These days, it’s easy to review and find reviews about pretty much anything. Need to find a local Thai restaurant? Don’t worry–there are three in your area and one of them has been rated four-and-a-half stars. It’s a helpful way to find coffee shops/shoes/apps/etc. that you’ll most likely enjoy.
That goes for books as well. At sites like Goodreads, you can rate and review pretty much any book you’ve ever read. For example, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone has currently been rated 4.35 stars by 1,840,709 people. If you’ve been living under a rock for the last fifteen years or so and have no idea what this novel’s about, it can be helpful to see that so many people rated it highly. “Hmm,” you say, “maybe I should check this out!” Conversely, if you find a book that has a really bad rating, you might be more inclined to skip it. I know I’m at least a little swayed by star ratings.
I don’t like to rate books.
When I first joined Goodreads, I jumped on the star rating train. Four stars over here! Five stars over there! But sometimes I’d run into the problem of wanting to give a half-star and Goodreads isn’t really structured that way. I’d round up, wanting to be nice, but that felt disingenuous when compared to all the other full star reviews. Also, sometimes I’d finish a book and, coming off that good post-read vibe, rate it really highly. But then a few weeks would go by and I’d wonder if the book really deserved a five-star rating. Should I go back and change it? Or rate based on that initial reaction? And what did these stars even mean, anyway? Were five stars for books that I had all around positive feelings about, or should they be reserved for my all-time favorites? How bad does a book have to be for it to get one star?
For me, it’s hard to quantify the reading experience. When I try to rank books by stars, I end up feeling like J. Evans Pritchard in Understanding Poetry*:
A few things I find problematic. First, books aren’t necessarily like a dinner out or a futon–they stay with you and change you, and they have the potential to keep changing you over time. When I was in fourth grade, the American Girl books would have been at the top of my list. (Samantha’s in particular–Victorian era for the win.) If I were to give them a star rating now, should I take into account how I loved them in fourth grade and how they developed my interest in early 1900s history? Giving Samantha Learns a Lesson a two-star rating feels cold, even if I’m not necessarily picking up the book these days.
Second, it’s hard to compare books based on numbers. Maybe you loved one aspect of a book but found others less compelling, while another book was just kind of solid. Does that mean they both deserve three-star reviews? Ideally you could explain these reasons in a review, but that review doesn’t go into a book’s quantifiable average star rating. Can you give a literary classic like Ulysses a five-star rating and give the exact same rating to a hilarious and touching picture book like Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day? They’re very different but both beloved and praised in their own way. But how can a rating system differentiate between the two?
Third, even though ratings are ostensibly to make reviews clearer, they can vary dramatically from person to person. One reader might give three stars to books they enjoyed and save five stars for their very favorites. Another might see three stars as a rating for books that had some major flaws (you are missing two whole stars, after all) and give four or five stars to books they enjoyed. So if the system isn’t standardized, what’s the point?
I couldn’t get over these issues so, a few months ago, I removed all my ratings. Granted, I didn’t have more than a hundred or so books rated anyway, but it gave me a sense of relief. Now I use Goodreads more as a tool to keep track of what books I’ve read (especially helpful for Friday Fifteen reviews).
I know that rating can be a hugely helpful tool and I don’t think anyone should stop rating books if they find it helpful. But for me it doesn’t work, and I feel better now that I’ve stopped trying to make it work.
*Anything for a Dead Poets Society reference, right?
(image: Clarissa de Wet)