28 July 2013

Review: The Good Reading Guide (Free Trial!)

Sometime in the middle of last summer, I was very interested to hear of the existence of a new book-reviewing initiative on the web. The Good Reading Guide grew out of a small family-run bookstore in Australia in 2011, as an effort to facilitate personal reading selection in sync with the respect of human dignity. 

Here is The Good Reading Guide's reviewing philosophy:
At the Good Reading Guide we believe that books can have a significant impact on a person Just as people thrive in a society that recognizes their dignity, so can they thrive when their reading material in some way reflects this dignity, and if possible, enhances their understanding of it.  
We aim to source literature that is of quality in both style and substance. Structure and vocabulary should be at a sufficient standard, characters well-developed and believable, plots engaging and themes appropriate for the intended reader of each book. We recommend books that contribute to readers' culture and character and are broadly compatible with Christian values, but more than just seeking 'clean' books we aim to recommend books that will enrich the lives of readers in at least one of the following areas: 
Culture: we seek books that build culture by expanding  the world of the reader and teaching them new things, helping them to see beyond a superficial vision of life;
Humanity: we try to select books that help readers to deepen their understanding of humanity by 'living in someone else's shoes' for a time;
Language: we look for books that enhance readers' language and logical reasoning; and
Character: we seek books that help to build character by offering criteria for developing maturity in judgement and action. 

The site features both written and video reviews, as well as the occasional blog post. You can browse by genre, or search for a recommendation based on content, reading level, audience (age & gender), publication date, and recommendation level (highly recommended, recommended, conditionally recommended, acceptable. In order to run the site and support the work of the reviewers, membership subscriptions cost $25/year, but right now the site is offering free year-long trial to those who sign-up. Here's a brief video demo (circa 2011, so some newer features aren't seen here):

The number of reviews has grown vastly since I first explored the site last year-the bookstore that runs it tries to add at least 50 new reviews a week, and the site is significantly better for that effort already. A significant level of effort has been invested in reviewing children's and teen/young adult books, but I'm glad that the number of reviews for adult books is slowly catching up (some of my readers who are parents may want to explore the children's reviews and share their thoughts). Since I'm most familiar with the areas of literature, philosophy, science fiction, and spirituality, this review mostly reflects my experience of the site in those areas. It's also good to keep in mind the Good Reading Guide's Aussie orientation-except for international best-sellers, the selection may differ slightly from the currents of the US publishing market (but with genres like spirituality, this doesn't make much of a difference).

The reviews themselves vary in length and quality, depending on both the complexity of the book and the author of the review. Many of the more detailed reviews can be found for recently published or popular contemporary titles, like World War Z  and J.K. Rowling's The Casual Vacancy. While the basic reviewing criteria is good, I do think that the reviews would benefit from a bit more standardization to make is easier to quickly glean information from each review. Some contain a short paragraph summarizing the plot followed by analysis, while others synthesize both elements of the review into a seamless narrative. Although the review level is tagged along with genre and audience terms, there's no quick and dirty review summary at the top, like a bold label or star-rating system, similar to those seen on Amazon or Goodreads. It would be a great improvement if this were also added to the previews the appear in browsing or search results lists. I really like the system that NCR film critic Steven Greydanus uses, in which he assigns a grade system for overall recommendability, entertainment value, moral/spiritual value, and age-appropriateness. This provides a good brief snapshot of the recommendation without the necessity of reading the entire review. The Good Reading Guide values reflect a similar multi-dimensional quality, but there's been little attempt to standardize it, which can be understandably difficult with a team of reviewers that aren't all co-located and have different backgrounds. I also wish that the biography of the reviewers was available on the site, since it would add an additional dimension to each review.

I think that the usefulness of the site will grow exponentially once it's able to fully leverage crowd-sourced reviews from subscribers. This is the main success of Goodreads-you can write an impeccable review, but without the appropriate klout of known expertise or relation, it won't exercise any measurable influence over the reader. People are far quicker to read books recommended by friends than unknown professionals. Each review page currently includes a section at the bottom for subscribers to add their own review, and although there are now over 3000 subscribers, I've yet to see many subscriber generated reviews in my exploration of the site. And while the Good Reading Guide's own reviews don't contain a rating summary, the subscriber review function does contain a button to add a rating level, ranging in five degrees from 'poor' to 'awesome.' Again, there needs to be some continuity of rating criteria between here and the site's reviews in order for it to be more meaningful.

There is some quirkiness to the site's search functions. If you search by title and there's an exact match, or by a hot keyword (like 'Pope Benedict') you'll get a pretty good results list with that book and several related titles. If you enter a keyword or author that hasn't been tagged anywhere on the site yet, you get some interesting results. For example, my search for Tess of the D'Urbervilles picked up Fifty Shades of Grey, because it's mentioned in the review. This should get better as more reviews are added. I remember getting some really wacky search results when testing the site last year, and I can already see an improvement.

I do like that each review links directly to vendors including Amazon and Audible, so it's easy to find that book in any format, whether it be print, ePub, or audio. The site and store also have clientele from Canada, Australia, and the UK, so each review links to those international vendors as well. Plus, using these links is a small way to support Portico's small bookstore business via click-through commission. Like many library websites, each book review page also includes a sidebar with additional recommendations, related to the current selection, another good way to browse.

I really commend the tremendous volume of work that has gone into the development of this site and all the reviews. The selection right now is decent, and is considerably improving in the areas of philosophy, literature, and spirituality. With a bit more review standardization and considerable input from users, I think that the Good Reading Guide could become a valuable resource for general reading. Take a few moments to explore the Good Reading Guide and see what you think!

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