Whatnot
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On Book Ratings

Book rating details

I’m a little obsessed with book ratings. They matter to me. A lot. When I check bookish social networks for recommendations, I look at the following details in this order: the average rating, friends’ reviews (if any), the most popular 5-star rave, and the most popular hatchet job. So to contribute to the bookish community, I rate the books that I’ve read and redirect users to a review link, if available.

I always think in terms of numbers. Instead of disputing whether I like or love a book,  I decide between 3-stars or 4-stars. I’ve adopted the Goodreads rating system, which I think is pretty decent. This is not true for many people, of course, seeing that they’ve adopted their own rating systems. The most common ones are changing the descriptions of the numerical ratings and the inclusion of half-stars. I have no issues with these, but with regard to the latter, I tend to round the ratings down (i.e. 4.5 to 4, and so on). I often encounter 3.5’s and 4.5’s, but I have yet to see a 1.5. I think it’s bizarre, but I won’t dwell on it.

Some people have book rating policies aside from the 5-star rating system. Some only rate books that they like. There’s a certain charm in this. It’s like a gesture of goodwill particularly to budding authors. However, I tend to be wary of people who do this because I also like knowing what books they find tepid or don’t like at all.

And there are some people who have no rating system or policy at all. Of course, they might find it distasteful to reduce their feelings to mere numbers or descriptive phrases. Sure, they have elaborate feelings that they vividly explain in their reviews, but sometimes, I just want to know the darn number before plodding through a review.


A few months ago, I had an issue with the Goodreads rating system, which isn’t pretty decent after all. I posted it on Facebook. Here it goes:

The God of Small Things is the book I had the most difficulty in giving a star rating. In an attempt to get over this, I summon W.H. Auden:

As readers, we remain in the nursery stage so long as we cannot distinguish between taste and judgment, so long, that is, as the only possible verdicts we can pass on a book are two: this I like; this I don’t like.

For an adult reader, the possible verdicts are five:

  • [a] I can see this is good and I like it;
  • [b] I can see this is good but I don’t like it;
  • [c] I can see this is good and, though at present I don’t like it, I believe that with perseverance I shall come to like it;
  • [d] I can see that this is trash but I like it;
  • [e] I can see that this is trash and I don’t like it.

So how do we assign star ratings to these verdicts? [a] and [e] both look good with 5 and 1, respectively. But my verdict is neither of the two. So what should we do with [b], [c], and [d]? Are these verdicts quantifiable?

Going back to the book, it seems that I have to choose between taste and judgment, but I think they should not outweigh one another.

I got a few comments about this, three to be exact. The first one added more criteria on evaluating books, the second one felt that Auden’s verdicts are complicated, and the third one argued that a truly mature reader will have no difficulty in evaluating a book based on taste and judgement. Oh well, I guess that according to this argument, I am not a mature enough reader. Which is true, and I have no bad feelings about it. I have a lot more to read to make me a keener and more insightful reader, but I am pretty sure that I won’t do away with the star ratings. I don’t think they are silly, and if people think they are, I’m not going to go about rallying for the star rating’s cause. To each his own.


Okay, the real reason I’m yakking about book ratings is this: I’m thinking of rerating the books I’ve read and shelved on Goodreads. There are times when I check out my 5-star books and see some titles that feel less stellar now. And then there are those 4-stars, and even 3-stars, that seem to scream at me for begrudging them of a higher rating.

Again, I went at it on Facebook. I posted a poll about changing book ratings: do you or do you not? Here are the results:

  • 6 – Yes, feelings and opinions change.
  • 15 – Sometimes, when rereading the book.
  • 0 – No, as in never.

Most respondents stressed that the ratings change only after a reread, and they rarely reread, which is basically saying no, if you ask me. So that zero is an illusion. Some of those who answered yes stressed that time can dilute or even heighten one’s judgment of a book. Either they can get too enthusiastic or overwhelmed after closing a book, or they can be haunted by a book that they initially thought was just okay.

Further interesting comments that I found are changing the ratings only to deduct stars and adding different editions of books to record the different ratings. I find the latter ingenious yet cumbersome, and that’s because I don’t like keeping duplicate records. The former is understandable. I know what it feels like to have a book hangover, for lack of a better term, but if I ever get on a rerating spree, I would not only deduct but also add stars.

