On book ratings (the one-to-five star variety)

I recently went onto goodreads and deleted every rating I had ever given a book.

Crazy? Let me explain.

Giving a book a rating that can fall into only one of five categories is, at least for me, one of the most ridiculous processes ever. First of all, how often in life do you ever experience something and say, “that was a FOUR.” For me, the answer is never. That number means nothing. It is irrelevant except for the fact that someone told me a four means really good but not fall-off-your-seat, scream-it-from-a-mountain great.

Having a number be a representation of one’s personal and emotional reaction is already a bit of a stretch for me. But I think the bigger issue is that these five-star scales assume we are rating based on that experience alone. How did you feel about THIS book? Was it great? OK? It’s like a trick question. I can’t answer how I feel about this one book without thinking about others. Our impressions of things, as human beings, are constantly based on our experiences, on how they compare to other experiences. Nothing is singular.

How about some real-world examples:

It’s dinner time and I want some pizza. I decide to try a new place I haven’t ordered from before. Well the pizza comes and it’s pretty darn delicious. I say it’s a four out of five, based on my other, life-long pizza-eating experiences. The next time I’m in the mood for pizza, I order from the same place, only this time, the pie is not quite as good as the first. It doesn’t live up to everything I remember from pizza #1, but it is still good, so I give it a three. The following week, I decide I’m sick of pizza and order sushi instead, and OHMYGOSH, it is soooo much better. How did I ever think that first pizza was even four-star good? Sushi is four-star good. Actually no, it’s five-star good! It’s amazing! I want to tell everyone I know about it.

So enough about pizza and sushi. Let me make my point:

  • We* rate books based on our general experiences with other books. When I read THE HUNGER GAMES, I subconsciously compared it to other reads in the YA post-apocalyptic/dystopian genre. My rating was a result of how I felt the novel stacked up, as well as my reaction to the story on a personal level. This is like the first time I ate from the new pizza place and compared it to my other pizza-eating experiences.
  • When a book is a part of a series, we rate it on how it contributes to the whole. CATCHING FIRE, for example, wasn’t just another book, it was the second piece of a much larger story. My rating was a result of my general experience with the book, how it compared to others in the genre, and most importantly, how I felt about Katniss’ continued tale and the newly expanding story arc. This is like when I ordered from the pizza place again and compared the second pizza to the first. My rating was a result of a food experience that spanned multiple dinners.
  • When we rate books that are incomparable, those stars start to mean different things altogether. Before I cleared my ratings on goodreads, I had given THE HUNGER GAMES five stars. I’d also given a non-fiction book that I’d read for work five stars. The non-fiction book got five stars because – at least for me – it was a fantastic resource. The fictional book got five stars for different reasons. This is like when I ate sushi and thought it was the best thing ever, especially compared to pizza. Is it fair to compare these two distinct cuisines? Maybe not. Or maybe it is, and I just like sushi better. And this is FINE.

It’s fine because we, the reader and rater, know what those numbers mean to US. We rated them. The schema makes sense in our own heads because we are basing them on our own experiences.

The problem arises when ratings are used to represent a product, and worse, when they are used as a substitute for reviews. A book that was three-stars good to me, may be five-stars good to someone else. And this is why I cleared my ratings. Because I don’t want to influence anyone based on one measly number that is a result of some weird comparison metric happening inside my twisted head.

So instead, I took every book review I’d written on my blog and copied it over to goodreads. Because that book that I rated three-stars? I had some really constructive comments in my review. Some of them were criticisms, some of them were praise, but my feelings and reactions to the book were at least clearly articulated. If a reader is wondering, “Do I want to give this book a try?” and my opinion on the book will factor into their decision, I’d much rather influence them with a review than a string of stars.

In short, I’ve decide this:
» Reviews are for readers.
» Ratings are for yourself.

So I’m sorry goodreads, but I will no longer be telling you how I feel about a book with a series of little red stars. I’ll be telling you how I feel about a book with WORDS**. You’ll get a much better idea about how I truly feel with this process anyway.

And if you absolutely must know which books I swooned over, if it’s still not crystal clear in my written reviews, you can just check my favorites shelf. Rest assured that those are my five-star books. Or more accurately, my oh-my-god-it’s-so-good-there’s-no-way-any-number-of-stars-could-do-it-justice books.

* When I say “we” I mostly mean myself and what I assume to be most other people. This post is by no means scientific. Nor is it based on any legitimate research.
** I realize that I could rate AND review books and that would be a very clear representation of my feelings as well, but I ultimately don’t think a star rating helps me communicate. For some people, it works, and that’s how they like to share their reaction. For me, it’s always been difficult. And truthfully, it is sometimes harder for me to pick a rating than it is to just write a paragraph. I’ll spend a half hour wondering is this three stars good or four?, panicking because I actually think it’s a 3.5 and there’s no option for that. All that stress could be alleviated if I just used words to begin with. So yeah. That’s what I’ll do from now on.

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