There are many people who consider books as a dying art form, especially as physical objects. While I accept that books will one day be nothing more than words on a screen, stories will always live on. They’ve been with us for millennia – and written down for centuries – and they’ll outlive everybody reading this.
I’m an avid reader, getting through at least one book a week. I often have several on the go at once – usually a novel, a reference book, and an autobiography – which are consumed as and when the opportunity arises. I realized long ago that there are far more books out there than I could ever read in my lifetime, with hundreds of thousands more published each and every year.
This means choosing what to read is a big decision. Dedicate several weeks to War and Peace and you may have to forego reading Les Misérables. Decide to read every book from a certain author and you may have to miss out on several future classics by other, less well-known, authors. Sorting the wheat from the chaff is impossible without some help, which is why recommendations from other book lovers are crucial.
While friends and family are the obvious first choice, there are a host of book review sites on the Web dedicated to helping readers find the tome best suited to them. What follows are five of the best. They all offer similar features, but with a varying degree of success. In order to fairly and thoroughly test the book review sites, five books from different genres were chosen: The Hobbit, Life Of Pi, The Lincoln Lawyer, Angels and Demons, and James and The Giant Peach.
Look & Feel: The homepage is a little busy and hard to navigate, with clunky drop-down menus. Things improve once you actually reach a particular book, with the layout making more sense.
Number Of Reviews: Three of the five test books are featured on the site, but the overall number of reviews isn’t made clear. A result of 60% for the sample titles suggests the site is lacking in this department.
Search: The search engine offers the bare minimum, with no advanced search options and no way of paring the results down. However, the results are fairly solid and well laid out.
Recommendation Engine: Each book has a ‘Readalikes‘ section, and there’s also a way of narrowing books down by different parameters. The results are sensible, offering similar books in the same genre or from authors with similar sensibilities.
Summing Up: BookBrowse is a good option, but it’s let down badly by the need to pay for a membership to unlock the best features.
Look & Feel: Although it could do with a visual overhaul to bring it up to date, everything is in place and easy to navigate. Once you click on an individual title the number of options available to explore expands massively.
Number Of Reviews: All five of the test books are present and correct, with 78 million books listed overall.
Search: The search engine is simple, but with enough added features such as tags and ways of sorting the results to make it worth exploring.
Recommendation Engine: The ‘Zeitgest‘ section offers a comprehensive way of finding new books to read, and there are also a lot of recommendations (using various methods) listed under each book. The books suggested for further reading make a lot of sense in terms of genre and style.
Summing Up: The vast number of books coupled with the robust collection of data makes LibraryThing a worthy contender. Unfortunately a small fee is required for full integration.
Look & Feel: Clean lines and a modern feel make this site one of the best looking on the list. Everything is easy to find, and you never feel overwhelmed by an abundance of information or external links.
Number Of Reviews: All five of the test books are present and correct, and though the total number of books isn’t listed, the number of users suggests there will be few gaps in the library.
Search: You can search the site by title, author, or ISBN number, which is the bare minimum a book review site should be offering. A way of narrowing the results further would be appreciated.
Recommendation Engine: Recommendations are based on the ratings you give to other books. It’s a system which works well, but it does require a little effort to start working. Once the recommendations kick in they’re eclectic but improve as you rate more titles. In a similar way to the movie recommendation sites.
Summing Up: GoodReads is a strong contender with a huge community at its disposal. The site feels a little dry, but it does the job being asked of it extremely well. It’s completely free to use too.
Look & Feel: A solid design sensibility shines through across the site, putting it on a par with GoodReads. Everything is based around book covers, which adds a nice visual element to proceedings.
Number Of Reviews: All five of the test books are present and correct, and though the total number of books isn’t listed, Amazon’s origins as a bookseller suggests there will be few gaps in the library.
Search: A startling number of advanced search options are available, such as narrowing by genre or binding, and setting the publication date parameters. This ensures even obscure titles should be easy to find.
Recommendation Engine: Recommendations are kept to a minimum by default, suggesting this isn’t the main focus of the site. However, there are sensible titles suggested for each book, so you can build out from your existing collection.
Summing Up: Shelfari is owned and powered by Amazon, but that’s mostly to its credit. It’s free, it’s comprehensive, and it’s extremely user friendly.
Look & Feel: The homepage is rather busy, with little to differentiate the various sections. The color scheme works, but the small icons and even smaller text make it something of a chore to navigate.
Number Of Reviews: All five of the test books are present and correct, but there is no data regarding the total number featured on the site. With user-submitted reviews being the order of the day I suspect it lags behind GoodReads and LibraryThing.
Search: There are both basic and advanced search options, which combined offer the best of both worlds. One nice touch is a snapshot of the book on an actual bookshelf, as uploaded to the site by a user.
Recommendation Engine: The only recommendations are via the discussions taking place around each title. Which is fairly limiting in terms of its ability to inform you what you may want to read next. This is the biggest weakness of the site.
Summing Up: BookRabbit is slightly different from the other sites on this list, which is both a blessing and a curse. It wouldn’t be my first choice, but it’s definitely worth a look for those seeking in-depth reviews of popular titles.
Having tested each site for an expended period of time, I rank them as follows:-
GoodReads wins out thanks to a strong user base, a huge database, and an overall look and feel which just edges out Shelfari and LibraryThing. BookRabbit will appeal to some but not all, while BookBrowse suffers mainly as a result of the need to pay membership fees.
My love of books is going nowhere, even if the method by which I read them has to evolve in the years to come. In the absence of infinite time to read everything we want to, book review sites that gather reviews and recommend titles that should not be missed are essential tools.
Let us know what you think of this article in the comments section below, or add your own book review site to the list.
Image Credit: Ian Wilson
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