Tech-Savvy Readers Are Designing Their Own, Better Versions of Goodreads

The dream of a better internet for book lovers is emerging on platforms like Glitch

Image: Tessa Thornton

Last year, I lamented the poor design of Goodreads — a much-needed platform where readers can review books they’ve read and track those they want to. Poor search functionality, ugly aesthetics, an embarrassingly terrible recommendation algorithm, and buried club and group features make the site unpleasant to use. Since the story came out, Goodreads hasn’t done much to improve its deficiencies. Instead, it seems content to rest on its laurels as a near-monopoly owned by Amazon, benefiting from its massive existing user base while being, apparently, deserted by its design team.

Tech-savvy readers, many of whom work in technology and design, have responded to Goodreads’ inadequacies by launching their own, personalized book sites. These sites are diverse, each one with its own particular focus: One might be a chronological list of books read by the owner in a year; another may be a complex map of reading material grouped by subject and theme. Some are totally personal, meant almost as private logs for people to track their own reading progress, while others are explicitly outward-facing, intended to offer recommendations and compel conversations.

What these sites have in common is a reader’s desire to engage more deeply with their reading than is currently possible by 1) merely reading the book and setting it aside; or 2) resorting to the shallow functions available on Goodreads. These talented readers are wresting control of the book-tracking market out of Goodreads’ hands, crafting the kind of reading sites they want to see, and infusing creativity and resourcefulness into an online landscape that has in many ways become uniform and bland.

Amanda Pinsker, a San Francisco-based product designer, has one of the most unique and beautiful book websites I’ve seen. The site, which she started in 2018, features large scans of the book cover next to the place where Pinsker spent most of her time reading it — such as “at Golden Gate Park” or “in my bed” — alongside brief passages that she calls “underlines” (since she marks up her books with pens, not highlighters, she says) and a brief review of her thoughts about the book.

Wait, should we bring back Livejournal?

“I just always hated Goodreads and wanted a better way to remember and reflect on my reading. I didn’t want it to be about tracking necessarily, but almost a way to be expressive about my reading,” she says. “A lot of my weekends were enjoying parks with a book, and [I realized] how much my reading was informed by where I was when I read that book. So basically, I couldn’t find a good way to do that, so I made it myself.”

Pinsker says she wanted the place where she read the book to have equal prominence to the book itself, so she sizes those images more or less equally. I find Pinsker’s site particularly clever because, while it’s rare we discuss the external environment in which we read a book, it’s undeniably influential in many cases. I read Kate Milliken’s Kept Animals on my fire escape in April, right as the weather was perfect but the outside world was falling apart; I’ll always remember that book in the context of the early days of the pandemic. My memory of crying at the conclusion to Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers is vivid: It was evening in spring 2019, and the nights were still cold, so I was wrapped in my favorite blanket on the cozy armchair in my bedroom. Like scent memories, book memories are a neglected, but often crucial, part of the reading process, making Pinsker’s method of cataloging her virtual bookshelf especially innovative.

Other sites take a more external approach to their book websites, and are designed for other people to stumble across and learn from what they find. Juvoni Beckford, a New York-based software engineer, says he wanted to make his website as useful for people as he could. “It is definitely built for me first and foremost, but with the assumption that I should make it simple and intuitive so that other people can utilize it,” he says. “I have my own dream version of Goodreads, but without the social aspect to it. So it’s kind of personal. It feels a little bit more authentic to my personality.”

Beckford sorts the books on his website chronologically in the order he posted them by default, but users of the site can also filter books by categories, such as psychology, personal development, and fiction. There are also custom sorting options like Beckford’s rating of the book and how easy the book was to read. This detailed approach to his book website reflects the way he reads, using a note-taking system he created, which he calls the BAGEL method. Beckford reads with a rainbow of sticky notes, marking the book with the color sticky note that applies to the passage. B, which stands for “big ideas,” gets blue sticky notes; A, for “antagonism,” gets red sticky notes and marks passages that are challenging, confusing, or upsetting; G, for “general idea,” gets yellow; e, for “external reference,” is when the author references another writer or research and gets orange; and finally L stands for “list of statements,” when the author makes a list of different ideas.

For anyone struggling to focus on or understand their reading material right now, note-taking, summarizing, and tracking are all great internal and external motivators to encourage more in-depth reading. Scores of studies point to the benefits to reading comprehension afforded by note-taking and summarizing, and, as I pointed out in my Microprocessing column about my great love for spreadsheets, tracking and journaling are great for encouraging better, healthier behavior or accomplishing goals. Since starting my Medium book blog and an Instagram devoted to books — while tracking each and every read on that god-forsaken website, Goodreads — the number of books I’ve read has steadily grown: In 2018, I read 35 books, in 2019 I read 55, and so far this year, I’ve read 54. Still, thanks to active dog-earring, note-taking, and regular reviewing, my reading comprehension hasn’t declined as that number has shot up.

“I like to think it makes me more reflective to prompt myself to write a few words when I finish reading,” says Tessa Thornton, a Toronto-based software engineer at Vox Media. “I like having a central place to collect recommended and planned reading — I feel like I’m more likely to actually read the stuff I plan to read.” Thornton built her book website on a platform called Glitch, which provides tools and support for developers to make simple websites and apps. Anyone who likes Thornton’s web app can take her code and make their own with it by clicking the small fish icon at the bottom of the page.

“ [Glitch has] a lot of stuff that is geared towards beginners and nondevelopers, but to build this, I felt like I had to know how to make an app,” says Thornton. For people who don’t want to mess with code, another simple — but possibly more expensive — solution is using websites like Weebly, Squarespace, or Wix. “There’s a growing ecosystem of these no code platforms where you can use drag and drop tools and build an app without coding experience.”

I went the Weebly route, after attempting to use Wix only to get stuck on a loading page for 10 minutes. The very preliminary results (I made it in an hour or two) can be found here. I’m not sure I’ll keep it up, but I like that I have much more control over how my thoughts about the books are presented. Bookstagram, the Instagram community dedicated to reading, is frankly, kind of depressing, as it’s a platform more about images than words. Naturally, the focus is on the picture, and I’m no photographer. Medium is beautifully designed, but I’m limited in how I can customize it (it isn’t Livejournal. Wait, should we bring back Livejournal?). But on my own website, I have as much control over how the images and words are displayed as however much time I’m willing to put into it.

Beckford says his booksite is “more authentic to me and my personality because I’ve handcrafted it. So it’s kind of bringing back the old web feel of uniqueness.” And while not everyone has the tools to create a website as layered as Beckford’s, as clever as Pinsker’s, and as cute as Thornton’s — at least not at first! — it’s well within the capabilities of most people who are familiar with the basics of using the internet. People like, well, me — who spend a lot of time reading and a lot of time online, but are stuck in the never-ending search of how best to merge those two interests (if you can call being online an “interest”).

Okay, maybe I’m convinced. The Weebly is here to stay.

I’m a columnist for OneZero, where I write about the intersection of health & tech. Also seen at Elemental, The Atlantic, VICE, and Vox. Brooklyn, NY.

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