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Jonathan Black Headshot

So Many Books, So Many Friends

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It started innocently enough. An email from "Dan" read, "Hi, Jonathan. Let's connect on Goodreads and share recommendations about books," and there was a link to "goodreads.com."

Wonderful, I thought, because like half the country, I've done time in a book group, but sharing is tough if you're a male. My first book group was all-men. It was centered in Hyde Park, home to the University of Chicago, and thus carried, at least in theory, a certain intellectual heft. We took pride in shunning run-of-the-mill fare. Not for us the latest Indian novel or pseudo-memoir of an abused future writer; instead we opted for meaty fare such as Garry Wills on Lincoln or an obscure Icelandic novel. The food tended toward straightforward masculine grub; no low-fat soups or fancy salads. We drank beer, not wine. But eventually we drifted apart. My wife's book group stayed late into the night, listening earnestly, capping each other's comments with sharp but respectful dissent (I know this from reports and from having snuck down the stairs to listen). But men, it seemed, weren't so great at discussion. We hopped from topic to topic. We lacked the talent to transition from books to personal experience, and soon stumbled into politics or wound up debating what to read next.

The wife and I next joined a couples' group. There were bumpy moments at first, the feared, "I'd like to finish what I was saying, Harold." But soon, the occasional offhand snipe -- "That wasn't what you thought this morning at breakfast" or "What about when she took the boat to America, Lynn?" -- gave way to more polite exchanges. Cordiality trumped dissent. We were in it for the long haul. But still we floundered. Couples either presented an annoying united front or disagreed so sharply that their marriage, rather than the book, was of more urgent interest -- and became our topic of discussion in the car-ride home.

And so it was that I greeted the invitation from Dan with a shiver of anticipation. It was scarcely diminished when I discovered that the Dan in question was not the Dan I thought (the pal from my men's group), but an author I'd met seven years before when I was editing a magazine.

All the better. How nice that he remembered our long and promising lunch. Geographical distance had stalled our relationship, but now we were back as online chums. Or so I thought until I discovered that the "Hi, Jonathan" was the template greeting sent to every new Goodreads candidate. I discovered this after I signed onto Goodreads -- free, no fees required -- and opted to conscript some friends of my own. In the flush of literary networking, I followed the suggestion to tap my address book -- a sobering exercise. There were at least a dozen people on my "contacts" list whose names weren't even familiar. Others I hadn't talked to in years. One had sued me. Several were dead. Of the remainder, I had to consider who actually read books (fewer than I thought) and who might be offended at the presumption that I had books to recommend.

But good news followed, of a sort. The next morning my Inbox was flooded. Replies ranged from, "Great to hear from you" and "Who knew you were such a techie!" to the less encouraging, "I do all my socializing on Facebook" and "Well, alright -- whatever it is." Most came with the pro forma: "Jonathan, Your friends list on Goodreads is growing -- you are now seeing what friends are reading." At first it was two friends, then six, then ten, then twelve. I clicked on several links ("See Arnie's profile") and found bare-bones utilitarian data: Home city, date of joining Goodreads. A few, already members, had pictures posted. The rest (myself included) had a silhouetted head-and-shoulders graphic that looked like a TV interview with a mob trial witness.

Guilty I'd invited so many people to a party I wasn't attending, I wrote a quick paragraph about struggling through Neuromancer, my first venture into science fiction. To my surprise, one new friend wrote back -- about Dune, which I'd forgotten I'd read and loved a million years ago and couldn't remember a word of. Ducking this conversation, I picked another lapsed friend, clicked on his profile, saw he had 28 friends, clicked on one, and found myself reading about a fetching young Czech memoirist (she'd put up her picture) who herself had 45 friends and had read 117 books! I started reading her blog, finally pulled myself together and re-traced my steps to the Goodreads home page, which urged me to rank my bookshelf. I was invited to comment on others' reading and see who'd reviewed my reviews. Or I could write a book myself! (Thousands had). More new friends checked in. Many had somehow made friends with each other. The Dune fan wanted to chat about Dune. The original Dan was firing off hourly emails rating books he'd read and sending invites to his latest reading in Providence.

