Essays

Goodbye to Goodreads:

On losing a Tribe



The last time I came to Germany I was reading ‘Goodbye to Berlin’ while I was leaving Berlin and heading to Rügen; and, as luck had it, I was reading the chapter in the book on Rügen. It was one of those bookish memories that will stay with me forever. And Christopher Isherwood’s light, almost sepia-like melancholic prose will always be a part of my memory of that train journey. When I think of goodbyes, I think of Berlin and Isherwood’s deft touch.

And while Isherwood’s 1930s ‘Goodbye to Berlin’ had a more dramatically visceral political backdrop, my goodbye to Goodreads contained some similarities—albeit in a more figurative form.

I had been a member of goodreads for over ten years. And I had been a top ten reviewer. I enjoyed the process of writing a review immediately after reading. It got to the point that, if I knew I wasn’t going to finish the book I was reading with a few hours to spare afterwards to write the review, I would wait to finish the book. And I especially enjoyed going back over my own reviews of books I had enjoyed. It was a way of communicating with the me-reader of the past, to see what was going on in his head just after reading the book, and refreshing the sense of the work in the present.

The Likes were nice (who doesn’t like a Like?) but much better were the comments. Mostly positive or questioning, but sometimes agonistic while not usually being overtly negative, it was a great way to communicate with other book-lovers and consider different ideas and perspectives on the works and discuss elements that you had not considered, or to examine your own ideas through argument (and I mean ‘argument’ in that very positive instructive and constructive way). Let’s call this a period of a pre-war naiveté, a Rudyard Kipling golden age (to keep my analogy chugging along…).

But then something happened. Many people left goodreads when Amazon bought it, and the pool shrunk, not too much, but discernibly. The commentary died down a little. The pushing of various Lists and dubious awards for selected pop-Reading ramped up. It didn’t make much of a difference to me at the time. We entered a kind of ‘Gatsby’ period, a Lost Gen vibe… Something had been corrupted but you couldn’t necessarily tell what at the time. There was a Weimar sense of loss and perhaps foreboding.

But the writing was on the wall.

Then, finally… The rise of extremism. Maybe because of the trauma of Trump’s win? It was certainly a surprise, just as much as it was a good one for some or a bad one for others. Extremism though is different to disappointment; you can be disappointed with a political result, and work to make change next time etc… Or you can demand that this-not-be, NOT MY [insert thing], and work to dissolve the system that just didn’t work out for you. The absolute flood of Trump books (I do not write ‘anti-Trump books’ for fear of tautology)—a publishing sensation and almost a genre in its own right—became de rigueur, and some of my reviews that had been on the site for quite some time started garnering suddenly nasty responses.

And then, slowly, commentary dribbled down to nothing. Trump books from many of the people I followed continued to have heavy rates of commentary, but only echo-chamber-ly ones. Just as the post-liberal ‘liberal’ voices de-liberalised further and became more acute and exclusive and repressive, a flight away from the site began of conservative voices. The bohemian landscape of ‘reading books’ was being claimed on the site. Conservative readership began to have the sense of an oxymoron. They were the deplorables. Uneducated. Tricked by Russian bots. Etc.

It had become a strange place to be both bohemian and conservative; I was no longer part of the tribe.

So I took my data and left. If you are no longer made welcome, and sides are being picked with which you are not comfortable in either, and you have somewhere else to go (like Isherwood fortunately did in 1933) then … you go.

Like Isherwood’s continued fondness for the Germany he knew before the rise of radical politics, I will miss what goodreads was. But there are other places to go. Like here. There are other tribes around. And things can turn around. I’m now sitting on the third floor of an apartment building in a Germany that has a Berlin where Christopher Isherwood would receive too many ‘hellos’ for him to deal with adequately…

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