Last week in my Sunday Coffee post, I talked about how my impressions of books tend to change over time. I wanted to sort of continue that talk, specifically with regards to ratings.
Ratings are a really easy way to blanket-classify one’s feelings for a book. They can be given on any sort of scale (stars, caterpillars, mustaches…) and at any range of level (half-stars, quarter stars…). Everyone that uses them seems to have their own system for them. When they’re used, it’s easy to see at a glance what a person thinks of a book. Right?
I have a complicated history with ratings. Back when I first started reviewing books (2008), I never even thought about ratings. Then, getting to know other book bloggers, I saw ratings everywhere, and I wanted them, too. (No, I have no idea why. It just seemed exciting at the time.) When I moved away from my group blog and to my own personal book blog, I began using them. I got a Goodreads account, and put my ratings there as well – though I was annoyed that it didn’t allow half-stars.
While others debated the rating process, I was happy to keep going with my personal system – until late 2009, when I reviewed Born on a Blue Day. For the first time, a book seemed impossible to rate. Should I rate on technical skill? Subject? Personal enjoyment? Some combination? How could I give a star-rating to a book that was essentially a person’s viewpoint of their own life and neurological issues? I wrote a Sunday Salon post about it not long afterwards (sadly lost now), and sometime after, stopped rating books on my blog (though not on Goodreads).
For the next few years, I rated on Goodreads but not on my blog. When I created my private book journal, I added the ratings back in, along with a page to sort books by rating (the same way I have pages to sort by author and title). I got annoyed periodically when my initial star-rating would change, and I’d have to rearrange my pages and tags, but mostly, I just rated the books automatically. When I decided to go public again, I didn’t include ratings here because I was uncomfortable blanket-classifying books as one-star or two-star books. For me, low ratings meant that I didn’t like the book or took issue with the book, but did that really mean the book was only worth one star? It felt mean/rude to make that statement, because it was just too simple. As I said above, everyone has their own way of rating, and “one-star” might mean something completely different to me than someone else who happens upon one of my “one-star” ratings.
As I’ve been transferring reviews from private to public, I’ve noticed, as I said last week, that my feelings for a book will often change over time. I might rate something low only to love the book over time, and vice versa. I initially gave The Cellist of Sarajevo five stars, because it really touched me when I first read it, but six months later, I could barely remember the book, and it faded to a just-okay three stars in my mind. The exact opposite happened with Never Let Me Go. Feelings for a book are very mutable, and thus ratings change over time. I wouldn’t want my ratings to reflect only my initial thoughts, but I also don’t want to go back and change them. So that’s another point against them.
Then there are those books that I’m very conflicted about. I read a book near the end of last year called Born of Illusion. (I’m not linking back to it because I’ve got the review password protected, as it’s less of a review and mostly a discussion of writing technique stuff I want to remember for my own writing.) I noted at the time that the writing was excellent, but at the same time, I felt no spark or connection to the book. That doesn’t mean someone else wouldn’t. I just didn’t. So do I give a higher rating, for it being well-executed, or a lower one, for my personal disconnect? Or somewhere in between, not really saying anything at all?
These are all things I’ve been thinking about lately. I’ve grown very uncomfortable with star-ratings for all these reasons. Uncomfortable enough that I’ve actually gone and cleared all my 900+ ratings from Goodreads. I have other ways to indicate my feelings about a book – reviews, tags – that are far more accurate and nuanced than a simple rating can ever be.