Place vs. Setting

There’s a great message thread on Goodreads right now among some of its most active users about whether the site should add a feature similar to Placing Literature (

Most people are saying that they would appreciate being able to plot and track literary places, but a minority are saying that it wouldn’t be useful or that Goodreads should focus on its existing capabilities around setting. One example that a user brought up was that Placing Literature was too specific and too rooted in the present. The user thought that a generic place and time stamp would be more useful, such as 1870s London.

Reading the thread (I’m unable to post due to the board being invitation only), I can’t help but think that some Goodreaders are confusing place with setting. And that’s understandable. Readers are approaching place from a literary perspective, and scholars have always talked about setting in this way. But to geographers there is a difference between place and setting. Hopefully, I can help clarify what that difference is, and in doing so, talk about why place is so important.

 Katie has spent several postings on this blog talking about place and the goal of this project as it relates to place, so I’ll let her take over here:

 “We started this project because we wanted to be able to understand how place is created by authors. Place is many things.  For this project, we are interested in place because of the emotional connections people have to place – places they know and love.

“Our hope for this project was that we would help create a tool that could be used – as a pedagogy or as a data source – where people could look at their communities, either real or literary, and see a place that was living and breathing.  By stopping to identify the critical elements and describing a scene, the place would go from background to foreground and become a more visible element.”


-Why We Study Place, June 18, 2013

Setting, on the other hand, is a place in the context of a particular place in time. Piccadilly Circus is a place. 1870s London is a setting. The distinction is important because you can’t visit a setting. Only imagination can take you to Sherlock Holmes’s London. But anyone can walk around Piccadilly Circus, eating roasted chestnuts while people watching.

That is why Placing Literature is important. We want to connect readers to the places they are reading about in hopes of both enhancing the reading experience and creating community around those places.

I don’t know if Goodreads will add place to its long list of features. I hope it does, and when it’s ready, we’ll be happy to share our rich database of literary places that is being created, edited and accessed by the community.


1 thought on “Place vs. Setting

  1. Pingback: A Sense of Place | Go Go Go

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