No Stars

I have annual lists of the books I’ve read going back decades. Somewhere in some paper file, I have a couple paper lists. They would have dated from between 1996 and 1999, since I can clearly picture the list weakly held by a magnet to the fridge that dominated the tiny bachelor apartment I lived in for those years. It was easy and low tech. I would put a book down, I would pick a pen up, and there, noted.

Later, things got a bit fancier. I had completely forgotten this, but at some point, probably when I was taking both database and cataloguing courses in library school, I created an Access database. I would catalogue my books according to my best independent interpretations of the AACR2 (the cataloguer’s bible at the time), add a “date finished,” and there, noted.

In 2005, I either read two books only in September, or I gave up my list. I can’t remember which. 2005 was a turbulent year, so it’s hard to say if I hardly read at all or read a lot to escape and forgot to note it down. You’ve got a 50/50 chance of being right.

Then there are the missing years. Maybe I didn’t read between 2005 and 2011. I’m pretty sure I read some, but maybe not much. Those were also often turbulent years.

In 2011, I joined Goodreads, and have since faithfully used that app to track the books I’ve read. I always gave some stars. Never thought too hard about them, just clicked what my gut told me. But I never wrote reviews. Back then, I had already started writing reviews for money, and was thinking of freelancing, so I sure as hell wasn’t going to give my words away to some upstart tech company. Maybe not the wisest road to take for someone who could use the exposure, but past Megan made some mistakes, and let’s not be too rough.

In 2013, I somehow completely missed the news that Amazon bought Goodreads. It was 2019 before I figured that one out, when I got suspicious that every link on every title took me to their site. I most definitely am not going to give that fucker my words. But I kept on with the stars. I mean, I used them myself to gauge a book’s worth.

In 2020, I have lost pieces of my mind to COVID. It’s hard to concentrate. The words sometimes blur. I need ease and comfort. Here, on the edge of burnout, I am finding it hard to connect with much. Should I punish the author of this complex book? ONE STAR plot too thick. This writer and her gorgeous thesaurus? TWO STARS makes no sense. It just seems too unfair when by the end of the day it takes me three tries to spell the word specialty.

I know the starred reviews are helpful to those writers and presses looking to widen their net. Those people trying to make their own name and make a living, but it just seems so unfair.

Can we move backwards? Probably not. At least, I don’t think I’ll go back to my Access database. But from here on in, I am instituting a no-stars policy, and will just have to find another way to help the authors of the books I love.


How much I read is inversely proportional to how much I scroll. Between 2018 and March 2020, I was scrolling less and reading more. I followed my own rules. And then every thing changed. And when I say everything I am not using hyperbole. You know this as well as I do.

I started working from home full-time. My partner started working from home full-time. The 15 people I supervise at work started working from home full-time, and none of us really knew how to do it. My home office became not the place where I dressed myself and did our budgetting and occasionally tried to write and then stopped trying. It became a small cocoon of almost all you do.

Home office. A desk with a monitor on it and a chair pulled out and slightly to the right. Lit by a window from the left.

David Sedaris said recently “Everywhere I go it smells the same, and it smells like my breath.” I can’t stop rolling that over in my mind. Like a finger on a bruise, a tongue to a torn tooth socket. Everywhere I go is hardly anywhere. My paths have been circumscribed in a way I never saw coming. Everywhere I go is mostly my home office. And it does smell like my breath: my farts, my unbrushed hair, and stinking armpits, too.

My mental life has felt similarly constrained. Instead of tearing through books, I am scrolling past curated Insta feeds and the dubious bon mots of Twitter, which all basically say the same. We are fucked we are trying to feel normal we are ignoring the problem I am fucked no you are fucked no you are fucked. Instead of spreading my mind around to live briefly in the minds of all sorts of different types of people in all sorts of different countries, instead of really sitting with them and the arc of their lives for 300 pages, I am flicking my thumb mindlessly and obsessively up a tiny shiny rectangle. For sometimes hours. Often in the office that smells like my breath.

I’ve been here before, and I’ve stopped it, switched those gears before, but my god it is hard. And takes a will I’m not sure 2020 will allow me. In both 2018 and 2019, I read over 100 books. To to that takes time. I took that time almost solely from the minutes that built into hours that I spent on Instagram and Twitter. This year, I might hit 50 books. That is a stark difference.

It’s not like I think more books makes me a better person. If I were to read 100 books three years in a row no one would love me more. The people who love me love me no matter how many books I read, and the people who don’t like me can go hang.

But more scrolling does make me a worse version of myself. It makes me scared, it makes me jealous, it makes me only able to absorb tiny bites of info. Only able to skim. I can’t remember anything, can’t sustain my attention for more than 10 minutes.

If I were reading half as much because I was doing something that I knew to be useful or believed to be beautiful (sorry William Morris) then I wouldn’t be writing this post. Or I would be writing a different post telling you how great my Vietnamese was coming along.

Sadly, as far as I can tell, at least for me, there is no better option than to just. stop. For me, there is only the calculation that makes me suddenly see how all this doomscroll adds up to nothing and makes me realize that is not enough.