By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, June 1, 2016
I struggle to manage my always growing, ever changing, collection of books, and my constant craving to read more. And I don’t have a vast library, like some of my bookworm friends. Counting physical books, ebooks and audio books, I have around two thousand titles. Enough to be unsure of what I own. Enough to make them a problem to find. And I own more unread books than I have time to read during the rest of my life. That should condition me to stop buying books, but it won’t.
I’ve been testing various book databases for years, but never committing to any. I tried Goodreads’ book database system a couple of times, but always disliked it. However, I’ve now decided it’s the best compromise for my needs.
Most people zip over to Goodreads to read reviews and ratings. Do they know it’s a free database for managing book collections? Goodreads represents the wisdom of crowds, with some books actually having millions of ratings. Because of this group knowledge, Goodreads is essential to bookworms. The fact that it’s own by Amazon, where I buy most of my books, including paper, ebook and audio, makes it’s hard to ignore.
I’m going to skip reviewing all those social aspects of Goodreads, and focus on tools for organizing books into useful collections. This can range from cataloging your personal library, keeping track of books you want to buy, or even tracking all the books on your favorite subject. Goodreads is a general purpose tool that has to be customized for specific uses, yet it’s not always obvious how. My recommendation is to just stick with Goodreads until it starts working for you. Everyone customizes it differently. Take each task you normally do on paper or program, and do it on Goodreads. Eventually, you’ll see the magic in its madness.
By thinking about all the ways I make lists of books, I’ve been able to adapt Goodreads for my needs. It’s not always a perfect fit, but I assume Amazon will keep refining Goodreads, and the bumps I stumble over will be fixed, and the features I desire will show up. I have to trust Amazon because it houses my digital library. This means hoping it will stay in business until I die.
Lifetime Reading Lists
I wish I had kept a list of every book I’ve ever read since I read Up Periscope during the summer before 4th grade. Beginning in 1983 I did start logging everything I’ve read, and it’s been great – well worth the effort. Goodreads is a good tool for this. However, if you reread books, and like to track each reading by date, Goodreads won’t do that smoothly. The clunky solution is to add a different edition of a book for each reading, but that messes with your total read numbers. I currently list books I read in both Google Sheets and Goodreads, to get all the functionality I want. It would be more efficient if Goodreads was my only tool, but I can’t replicate all the functions I now get from the spreadsheet.
The core functionality of Goodreads database is to track books you’ve read, are reading, or want to read. Goodreads even offers a nice stats feature to track your reading productivity. If you don’t want to use Goodreads to track the books you own, its basic features are very nice and straight forward. If you do use it as a personal card catalog, you have to understand it also tracks books you don’t own (unless you’ve keep every book you’ve ever read and bought every book you plan to read).
This can be confusing. Think of Goodreads as a system for tracking books you want to remember, whether that’s to remember what you’ve read, what you own, what you hope to own, what you’ve studied, and so on. You enter in all the titles you want, and then tag them accordingly. One tag is ownership. Another tag is read. You can make up your own tags – such as beautiful-covers.
You never want to delete a book you’ve read, even if you’ve given it away. You need the entry to remember you’ve read the book. And you’ve got to add a book if you plan to read it, even if you don’t own a copy.
Over the decades I’ve tried many programs for listing the books I’ve own, but none of them worked the way I wanted. I’ve even tried writing my own program. Because of smartphones, it’s obvious that on-the-go viewing is a must feature, and that’s beyond my programming skills. Goodreads practically invalidates all other efforts because of this. It’s possible to keep my books in Excel, Access or commercial book database programs, and then export listings to Dropbox, to check on my phone while book shopping, but the Goodreads app is always up-to-date. That feature alone makes it a winner.
That’s not to say Goodreads is the perfect books database. How it looks, how it’s organized and how it creates reports is not how I would have designed them. But it does most things I want, and getting the job done without dedicating my life to Python programming sealed the deal. Plus, I can export .csv files to programs that can create fancy reports if I want.
Goodreads has two kinds of “bookshelves” – their term for categorizing your books. The first is exclusive, which means all books have to be tagged in one, and only one, of those shelves. Goodreads start you off with read, currently-reading, to-read. I added discard (so I can track books I once owned but didn’t read) and reference (for books I don’t plan to ever read). Any book I add to the system has to be read, currently-reading, to-read, reference or discard. Then Goodreads allows as many non-exclusive shelves readers want to create. Books can be shelved in multiple non-exclusive shelves. For example you could create shelves called fiction, science-fiction, anthologies – and put The Science Fiction Hall of Fame on all three.
