Today I have (finally) been catching up with writing some book reviews and updating my goodreads. The last proper reviews I wrote were months ago; so much reading time has passed that I now have so many books to add and I have so many other things I need to be doing, I was starting to wonder if I could ever catch up or if it was even worth trying.
How had I managed to get so behind on updating my reading? It’s a quick click of the mouse to just add titles to the read shelf on my goodreads page. I move books into a finished folder on my kindle or I physically put finished books on the shelves once I am done with them. If it was just a matter of wanting a record somewhere of what I have been reading, I already have one so that wasn’t the problem. After some thought, I realised that what was holding me up was writing the reviews. I was starting to feel like I couldn’t add a book to my goodreads shelves without also adding a review. Adding the book but not adding the review with the idea that I would go back and write one later was ridiculous; despite my best intentions, I know myself well enough to know that it was pretty unlikely that I would manage to get around to writing that review. So I stopped adding books altogether until I had time to write them up as well. Obviously I felt the reviews were important enough that I was accumulating a backlog. But why does it matter to me to write these reviews? What is the purpose, for me, in creating commentary on my reading? After consideration, I decided that it really had something to do with memory and my increasing dependence on my e-reader.
I love my kindle and I also love physical books. In the abstract, these forms are in no way mutually exclusive for me but the reality is that these days my digital library is growing at a much faster pace than my physical one. There are a number of reasons for that. The most obvious is that getting the e-book is much cheaper than buying a physical copy most of the time. I’d love to buy physical copies of all the books on my kindle I have enjoyed just to have them on my bookshelves but I don’t have the money (or the space). Shopping online for digital books is also more convenient. Actually, not just more convenient but easier to do on an impulse; I find an effective way to police my spending on books is by simply not walking into bricks and mortar bookstores (much as I enjoy spending hours in bookstores), but I find it much harder to stop myself buying a book online. Especially as you can, for example, pick up the next book in a series at any hour of the day or night. The instant gratification is hard to resist.
So my library is becoming increasingly virtual but also, for me, increasingly forgettable. Digital copies don’t have the same metaphorical heft as a physical book does in my memory. Generic titles, lesser known (to me) authors; they all blend together and I find it harder to remember what I’ve already read and what each book was about. The experience of reading a physical book plants signifiers in my memory that a kindle just can’t replicate; the weight, the cover, even just the colour scheme can trigger my recall. A book about India with a blue and red cover? That’s Shantaram. And how could I forget the incredible wrist bending weight of Neal Stephenson’s Anathem?
When I read everything on my kindle, the signifiers are all the same. The books weigh the same, have the same font, and are the same size. It’s just like everything else I read on my kindle. My poor unreliable memory gets confused or at least has to work a lot harder – What’s this Olivia in my finished folder? I don’t recognize this author. Did I really read this? What is this book about? I’ve tried to overcome this by tagging books, creating folders and filing things as best I can. But books can be very difficult to categorize and it can be confusing to track down things when you want to recommend something imperfectly recalled to someone else. I find writing reviews helps to make my experience of reading the book more concrete.
There are other reasons for writing reviews. I miss my library being publicly visible and friends miss this too. They are disappointed when they come to visit and there are not as many new titles to browse through and discuss (and borrow). I want my virtual books to have a similar virtual bookshelf and part of that means I need to rate them or review them.
I find ratings to be troublesome overall. Different books will be good or bad for totally different reasons and while the outliers (five stars or no stars) are easier to place, the middle becomes a generic land of 3 and 4 stars. Reviews make it possible for me to explore the good and bad aspects of a book in a way that a simple rating does not allow. I want to be able to say why or why not. What worked for me and what didn’t. What other books I felt like it echoed or emulated. Why I picked this book up in the first place. Why I might have put it down. And why I think somebody else should give it a chance.
Besides, how else am I going to remember what I have already read?