Elizabeth Khuri Chandler Tells the Origin Story of Goodreads
In Conversation With Will Schwalbe on But That's Another Story
Will Schwalbe: Hi. I’m Will Schwalbe, and you’re listening to But That’s Another Story. In Hamlet, the character Polonius famously counsels his son Laertes, “Neither a borrower nor a lender be.” I’m pretty sure he was talking about cash, but as far as I’m concerned, he could have been talking about books. I don’t like to loan them because I almost never get them back. And if I let that make me grumpy, then I risk losing a book and a friend. But I also don’t like borrowing books—albeit for a very different reason. When someone loans you a book, you have to read it—and read it promptly, or risk a ruined relationship. A loaned book is different from one that is gifted: it comes with a ticking clock attached. That’s part of the reason I do my darndest to demur when people try to loan me their favorite books. That said, sometimes there’s no way out. When a friend insists I borrow a book, really insists, it’s often because that friend knows that the book will bring us closer and wants to be able to be sure I actually read it. And luckily, my friends know me pretty well. Some of my now favorite authors were originally loaned to me: Russell Banks, Sylvia Townsend Warner, John A. Williams. I’ve gone on to buy multiple books by all of them—and, yes, even loan them out to friends. And recently, I got to talking about how sharing your favorite books can bring you closer to those you love—or even strangers—with today’s guest.
Elizabeth Khuri Chandler: My name is Elizabeth Khuri Chandler, and I’m the editor in chief at Goodreads.
WS: Elizabeth Khuri Chandler is a journalist and one of the cofounders of Goodreads, the website and app for book readers and recommendations (I was an early advisor). It’s been around since 2007, and recently branched out to the audio world when Elizabeth began Goodreads’ podcast, Books of Your Life. Unsurprisingly, the chronicle of the books of her life started long, long ago.
EC: I grew up in Palo Alto, California, which has changed a lot over the last couple decades. But when I was a kid, it was a hippie town. My neighbors had chickens, the Grateful Dead used to perform at our local coffee shop. But it was kind of a sleepy California town with a huge emphasis on education and science. I had a really great science education growing up.
WS: While that emphasis on science had an impact on Elizabeth, there was another field she found herself drawn to.
EC: I wanted to be a writer from about third grade. I used to write poetry books and keep them all over my house. I also ran a library out of my house for my brothers, in which I made library cards and little pockets, and would document how many times everyone had read the books.
WS: And there was one book Elizabeth found herself checking out over and over again.
EC: My first favorite book was Heidi. I think I read that book ten times. I think I loved the idea of being in nature. I think it was really appealing to me, this idea of the Alps, and she would go sledding down to school with her surly grandfather. There was something really magical about that book. And I remember it was a lot about her being in love with nature and also using love to heal people.
I loved the Little House on the Prairie books. I read those also multiple times. I think I liked the pioneer spirit, these people who would make their own house and then you would learn how, and they would be cooking and you learn about farming, and they had these crazy tragedies where the older sister would go blind, and there would be prairie fires, and I think I really admired that hard work and spirit, even then.
WS: Elizabeth applied that hard work and spirit to one of the main focuses in her life.
EC: I did gymnastics for many years and I was terrible at it. I’m pretty tall, and finally someone said I should do ballet. And I think pretty much from the beginning, it just felt right. It wasn’t a struggle. I think when you do a sport or an activity that you’re naturally suited towards, it just feels really good and it wasn’t easy, but it felt like a natural fit. And I immediately had a lot of success. I used to audition for summer programs all over the country, and I would get accepted into all these places. So from age 13 onward, I left every summer, and I studied. And that was a really magical experience, to get to leave home at 13 and be in a community with kids from all over the country, sometimes from all over the world. I met so many different kinds of people. So even at a very young age, I think I was very aware that there was a bigger world out there than just my little world in Palo Alto.
I always viewed it as a way of painting to the music with my body. I felt like it was pure expression. And I think at school, everything I did was very analytical—math, science, all the classes. And then I would go into a ballet class and it was meditative. I would turn off the analytical part of my brain and literally just speak with my body. And I think a lot of it was about having the opportunity to express myself.
