One day, Emily May will finish In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust’s seven volume, 4,215-page classic novel of modern literature. In the meantime, May, the most popular reviewer on Goodreads — with nearly 150,000 followers, 1500 reviews (and counting), and over 5100 books shelved — is busy reading everything else. Or, at least, an average of over 200 books per year. Recently, I caught up with May, to pick her brain on everything from her favorite childhood reads — anything Roald Dahl, R. L. Stine’s Goosebumps series, and C.S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe — to what makes a great book review — sharing personal experiences is key — to the books you should DEFINITELY be keeping an eye out for in 2019.
But first things first: How did May even end up becoming Goodreads’ most popular book reviewer to begin with? It starts, simply enough, with a lifelong love of books. “I don’t remember ever not having books in my life,” May says. “Some of my earliest memories are of being read to, both at home and in school.”
But the reader and reviewer, who is currently ranked #1 most popular reviewer, #1 most followed, and #85 top reviewer, didn’t set out to garner a massive following on Goodreads. “I started by using Goodreads as a kind of book journal for myself," she says. "I really liked the idea of looking back in the future and seeing exactly how a certain book made me feel at the time. To be honest, for a long time I didn’t even consider that I was writing ‘reviews’ as such. It never occurred to me that people would want to read them.”
"I really liked the idea of looking back in the future and seeing exactly how a certain book made me feel at the time."
But how does May even decide what to read to begin with? “I am terrible at planning what I’m going to read!” she says. “I often have a pile of ARCs (advanced review copies) from publishers, which I try to work through in order of publication, but most of the time it ends up being random. I see a review on Goodreads that excites me, or read a ‘Most Anticipated Books of Whenever’ list, and the plan is derailed.” To anyone who’s ever toppled a TBR pile of their own, this definitely sounds familiar.
And, what does it take for a book to earn her 5-starred rating? “Generally, I give a 5-star rating to books that either do something very unique and thought-provoking, or else are so addictively readable that I was incapable of doing anything else until I had finished it,” says May, who adds that she isn't against giving a book a negative review.
“Despite what some people believe, I don’t think they necessarily deter people from reading a book," she says. "I’ve read negative reviews where the reviewer has said something like ‘I didn’t like the supernatural twist’, which tells me I will probably love it. And I’ve received comments on my negative reviews saying ‘This is exactly what I’ve been looking for!’ I think it’s great that one person’s negative review can turn someone else onto a new favorite.”
May is also a new mom — and from one new mom to another, I’ve got to know: did motherhood change her relationship to books? How she reads, what she reads, why she reads? “Yes, yes, and yes,” she says. “I’ve been more selective with my reading choices, knowing that I have less time. And I’ve been more likely to put aside books that don’t interest me. My TBR has gotten more colorful, too. I now have books like The Pout-Pout Fish and Little Blue Truck on there.”
"Generally, I give a 5-star rating to books that either do something very unique and thought-provoking, or else are so addictively readable that I was incapable of doing anything else until I had finished it."
I also wonder if May — as much as she loves books — has ever considered writing one herself. “I like the idea of having written a book, but I’m not someone who naturally gravitates toward writing like I do reading,” she says. “I once saw Sabaa Tahir (author of An Ember in the Ashes) speak at a signing, and she answered a question about how you can find time to write with a full-time job. She said, 'you just do.' You get up early. You stay up late. You write on your break. You write in every spare moment. She talked about writing as a basic need for a writer, and this is how I feel about reading, but not about writing. I always find time to read; I find excuses not to write. I hope one day this will change, but at this point in my life I don’t feel I have the discipline or the drive required to write a book.”
"I always find time to read; I find excuses not to write. I hope one day this will change..."
And, if you’re a bookworm hoping to set a New Year’s reading resolution, the Goodreads Reading Challenge might be the perfect place to start. Since 2011, May has completed (and crushed) the Challenge — an annual undertaking for Goodreads’ bookwormiest of bookworms, where readers are invited to set their yearly reading goal, track their progress, and chart their success. “I don’t know if this is considered cheating, but I set an achievable challenge first and then move it up if it looks like I can do better,” says May, when I ask her for any tips that new, or even seasoned, Goodreads Challenge undertakers might want to keep in mind. “It feels much better to start modest and raise your goal than it does to aim high and not quite make it. So just start with a few books — there’s no minimum requirement!”
One of May’s pro tips? Make sure you set your “read” date for the book (aka: the date you completed it, one of the many data points Goodreads invites you to input). “If you don’t set a date then the challenge doesn’t know what year you read it,” she says.
"It feels much better to start modest and raise your goal than it does to aim high and not quite make it."
As far as what books should make that Reading Challenge in 2019? An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma is at the top of May’s list — and it is one book, she says, that totally surprised her this year. “I predict it will be one of the most talked about books of next year. It certainly deserves to be. It surprised me most because it’s a challenging read — it is set in Nigeria and the author uses a combination of English, Nigerian Pidgin and untranslated Igbo — and yet it is still a very compelling and emotionally-stimulating story. I couldn’t put it down.”