Book reading and statistics

Since I was moving back to Europe I did not have a lot of spare time to read, not to mention actually going to to update my reading shelf. So after I was able to finish two books I have started a while ago, I went to Shelfari to change their status from currently reading to read.

Then I’ve noticed something interesting – Shelfari was producing individual reading statistics. One can find them on the right side of the main page:


But you can find also a way to input your reading goals for the year. Unfortunately, that strikes me as horrible idea. 

Isn’t reading meant to be an activity, challenging you to absorb new knowledge, to get to know worlds and ideas from various people, philosophies and times? When did reading become another activity we need to put a goal on? To compete with a set goal against the ticking clock of the year? Isn’t reading supposed to make you forget about the outside world and for at least a part of a day to absorb yourself in another one – far away, yet in your reach. Isn’t reading supposed to bring you pleasure and not a competitive desire to read more books than the previous year, or more than your friend?

And how about the quality of reading – isn’t it diminishing through those goals, when you are counting read books like you are counting  watched movies or slices of bread you ate?

I know someone will say that this is nothing to worry about, that setting goals is a good thing, but I don’t know… that little window on the right side “screams” at me and not in a good way. Does it tell me I am failing this year because I am a little behind – last year apparently I’ve read 34 books, compared to 15 for 2012 so far? Or it tells me that something in our appreciation for reading and the role of this activity is changing irreversibly?

Anyway, just below the goals is a reading statistics of the number of books I’ve read and appr. how many pages that makes. Honestly, I did not input all the books I’ve read since I was a child – some of them are in different languages, a lot of them were for school, some I’ve just forgot to input. And I did not start using Shelfari as a statistical tool, but more as a tool to connect with other readers over the joy of reading, our mutual love for books and as well to find other great books to read.

Now, if I go further into the reading statistics, I can notice some very interesting numbers.

1. Rating – it turns out that I have rated only 151 books and my average rating is 4.68, while the community average is 3.99. Does this mean that I am just more liberal rater and I really like to give better ratings to books I read, or I usually read very good books?

I am not very sure which one is the correct conclusion, but I like to think I just read on average better books.

2. Subject distribution – scrolling through the statistics I can see what types of books I’ve been mostly reading. For me, this was extremely interesting, because I know what are my main areas of interest when it comes to books, but now I can have a statistical proof. Not surprisingly, the biggest section is Literature & Fiction, which is as well the biggest part when I compare it to the community’s distribution. Science books are almost equally spread as the community ones, I apparently read romance somewhat often, but next several categories are greatly represented on my reading shelf:

  • Biographies & Memoirs,
  • History;
  • Professional & Technical,
  • Business & Investing
  • Science Fiction & Fantasy
  • Reference
  • Computers & Internet

– and one more category, which I have blacked out, because it is not for the whole world to know.

This got me thinking about the way our reading habits change. And I am not talking about all the distractions, the ebook vs. print book debate, about social and solitary reading, about all the platforms and what not. No, I am actually thinking about how those reading statistics can be used from publishers to determine which genre is read the most and so they can publish the preferred genres.

Alexandra Alter from Wall Street Journal wrote an article several days ago whether our e-book is reading us. She commented that in the past publishers had not data available to establish what happens when a reader starts reading a book – whether she finishes it or leaves it on some page, what she highlights, shares with friends and so on. But with the rise of ebooks, reading platforms and social networks for books, there is increasingly more statistics available about our reading habits.

Furthermore, she says: “Data collected from Nooks reveals, for example, how far readers get in particular books, how quickly they read and how readers of particular genres engage with books. Jim Hilt, the company’s vice president of e-books, says the company is starting to share their insights with publishers to help them create books that better hold people’s attention…..

Science-fiction, romance and crime-fiction fans often read more books more quickly than readers of literary fiction do, and finish most of the books they start. Readers of literary fiction quit books more often and tend skip around between books.

Those insights are already shaping the types of books that Barnes & Noble sells on its Nook.”

But I used to think that publishing is more than sales, statistics and profit. Aren’t publishers supposed to be interested also in questions  like variety of genres being published – increasing the choices available to us to find and absorb new ideas, whether in fiction or non-fiction. Aren’t we going to narrow our choices of books if we look to the statistics as a panacea for profits? Are we going to produce books from a template – especially when it comes to fiction. What will happen with the habit of silent reflection after you’ve read an important paragraph/chapter/book if all we care about is reading goals?

I am firm believer for the future of ebooks and what a great tool self-publishing is, but if we look only to what sells, eliminating uncomfortable ideas or harder to process information in books than what will happen with our intelects and our ability to process and analyze information?


PS: I am probably going to improve this blog post with additional ideas and information in the next days after my anger with goals and reading statistics decreases, but if you have to add something – please do so in the comments, I will be glad to hear from other readers!