In high school, I used to leave school early, and then for a period, I studied in San Francisco, so I’d take a train for 45 minutes. I’d dance for about three hours, sometimes more. And then I’d take a train and I used to do my homework on the train, and then stay up later. I didn’t sleep a lot in high school. And then somehow I would practice my violin in there and volunteer. I used to volunteer at a hospital. I mean, I was running on all cylinders when I was in high school. But I really loved it. I don’t regret it for a second. I was really doing ballet because I loved it. I wasn’t planning on fame or fortune, I just had to do it. It was completely innate in me, and I thought that was what I was going to do with my life.
WS: While that dedication allowed Elizabeth to excel as a dancer, it was a solitary existence.
EC: It was extremely lonely. Yeah. It was extremely lonely. But again, I didn’t mind it because I felt like I was doing it for a reason. I was going after a goal, a very specific goal, and I was completely committed to that goal. But I didn’t have a normal high school experience.
WS: But Elizabeth found a way to confront that loneliness: through reading.
EC: I liked reading for the lessons it could teach me. I think because I was so focused and working so hard, I wasn’t a very gregarious kid. So in a way, I learned a lot about other people through books and I got to live thousands of other lives. I loved reading books that took place in faraway places are about people who are nothing like me. I think for me it was another way to learn about the world, and also of course, just to escape.
I had a book of Austen novels, like a compendium of maybe four or five of them when I was in high school, and I read all of them. I thought they were all pretty wonderful, especially again, in high school, I was a very shy person. So I think I liked reading about these books about dating and getting married. I mean, who doesn’t love Jane Austen? I think she’s brilliant. The writing is sparkling, the plots are amazing. I think as a writer, she has an amazing ability to build these characters that are so real, even today, and the way the plots layer to create that pressure. It’s very restrained. They’re very elegant. They take their time, but you keep getting more and more invested, invested, invested, and then I like that they’re happy endings. I think that—why not? I mean, there’s so many books that are sad and heartbreaking that I enjoy reading books with happy endings. And I just always thought they were amazing.
WS: And soon, a clear favorite rose to the top.
EC: Pride and Prejudice is the story of a woman, a very intelligent woman who makes a snap judgment about someone when she meets them and I think it’s a lot about two people changing over the arc of a story which is something particularly. . . compelling.
WS: Beyond just enjoying the characters and plot, in Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth found lessons that she carried—and continues to carry—with her.
EC: I think many people’s fantasies for other people to change, including themselves. I think there’s a fantasy element to that. And I think it’s also about somebody who isn’t sparkly the first time you meet them. And this woman makes a snap judgment about him. And I think there’s so many good people like that who you meet them, and they just seem vanilla or ordinary, but they’re the best people. You know, the people you want by your side when things go downhill, the people you want to have close in your life, and people like that can be dismissed so quickly. Especially today, I think it’s the age of snap judgments and I think it’s such a beautiful thing that she makes this judgment about this person, and then slowly over time realizes that this person is not only a good person, this is the best person.
WS: And that was not the only key theme from the book that Elizabeth developed as part of her personal code.
EC: The other thing I love about Pride and Prejudice is the concept of respect in the relationship. I think at the end of the book, the father says to Elizabeth, do you respect him? Because I couldn’t have let you go to anyone otherwise. And she says, you know, he’s the best man that I’ve ever known. And I think about that a lot as well because I think good relationships—whether they’re love relationships or work relationships or friendships—if you don’t have that mutual respect, it doesn’t work because when you disagree, people just shut off. And if you respect someone but disagree, you can find a way forward.
WS: When we come back from the break, Elizabeth finds her way forward—with a project that perpetuates the lessons of Pride and Prejudice.
WS: Elizabeth Khuri Chandler first read Pride and Prejudice as a high school ballerina. Her goals changed in college, when her dance career was sidelined by an injury and she decided to pursue another first love: writing. But her admiration for Jane Austen’s novel always stayed strong through reread after reread, and the lessons it imparted to her did not waver as she became an adult.
EC: I always thought it was interesting. People who you didn’t know everything about them in five minutes—that’s okay. So I thought, sometimes it takes a little work to get to know someone else and that’s alright. Not everybody tells you everything about themselves in the first five minutes. And you know, my husband, I would describe him that way.
WS: When she first met her husband, Otis, Elizabeth was working as a journalist at the Los Angeles Times, covering fashion and writing features about artists and designers. But reading remained a passion—something she and Otis had in common.