I checked my watch, and was horrified to find I was late to pick up my kids at school.

Back at my computer, I was invited to join the Goodreads newsletter. It was free, I was curious. Why not? The next day I found out why not. My first email-ed newsletter opened with, "Together, we're 2 million people who are passionate about books -- and that's a powerful agent for change." I pondered this briefly; I read books for many reasons, but effecting change is not one of them. Right below was a scarier summons: "Hop on the Twitter train and snyc up your Goodreads feed with your Twitter account," and the paragraph went on to provide a "hashtag." I was already lost.

I scrolled down the page to author interviews with Elmore Leonard and Alexander McCall Smith and noticed, with alarm, that the vertical right-hand bar had scarcely budged. This was one heck of a newsletter. I took the "Never Ending Book Quiz ("Finish the 1984 quotation: "War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is___") I considered joining Listopia and finding the members' vote for "Books for a Pandemic." I skimmed a few of the hundreds of Favorite Quotations ("So many books, so little time," was ascribed to Frank Zappa, ranked ninth with 8,756 votes) but passed on the chance to read "tons of pre-release books and reading-themed goodies." On page 14, I came across the "Goodreads Poetry Contest!" After exhortations to join two different Poetry groups, there followed the May winner. Granted, I am no judge of poetry and haven't written a poem myself since high school, but the 78-line "Jaybirds Feeding on Robins" gave me the urge to give it another try. In the "Movers & Shakers" section, I clicked on a random review of Genesis by Bernard Beckett, which I'd never heard of and of which "Charli" wrote, "After sitting there in stunned silence for about 10 minutes, I turned to the beginning and started over again."

I knew how Charli felt. I, too, was stunned -- into exhaustion. I felt like the sorcerer's apprentice, caught up in a frenzy of sharing. Foolishly, I'd thought the whole idea of books was to provide a solitary pleasure, transport to a private realm inhabited only by myself and the author. Wasn't that why we read books -- to escape our narrow world? Granted, a bit of discussion now and then was fine. A recommendation here and there was welcome. But surely we were meant to spend more time reading books than creating lists and harvesting opinions. Confused, I sought an explanation from the person who'd devised this torture, and was soon on the phone with Otis Chandler. Chandler, the grandson of Los Angeles Times founder Otis Chandler, is a 28-year old software programmer and self-proclaimed "Book enthusiast" who came up with the idea in 2006 and now has 5 full-time employees (his wife, an English teacher, a "sales guy," and three programmers). From Chandler, I learned the site now has 2.1 million users. Authors happily consent to interviews. Goodreads has "working relationships" with several major publishers. Reviews are unedited. All content is "editable -- think of it as the Wikipedia model." The Trivia Quiz has over one million questions. The bulk of the revenue is advertising. A new feature will inform readers of the most popular books being published next month,

"So many book review sections are shrinking or vanished," points out Chandler, "Goodreads helps you not just find books but helps you make the decision what to read, which is not an easy decision."

Coincidentally, 2006 was the same year that John Hug, another social network veteran (from Real People), started Shelfari, which was soon bought by Amazon. The third big book networking site is the 4-year old LibraryThing, whose preview explains, "LibraryThing helps you create a library-quality catalog of your books. You can do all of them or just what you're reading now. And because everyone catalogs online, they also catalog together." I couldn't imagine creating a "library-quality catalog" of my books, whatever that was, let alone joining a catalog fest, online or anywhere else, and opted to join Shelfari. But in the time it took to sign up, I received three more emails from new Goodreads friends, none of whose names I knew. Dan had sent another Providence invite. My Dune pal wondered why I hadn't replied. I cast a wistful glance at my bedside table and the book I'd been reading, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. I'd loved the first 30 pages and was dying to get back to it.

I just didn't think I'd have time.