I have this tendency to rate a book one star less if I feel that I have not fully grasped it. Examples are the works of William Faulkner and Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. Oh, I’d love to rerate them now with 5’s, but I’d be tongue-tied for a justification. Because yes, there’s always that why that comes after, and I feel the need to explain. Perhaps I could just say that there’s this certain pull that I felt while reading them, and would people take it against me? Would they feel that I’m just going with the flow? The fact the Infinite Jest is one of those books that are bought by hipsters but never finished kind of adds to my anxiety, a befitting feeling for a book populated with anxious characters. And perhaps I’m worried that people will not believe me, that I will be accused as one of those pretentious hipsters. Heck, I can’t even bring myself to write a review of it.

I guess the problem is why do I have to care about what others think of my ratings. Credibility, I suppose. I keep this blog mainly as a record of my reading adventures and partly as a way to recommend books to people who bother. To make people pick up a book or dissuade them from it, they would have to believe you and therefore, be convinced. The art of book reviewing is the art of persuasion. You put your taste and judgment in a string of persuasive sentences and yet, these two change even after a short span of time. So why would someone bother listening to someone who is wont to change their mind?

If you’re as inconsistent as I am, take comfort in the notion that at least there’s a record that once, you’ve felt and thought this and that way. So I suppose that if I ever rerate books on Goodreads, I won’t bother to edit the reviews on this blog. It would be interesting to see the differences. But yes, I’ll let time go by, at least for the books that I’ve read recently. In this matter, time is, ironically, a friend. And maybe I’ll even reread some, like Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee. I’ve met the ire of some people because of my callow interpretation of it.

Sure, life is too short, but I can’t read all the books that I want anyway.

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25 Comments

  1. I wrote a post about ratings a couple of weeks ago too – I don’t give star ratings as I always feel an explanation is needed and they can be too simplistic: e.g. if I award a book three stars, it could be because all aspects of it were good/ok or it could be because it had a mixture of very strong and very weak aspects. It probably doesn’t help that different people have different criteria: e.g. one star might mean they didn’t finish it, it might mean the topic didn’t appeal to them or it might be the worst book they’ve ever read.

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    • For the life of me, I cannot understand why one should rate an unfinished book. But I’ve learned to just deal with it by ignoring it. Also, reviewing is our chance to make up for the inadequacy of star ratings, but I still rely on those numbers anyway. It’s also another way of categorizing my books.

      I’ll look for your post. I missed it. Thanks for the reminder!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. You never know about the ratings. I agree with you about looking at friends’ ratings on goodreads. There are some books, though, that hover around 3 that I love. Sometimes a book is too sad or too much literary that my friends and other reviewers poo-poo on. My English teacher, whom I friends with on Goodreads, hated the Goldfinch. I LOVED the Goldfinch!

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  3. Like you, I’m fascinated by ratings. I’m also fascinated by people who keep insisting that ratings don’t matter because it’s “not real.” Which is true, but in that sense, the Oscars, the stock market, and paper money are also “not real.” They are social constructs that also have real consequences.

    The hardest things for me to measure are books that evoke extreme emotions. For example what if I love most of one novel only to have a twist at the end completely enrage me? Or what if I know objectively that a book is mediocre but it talks about a specific subject matter that hits me specifically?

    I also feel that I have two separate readerly personas: “a reader who cares about good taste” and “a reader who cares about reptile brain pleasure.” It’s a constant struggle not to always favor the one over the other, but I refuse to choose. That’s how I can justify to myself why I give 1 star to a Nobel laureate and 4 stars for a book about Napoleonic dragons.

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    • Exactly! Numbers are reliable in the sense that they are fixed. The varied meanings we attach to them, in this case book ratings, are the causes of some contention. I sometimes wish that the star ratings would be constants, like those physics equations, so that we can all get along. But reading is not physics.

      There are some books that blow me away because of the ending, and then I tend to rate them higher despite the dragging 500 pages. Then after a few months, I forget about them. And there are those points you mentioned. Rating a book is indeed not as simple as dropping a coin and determining that its acceleration is 9.8 m/s2. That’s why I sometimes feel that not giving a rating is just a mark of indecision and of laziness to come up with a number.

      I really prefer those takedowns of acclaimed works. They feel to me like acts of rebellion and they are more often entertaining than the glowing reviews.

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    • I’m interested in how people internalize the meaning of ratings. Sometimes I become a creep and go to the GR bookshelves of friends, just to look at the trends in their rating decisions. It’s a much more fascinating exercise than simply examining the sum total rating of all GR users.

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    • My creepy exercise is clicking the Compare Books function. I like looking at the differences in ratings, then I’d try to figure out why based on my knowledge of the person’s taste.

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  4. Louize says

    Ratings matters to me too. On Goodreads, though, I focus more on the number of raters than on the average rating. I find it oftentimes that the ratings are not justified by a handful of raters. A friend’s rating and recommendation matters very much to me as well.

