Not a Book

This wonderful sci-fi story by Ken Liu I read the other day concerns the book-making and -reading habits of various (fictional, as far as we know) intergalactic species. It has the kind of inventive and intricate storytelling I look for—there’s a touch of mischief to it, a sense of wonder, a sinuous line of pattern-making and -breaking.

I ran across it while reading through a thread on Goodreads about the deletion from Goodreads’ database of issues of FIYAH, a black speculative fiction magazine. So the story goes, Goodreads does not list periodicals and magazines and literary journals in its database. The reasoning behind this is unclear, beyond the fact that these items are not “books”—and Goodreads is a site for books, not writing. But various non-books can and do get added to the database—by users, through automated methods, by osmotic data seepage—and these items are sometimes discovered by the site’s volunteer librarians. They’re deleted if they don’t have ISBNs; if they do, they’re shuffled off to NOT-A-BOOK purgatory. FIYAH does not have ISBNs for its issues, so it was booted.

The upshot of this scenario is a significant loss of exposure for FIYAH, and people are upset. Rightfully so: with FIYAH being dedicated to black speculative fiction, it looks an awful lot like a discriminatory outcome, especially when other literary magazines were allowed to remain. Some commenters in the thread explain this away through appeal to the rather arbitrary and apparently random nature of the librarians’ work—if they happen to find something awry, away it goes, but whether or not they find the things that are awry is left up to chance. It’s a fairly haphazard way to go about the rather serious matter of curating a database that millions of people use, and rather bizarre if you think about it: this is an area in which software excels, in fact an area in which software far outpaces human ability—and yet it’s being handled by humans, and unpaid ones at that. But never mind that absurdity. Other commenters in the thread make the reasonable and rational point that when an outcome is discriminatory, well then it’s discriminatory, and here we have a discriminatory outcome, and whether or not Goodreads’ policies are intentionally discriminatory, they have resulted in just such an outcome. QED: one more example of structural racism, albeit a kind of grunting, creaking, wheezing, who-me-I’m-not-a-racist-I-have-a-black-friend kind of structural racism.

Much of the discussion of whether FIYAH was rightfully deleted hinges on the question of what a book is, according to Goodreads. In my opinion, what makes a book a book, what constitutes “book-ness,” is quite obscure and possibly undefinable; Liu’s story stretched my own conception of “book-ness” so far that I’m not sure there is anything that does not have the potential to be a book. If it can be read, it can be a book—and what cannot be read?

Goodreads seems to endorse the position that books, and only books, are books. We know them when we see them, right? Problems with this essentialist position abound, however: there are non-books like literary journals and magazines and periodicals masquerading as books—they can be read like books and are often printed and bound and distributed just like books, but still: not books—and there are toys and bookmarks and board games that are sucked up into the database because they have ISBNs, which make them appear to be books even though they, too, are (clearly) not books. These interlopers cannot be tolerated, they cause a bad vibe, they harsh the real books’ mellow, and so the lit journals and magazines get the ax, as previously discussed; the non-books with the slick fake IDs, however, they’re trickier, they keep trying to get back into the club, waiting for the bouncer to look the other way or sneaking in through the side door or riding in on the coattails of a friend.

Goodreads’ rather ingenious solution to this dilemma is to send these non-books off to NOT A BOOK land, which features numerous non-books called NOT A BOOK, all written by the exceptionally productive author NOT A BOOK. We should all emulate NOT A BOOK’s work ethic: 180,000+ non-books and counting, as of this writing. I’d like to humbly submit here that if Goodreads can handle this ridiculous ad hoc solution to a real-but-trivial problem, then maybe it could also handle having magazines, periodicals, and literary journals hanging out with the “real” books, rubbing shoulders and making eyes at each other and maybe sneaking off into dark corners, getting busy and creating new hybrid forms like bound collections of periodicals and books that start life off being published as serials.

To bring this back around to FIYAH, though: it’s a frustrating situation and the only clear thing I can see to do is hop over to their site and subscribe, and then tell a bunch of other people about it and get them to subscribe, too. One-year subscriptions for 2019 and two-year subscriptions for 2019–2020 are even on sale! So that’s what I’m doing. Let Goodreads NOT-A-BOOK itself silly and nuke non-books from its database if it wants to; I’ll be over here reading, because that’s what matters, not whether or not something is a book.