Star Ratings for Books | A Discussion

There was a bit of discussion on the interwebs not that long ago, about the enjoyment of reading and how or why you can fall out of it. It sparked some interesting debates which you can find with Mercy’s Bookish Musings, Savidge Reads and Ariel Bissett over on YouTube, who all have their own interesting views on the subject and you should go and check them out.

But one thing that has clicked into place for me, and which I’d like to talk about here, is star ratings for books.

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I never really thought twice about giving star ratings to books. It’s something we do. We, as a species, like to rate and rank things – this thing is better than this thing by an amount of this much, in my opinion. And star ratings (or, more simply, a scale of 1-5) is a simple and effective way of doing that.

But you, if you are bookish at all and familiar with Goodreads, will have lamented with everyone else about the lack of “half stars” on the platform. A book not being good enough for a 5*, but better than a 4*. Personally, I tend to rate up in these situations as it benefits the author and I think that’s vitally important to the book industry. But my thoughts on that another time.

What this cry out for half stars does show, however, is that there is something severely lacking in the star department. It is simply not nuanced enough. It is, in essence, a blanket term for something far more complex. Some 5* books can easily have flaws, problems that you pick up in the process of reading. However, the physical and emotional reaction to the book is still profound enough that we can overlook these flaws and give it a higher rating. A flawless book might leave us a little cold and only achieve that 4.5*. Or maybe, as I have found through contemplating this point, it is that you come across a book where rating systems are simply redundant.

Several times this year I have come across a book that has left me with a certain sensation, a feeling beneath my skin that cannot be quantified by stars. I simply can’t express these sentiments in numeric-celestial classification. I can’t even properly articulate it in sensible (or even nonsensical) prose. I have experienced. Experiences carry more profundity in them than can be simplified by a rating system.

On the flip side, I find rating books I haven’t enjoyed a lot easier than ones that I have. A 1* book is fairly self-explanatory. A 2* is sneaking towards mediocre. But then things start to get a bit fuzzy from there for most people. Many turn up their noses at a 3*. Why? Surely that is ‘average’ or ‘pretty good’. Enjoyable, but not going to start any riots any time soon. Or very good but equally incredibly flawed. Or great until about halfway through. Or the movie was better… Yeah, no, didn’t believe that as I was typing it, either.

But you can see where the murkiness starts to come in. Star ratings will remain, because they are the simplest form of getting our opinions across – I do still add a rating to a book once I’ve marked it as finished on Goodreads, partly out of habit and partly as I would like to shape my experience into something more solid. However, I’m not sure we should place such deep thought on how we interpret another person’s rating. Because, by both virtue and flaw of its simplicity, it is inaccurate.

Surely, then, that means we should read reviews rather than looking at stars? Reviews contain the deeper thoughts of the reader who gave the rating in the first place. Absolutely true. But not everyone has time to write a review – I certainly don’t, which is why this blog is a lot more sparse than it used to be; why my Goodreads reviews are limited to a couple of lines.

Part of me likes the idea of a chart, or a spectrum of colour in some kind of synesthesia-based assessment of sensation. This book is blue; this one orange; this one the colour of a particular strand of my cat’s fur that I happened to notice on a very fine day in June 2009. I’m not sure getting rid of ratings altogether helps anyone in the long term, but perhaps we can find something that allows us to share our experiences simply, not simplified.

Or maybe I’m making too much out of this. Maybe the system is fine, and it’s me that’s flawed. Now that’s a thought …

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Let’s have a chat. Am I crazy? Are the stars crazy? What is crazy? Let me know your thoughts down below!

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