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.