Friday, October 24, 2014

Rating Books

Many reviews include a simplified rating for the book. 3 stars, for example. A summary of how the reviewer perceives the book’s worth. Of course, it doesn’t have to be stars. I follow a book blog that uses teacups instead of stars, a quirk I find endearing.

When I started reviewing books, though, I knew unequivocally that I didn’t want to include ratings. I have two main reasons. First, while I understand how simplifying your assessment can be helpful, I value books and stories too much to do so. All the details are important to me. I don’t want to say, “I liked it.” or “I didn’t like it.” For one thing, I’m an analytical reader and - while I often have an overall opinion of a book - there are usually both aspects I like and aspects I don’t like about a book. Even with books I adore, I might have a small criticism here or there. A huge part of why I’m so addicted to reading is because I love how stories provoke deeper thinking, discussions both between different people and within yourself. I might have far more positive than negative feelings towards a book, but a simple “I enjoyed it.” cuts off potential conversations about what exactly I enjoyed, not to mention what I didn’t. I know a rating can be in addition to a review, but it’s the review - the specifics - that I care about.

Second - and more importantly, in my opinion - everyone rates differently. When I give a book 4 stars, it doesn’t mean the same perception of quality as when someone else does. Some people are generous with stars and others stingy. On a 0-5 stars (teacups, etc.) rating system, here is what my ratings mean:

0 - hated it
1 - didn’t like it
2- it was okay
3- liked it
4- loved it

I remember meeting a writer at a conference who told me that whenever she sees a 4-star rating of one of her books she wonders why the reader didn’t like it. But 4 stars is a good rating! I thought. In fact, I think 3 stars is a good rating. Unfortunately, interpretation of rating systems is highly subjective. Further conversation with the author made me realize that she thinks of 5 as the starting point for a book, with stars being subtracted for everything the reader doesn’t like. I think of 3 as the starting point. 3 stars means it’s a good book. My rating lowers the more I find that I don’t like, but I only rate higher if the book particularly impresses me. I can read a book that I enjoy, but it doesn’t in any way push the envelope. Those 4th and 5th stars have to be earned.

I’m not planning on introducing ratings to my reviews, but I think this is an interesting discussion. Are you an easy rater or a hard rater? Do you find ratings helpful?

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