    I agree, rating books is our little way of contributing to the reading community. As a rule, I stay with my initial rating, because I stand firm that my rating is true at that point in time I read the book. I choose and read books according to which appeals to me at certain times. If ever my feelings for the book changes eventually, after a period of time, it may mean that my reading preference matured or my point of view had altered; which do happens when I reread a book, and I had reread plenty (e.g. HP series, Pendragon series).

    [d] I can see that this is trash but I like it;

    ^ This is true to me. There are books I read and rated that I knew came to me when I needed to read it. When I look back at that time and remember I how I felt then, I just smile. :)

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    • I get wary when a book has more than 20k raters. It’s pretty easy to guess that this lot is composed of varied readers. So I look for reviews from users who seem to share my reading taste (this is easier to discern if you are friends with the user). I especially avoid reviewers who are readers mainly of genre fiction because some of them tend to review books from the perspective of the genre that they prefer.

      I respect people’s choice to not change the ratings. My concern is actually the other way around. Will people respect me if I keep changing my ratings? Because sometimes, a book is read under not so favorable circumstances, like when you read a book club book and you’re feeling down or something. Your feelings for the book may get affected. And then when you feel better, you may realize that you’ve been too harsh on that book. Does it make sense? :D

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    • Louize says

      Yes, it does. If you are talking about the respect of your friends and followers, you will probably not have a problem in that area since they already know your book preferences. I think respecting your own feelings and judgment holds more credence, rather than overthinking what other people would feel. :)

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  5. I always think about ratings whenever I finish a book. On one hand, it seems very arbitrary and on the other hand it seems important in the assessment of the work. Based on my rating trend, I’ve rated most of the books that I’ve read with 4 stars with 5 stars coming in second. Now and again, a 3-star rating pops up. Rare is the 1-star book and I never use the 2-star rating.

    What are my reasons for rating? I haven’t the foggiest idea. I feel that my ratings are arbitrary most of the time and I rarely think about it. However, when pushed by someone to justify my rating (this is almost always Rhena), I defend it based on two points: style and content.

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    • I’ve noticed your rating trend! The lack of 2-star ratings makes solid sense. If a book is “just okay”, perhaps you may as well dislike the blandness of it. Also, let me confess that I sometimes have a hard time taking recommendations from your ratings alone because there are so many 4 or 5 stars (and so little time to read all of them). So I wait for your review instead. I’m already on the hunt for a copy of Time’s Arrow. :)

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    • Yes, I’m the first to admit that I’m flippant with my ratings and, to make up for that, I review the books which I truly love and which I truly hate.

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  6. So if there are books that you first rated as a 3, then later want to change to 5, wouldn’t that be like Auden’s letter d?

    What I want to know is your rating of The Bone Clocks of 5 even after your criticism of it :P

    Maybe you’re just overthinking it. I think I don’t care what people think of my rating of books…besides I don’t think my reviews really count in persuading people from reading or not reading anything I write about :P

    (Just kidding about the Bone Clocks rating…inahassle lang kita :P….)

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    • I don’t think the rating changes are going to be drastic. They’re gonna be like one-star increments or decrements. But there might be special cases, and I think these will be so rare.

      Regarding The Bone Clocks, oh well, I think it’s sort of like Auden’s [d]. It’s not necessarily trash, but you get what I mean. Also, it’s kind of personal. I’m in love with Mitchell’s works (a rabid fan!) so I feel like it’s going to be a betrayal if I rate it 4, hehe. And I think a 4-star rating can reflect my review more.

      In my defense, that review focused more on the shortcomings of the book and I did that because most of the reviews that I read are filled with praises. We all know that Mitchell is a stylistic writer and storyteller; I just didn’t want to echo those. It’s for the sake of having a new take on it, which is not actually new because there are similar complaints out there.

      But give me a chance. I’ve decided to review the ratings of the books that I’ve read at the end of each year and rerate them if necessary. So yeah, I’m looking at The Bone Clocks. :D

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  7. Whoa, so much to take in! I’m with you, I struggle to rank some books. For me it’s the books that I know will continue to grow on me and age better with time. Other books if I truly enjoyed them regardless of their writing (eloquence, high language, etc.) I’ll rank higher. It’s a weird system, but I’m not too hyper-vigilant and am probably too nice across the board.

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    • I may have overthought this book rating business! Anyway, the thing is I don’t immediately know which books will grow on me. It takes time to determine that, and that’s why I’m considering rerating my Goodreads books. :)

      Liked by 1 person

    • Oh definitely! There are a few where within a few days, usually before I post my response I know they’re already growing. Some I go and change, others I wait to see if they grow more and eventually I’ll re-read them.

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