EC: My now husband, but at the time we were still dating, had recently moved to Los Angeles from San Francisco, where he had been building social networks. And he decided that he wanted to build a social network about something that he loved. And like me, he was also a big reader. So he started working on this social network around books, where people could recommend books to friends. And the idea was if you searched for a book, you would see your friends reviews first and then the larger community’s reviews later.
WS: The new project caught Elizabeth’s interest as a reader—but also as a writer.
EC: He started building this, and as an English major and a working writer, I said, huh, I actually really care about this subject. So I started getting involved with him and suddenly, I was doing all the language on the site. And I’m like, oh, well, we need a marketing email. And I created a newsletter that we started sending out initially just to drive people back to the site, but it quickly turned into my version of an online magazine. We did author interviews and book recommendations, and we were completely driven by a pure love for books and the fact that this was something we wanted to use.
I was a compulsive tracker of what I read. A few weeks after he programmed the first version of the site, I went home to my parents’ house and looked up every single book in the house that I had read and added them to my profile. We created a scanner where you could scan the barcode, I remember. And that was like heaven. I was going around the house like a maniac, scanning everything.
WS: And soon, Elizabeth’s old favorite book would become an important part of not just Elizabeth’s relationship, but the origin story of Goodreads.
EC: During these early, early weeks, we would take a lot of walks at this time, and discuss the company and our ideas for it. It was a lot. We’ve discussed books a lot over the years, and how to get people interested in books, and what do they need. Anyway, we lived near a Barnes and Noble, and I remember one evening, we were at Barnes and Noble and he saw Dune by Frank Herbert. And he says to me, that’s my absolute favorite book in the world. And I said, oh, I’ve never read that. And he said, okay, you have to read this book. And I thought, well, I’m going to read his favorite book, he needs to read one of my favorite books. And so, I looked over and I found Pride and Prejudice, and I said, here’s the deal. You read Pride and Prejudice, and I’ll read Dune, and then we’ll discuss.
He stayed up until I think 3 am reading the book from cover to cover because I mean, Jane Austen is a page turner. And it moves too, it has a great flow to it. Meanwhile, I spent I think about three weeks slogging through Dune. I’m not a science fiction fan. I actually do like Ray Bradbury, but it’s just not my genre. It’s just not my thing. So, anyway, I was just suffering through this book, which annoyed him to no end. And then I get on the site and we decided to review the books we read. So he gives mine five stars and writes this nice review, and I give Dune one star and write this scathing review of it.
He was really irritated with me because at the time I think we had about 700 people on the site who were either our personal friends or one layer beyond that, our friends’ friends. So it caused the average rating of Dune to tank for like maybe a couple years. And meanwhile, he had loved my book, and so it was just this joke between us that we read each other’s books and Dune was not so successful.
WS: Yet Elizabeth has no regrets about the time she spent reading Dune.
EC: Reading it made me understand him better. And I think it’s really actually great that I read the book because some of the quotes from it that he is always referenced to me and the mindset, I do respect that about the book. And I think it’s actually a really cool experience to read someone else’s favorite book, even if it is a genre that you would never naturally go to. And I think there’s a lot of data about how reading books creates empathy. And I think it was a great example of that, where you learn about someone else through reading a book that’s really meaningful to them.
WS: And time has somehow managed to heal all wounds.
EC: At this point, we have 80 million members, so my one star review of Dune is completely obliterated.
WS: Completely over.
EC: It was just in the early days.
WS: Does it make you mad when you see a one star review on Goodreads of Pride and Prejudice?
EC: Not at all. Not at all. I just want people to have the freedom to dislike whatever they want and like whatever they want. It is not my place to tell people what books to like. I know I’m so opinionated myself—go ahead, hate it, if you want! That’s your right. You know? And we can’t all be the same!
But That’s Another Story is produced by Katie Ferguson, with editing help from Alyssa Martino and Becky Celestina. Thanks to Elizabeth Khuri Chandler. If you’d like to learn more about the books we’ve mentioned in this week’s episode, you can find out more in our show notes. You can also find a transcript of this episode and past ones on LitHub. If you’ve been enjoying the show, please be sure to rate and review on iTunes—it really helps others discover the program. And subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you listen. If there’s a book that changed your life, we want to hear about it. Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll be back with our next episode in two weeks.