The best thing about Goodreads is the barcode scanner built into its iOS/Android apps. It’s an extremely fast way to enter books, as long as the books have a visible bar code. For some damn reason, used book dealers have an annoying habit of pasting their tracking label over the ISBN barcode. You can also enter books manually with the ISBN number, or by title. Those are quick too, but nowhere near as fast as the barcode reader. I can do 40 books in two minutes – that’s their batch limit. You hit upload, clear the batch, and do 40 more.
Most books are already in the system, so you’re actually just linking to existing records. You only have to create a new record for rare out-of-print titles not in the Goodreads system. That’s more work, especially if you want to upload a scan of the cover. Which I do. I’m fanatical about cover images. One of the annoying restrictions of Goodreads is I can’t upload better images for books added to the system by other members.
Goodreads has a feature to let you tag books you’ve purchased from Amazon. I wish they also offer that feature for books I bought at Audible and ABEBooks, companies Amazon also owns. I’ve been hoping Amazon would mass add records for Audible editions, because now I link to CD editions of the same book. Who owns CDs anymore? I dread linking over 800 titles by title searches.
Book collectors want to track exact editions, and Goodreads does this. This is both good and bad. Probably most bookworms don’t care about such exacting details. They just want to know they have a copy of Pride and Prejudice, and whether or not they’ve read it. I wish Goodreads allowed for a generic title entry. I’d probably use one for most books. I don’t usually care if I “own” a 1st edition hardback or the 7th paperback edition, but I am picky about what cover I see. I want the cover I remember, or the cover I love best, and that means picking the edition with the right cover. What’s annoying, is the right edition will have no cover, a bad scan, or the wrong cover. Even when I own the right cover, I’m not allowed to alter other people’s cataloging. And Goodreads fights you if you try to create another edition with similar publishing details.
The cataloging features for Goodreads is probably good enough for most book collectors, but not good enough for serious book collectors. That should improve over time as more exacting users join the system. I wish Goodreads could tie into the Internet Science Fiction Database, which has great edition information. I also wished Goodreads would link to Wikipedia, because as I study my collection, or catalog books, I often want to know more about the book. Such synergy of two great tools would be fantastic.
Most bookworms make lists of books they want to read, and have various methods of keeping track of those books. Because Goodreads doesn’t assume the books you add are ones you own, it’s perfectly adaptable as a Books Wanted list manager. Because it’s tied to the social and database features at Goodreads, it’s the most elaborate Want List ever. You can add library books, or even books you see at bookstores, with the scanner feature. Although my local independent bookstore will chase patrons out if they think they’re checking Amazon for prices.
It’s quite easy to fill up your Goodreads database with books you want to read because one of the exclusive fields is “to read.” If you want to use Goodreads to track the books you own, you have to check the “owned books” check-box.
Some bookworms own enough books that they wish they had a Dewey Decimal system to help them find books. You can create non-exclusive shelves to track book location, even if they are stored in boxes. Just label each of the shelves on your real-world bookshelf, say shelf-01 through shelf-24, and then create a virtual shelf for each in Goodreads. Then tag each book by the shelf they are on. Or shelve books by subject on your actual bookcases, and then create subject shelves in Goodreads. You can also create box-001, box-002, …, if you have zillions of books in the attic.
This takes work and discipline. The more you use Goodreads, the more anal attentiveness becomes part of your personality. And you can use Goodreads as little, or as much as you want. At first Goodreads seems like a very disorganized mess, but eventually you realize it’s looseness offers great flexibility.
Because Goodreads is not just a database for books you own, it’s very useful for organizing books in a variety of ways. Let’s say you’re getting your master’s degree, you can use Goodreads to organize all the books you need to know to pass your comps. It doesn’t matter if you if you don’t own them, or even borrowed them from a library. You can create an exclusive shelf called “research” and tag all the books there. You can even use non-exclusive shelves to organize them into categories, like 19th-century-America, 20th-century-America, 18th-century-Britain, 19th-century-France.
I want to read all the books on the Modern Library Association 100 Best Novel list. I created a non-exclusive shelf and added all one-hundred books. Then I marked those books read, to-read, currently-reading. By using the “select multiple” button, clicking on the plus next to “read” and “modern-library-100” – I can see how many of the 100 I’ve read – 39.
This last trick reveals a flaw in Goodreads. Often I want to reread books. If I mark a book “to-read” it’s removed from the “read” shelf. But that ruins things for tracking books read. And I can tag a book “currently-reading” that I’ve read many times before. I wish Goodreads had a tracking system for remembering each time I’ve read a book, when, and what format. In my spreadsheet I track author, title, date published, date finished, format. Format includes hardback, paperback, ebook, library hardback, audio book, etc.
I don’t know of any alternative to Goodreads that does as much, so I’m going to stick with it for now. I assume the momentum behind it will make it even more useful in the future. It’s a shame that Amazon monopolizes my book world, but the practicality of why is too overwhelming.