendations treating on American-rules "football" (this though the ball is hardly ever kicked), baseball, and basketball, cycling was nowhere to be seen. This time I had to resort the the site's search tool: a search and a click on Tim Krabbé's The Rider sufficed to transform the site once more into friendly territory.
It's a pretty awesome site, it has to be said. So now the problem is the more familiar "so many books, so little time." But my impression is that the site offers a powerful attentional tool, enabling ready surmise of populist preference, whilst easily forcing it to turn to the interest at hand (say, by specifying philosophical works). For an autodidact this is invaluable. For example, you'd seen references to the 19th century philosopher Schopenhauer, but didn't know where to begin; the GoodReads recommendation looks like a pretty palatable place to start. And unlike at Amazon, the GoodReads reader reviews generally seem non-trivial and sane.
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