Why read an average book when you could read a great book? With so little time to read, why waste time on a so-so book? But how do you find the best books to read? Most people read whatever they stumble across at the moment. Other folks read book reviews and get recommendations from friends. Even fewer join book clubs. About 25-30 years ago I pondered this problem for finding the best science fiction books to read when I developed my Classics of Science Fiction list. It was first published in a fanzine, then on a gopher server, and finally at a series of web sites. That was one solution. Since then I have found a number of web sites that offer other solutions.
Worlds Without End is a reader database discussion site that’s pretty much like GoodReads, but focuses exclusively on science fiction, fantasy and horror.
Worlds Without End collects lists like my Classics of Science Fiction, fan polls, awards lists, author recommended lists, and puts them in one location and then links the titles to a database. If you join their site – it’s free – you can tag books on the lists to monitor your reading progress, or even add your SF/F/H books to their database. You can create your own reader challenge in their Roll-Your-Own reader challenge. Right now they have 32 challenges for 560 members having read 1077 books and reviewed 527 of them.
If you’re a blogger who reviews SF/F/H books, you can join Worlds Without End, tag the books you review, add an introductory review to their site, and then link to the full review on your site. If you’re a reader you can read the reviews, or discuss the books on their forum. All the book lists, forums, and reader challenges link back to the books which allow you to track your reading habits, and even measure your progress reading through the reading and awards lists. Since everything is linked to everything else, it makes researching a potential book to read a snap.
Here are my reading stats for Awards lists and Book lists. Click to enlarge.
You can also look up books by publisher. For example their site lists 256 authors for Tor covering 1,056 titles, of which 335 have been nominated for awards with 55 of those books winning an award.
You can quickly call up an author and easily check off which books you own, read or want to read, and mark whether or not it’s one of your all time favorites. You can also rate your reads, and then list them, or see how your ratings compares to other members.
Another way to find books to read is see which members have rated books you also rated high and then look at other books they’ve rated high that you haven’t read. There are many ways to use this site, and the social aspects are very good at helping you find like minded readers.
BestScienceFictionBooks.com is a newer site that’s not even completed, but has some features to start working with now. It looks like they hope to compete directly with Worlds Without End, but for now they have mostly lists up. Some of their lists are pretty good, others are questionable. But I assume over time they will be refined. For example their list for Best Alternate History books is pretty good. Unfortunately most of their features link to file Not Found pages, which is a bad sign. There was another site, SFFMeta that was going for a couple of years, that wanted to identify the best SF/F/H books and has recently disappeared.
I wish the people at BestScienceFictionBooks.com luck because building a big site like this takes a tremendous amount of work, and even building a great site doesn’t always draw in readers. I mention this site to mainly give them some attention that might boost their efforts.
GoodReads has been around a very long time, and now that Amazon has bought them, they’ve become the 800-pound gorilla of reader reviews/book database sites. Just look at the numbers attached to the books on the Time Travel book list. The #1 book is The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger which has 899,564 ratings that average 3.93 stars out of 5. #2 is Outlander by Diana Gabaldon with 285,187 ratings. The Time Traveler’s Wife has just 73 ratings and 141 reads at Worlds Without End.
This brings up the problem which site to use. Worlds Without End is a site for hardcore science fiction fans. GoodReads is a massive site for all bookworms, so science fiction has to compete with many other kinds of books. All the time travel books you find on GoodReads will be on Worlds Without End, but the reverse won’t be true. Logic sort of dictates to go with GoodReads, but I find it more appealing to consider Worlds Without End.
Sometimes its better to be a small fish in a small pond.
I have reviewed other book database sites before, and directly compared LibraryThing to GoodRead. It took a lot of work to get my collection entered into LibraryThing, but then I didn’t maintain it. I exported my LibraryThing data and imported it into GoodReads. I like GoodReads, but didn’t maintain my data there either. By now I realize that I’m not that interested in maintaining a database of my books. The value of these sites is for finding out what books other people like. So the appeal shifts to social media. I’m in two online book clubs at Yahoo Groups, each with a small number of members. That works out well for a discussion group. That’s why I’m leaning more to working with Worlds Without End than GoodReads. About one quarter of my reading is science fiction. So hanging out with a small group of people who read a lot of science fiction is an attractive idea at the moment.
However, taking the time to list my favorite SF books will help me meet other members that share the same reading tastes. I will take that time to enter in my favorite books, but not all my books, or even all the books I’ve read. Spending any time on so-so books is just a waste of time, especially reading time.
GoodReads is very enticing, as is LibraryThing. I’m tempted to use Worlds Without End for science fiction, GoodReads for classic and literary books, and LibraryThing for nonfiction. And in each case just focus on my favorites.
One thing I’d really like is to discover a way to find the best new books to read. Every year when I write my reading summary I wish I had read more books published new in that year. What I’d like is a Rotten Tomatoes for various kinds of books, especially for nonfiction. SFFMeta.com used to do that for science fiction, but they are now out of business – a reminder that new sites will have a hard time making it, because SFFMeta was a well designed site. Amazon with GoodReads might knock out all competitors like they are doing to local bookstores, but I don’t know.
There are other book listing sites that cover the “best books ever” concept which I wrote about in “Identifying the Greatest Books of All Time.” These are the true classics, and not just science fiction books. It’s also fascinating to see which few science fiction books make it to the general classic lists. Here is the Top 10 site for fantasy and science fiction. The only SF genre title is Dune. It’s amazing how few SF books are recognized by the literary world at large.
A List of Books is one of my favorite sites for identifying all-time classics. It uses the same methodology I used to create the Classics of Science Fiction, but allows members to track their reading. I’m using it to track all the books I’ve read on the 100 Best Novels by Modern Library. That list contains just three SF novels.
And what I’ve found out over the years is the books considered classics by literary scholars and readers really are some of the best books I’ve ever read. Few science fiction books come up to their level. Another site that does this is The Greatest Books. Just glance at their page about Ulysses by James Joyce, and look at the lists that pick Ulysses. When you consider all books, the competition for the best gets tough. Right now science fiction books are in the minor leagues, so it will be fascinating to see if I live long enough to see if more science fiction books get recognized to general classics.
If you study these sites its possible to pick books to read that have a much greater chance of wowing you than randomly buying a book at the bookstore, or taking a friend’s recommendation of what to read. And even if you don’t like these classics, you’ve at least educated yourself about science fiction history.
JWH – 8/21/14