There is and has been a great deal of discussion concerning how we rate books in relation to our opinion. Many people advocate it, many suggest steering clear, and many others say one should do as they will. I’m personally of that third group, seeing the benefits to both options and preferring to keep ratings myself because it helps me to sum up what I thought. But recently I’ve started questioning my impartiality.
I have on occasion looked back at the lists of books I’ve read in previous years and wonder if I wasn’t a little too harsh in my meting out a 2/5 to this particular book, or a little too generous in my gifting a 5/5 to another. Maybe at the time of writing the review, I felt undecided. This is a feeling I know most readers have and is often a reason for dispensing with ratings altogether. It makes sense – why rate a book if you’re not completely sure you’ve made the right decision? In this case I end up feeling bad, no matter which way I rated, and this feeling can last a while.
But what about those times when you look back, knowing why you gave it the rating you did, but it no longer aligns with your thoughts? You know why you gave that rating, perhaps you felt a particular awe for the story because it fit a topic you were studying, it suited your mood, or, at the other end of the scale, someone had told you about an undesirable trait of the author and this clouded your opinion. These are all acceptable and accepted happenings, but on looking back you realise how much those facts altered the rating you assigned to the book. And now, because you’re no longer studying you can see where you were biased, and so on.
In those situations, which in my experience cropped up a lot in my first year of blogging before I worked out a reviewing routine, we can change the ratings. We can say “I messed up” and edit our blog post, or we can leave it and say “I leave it because tthe rating is an appropriate reflection of how I felt at the time”. These are the choices we have, along with the decision to drop ratings from our system in future.
But there is something I think it’s important to consider and that is that ratings can show how we’ve changed as a person, as a reader. If we read a classic as a child and don’t understand it, we would say we hated it. If we later re-read it, knowing the author’s background and the context of the story, and having obtained knowledge of society at that time, we will say that we now enjoy it and can appreciate it. This is an extreme example perhaps, but the one most widely known. And whilst a review itself, in all it’s wordy glory, can tell us the same, it’s not as raw as a rating.
In the case of a child reading a classic we have changed from someone who knew nothing about, say, the Victorians, to someone who could hold their own during a detailed conversation. Just as a change in the genre we read suggests a change of person, so does a difference in rating later on. This is another, greater, reason why I keep ratings, because I like to see the change. I like to note events such as my awed 5/5 given to what I now see is a very flawed biased book (no link to a review because this has been the case on many occasions). And I like to see that when I gave Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone a lot of love years ago, I do the same still, but my love today is due to the fact that it is well-written and a good children’s book rather than that the story is fantastic.
So which rating do we trust, the one of weeks passed or of our bright shiny today? Both are surely as important and trust-worthy as each other as long as contexts are applied. My specular rating of a book I now see as bad will help a teenager who is looking for the same things I was then, but my newer rating will help someone who is in the same place I am currently in. And whilst my good rating of a now-considered-bad non-fiction will help a student not make the mistake I did and not consume falsehood thinking it factual, it may aid them in creating the other side of the argument.
There are so many reasons ratings are worthwhile, and I think that as long as we remember that they aren’t the be all and end all, they deserve to be given as much consideration as the idea of not rating.
What are your thoughts on ratings – do you use them? Why/why not?
August 27, 2012, 2:00 am
I don’t use ratings on my blog, but I do use them when I’m posting reviews on Goodreads, Amazon or LibraryThing. I find that in the context of an individual review, a star rating is not that useful – the review itself gives (or at least should give) far more of a sense of how I felt about the book than a number possibly could. If I’ve written my review properly, the reader should know what rating I would give, and a lot more besides.
I find the ratings more useful in situations where data can be aggregated and organised, like on the sites I mentioned. When I’m looking at books on Goodreads, for example, I often compare them using their average ratings. It’s not perfect, of course, but the more ratings there are, the better it works. So I contribute my own ratings to the system, and it also helps me organise my books – I can quickly sort by stars and see which books I loved and which I hated.
August 27, 2012, 2:20 am
I no longer use ratings on my blog for exactly the reasons you listed above – sometimes I go back and think that the rating is not what i feel about the book any more. But is a later opinion more valid than one made in the moment? I don’t know. I do rate on all the other websites as they require you to do so, but I don’t love doing it.
August 27, 2012, 12:22 pm
I don’t rate on my blog when I am doing ‘reviews’, not that I am sure I am even reviewing books – I am just writing about what I did and did not an enjoy and any subtext I pick up on; A continuum on opinions, if you will. There is a way to write a review almost objectively but, as subjective humans, opinions will out. I like varied reviews on books, because then I know what type of people enjoyed it and work out if I will enjoy it also.
I do, however, rate on GoodReads and I have been known to go back and change a rating, mainly because if I don’t remember it’s impact on me now, a while after reading, it can’t be worthy of the highest rating now.
August 27, 2012, 6:00 pm
I don’t use ratings simply because my enjoyment is highly based on how I feel about a book, which I don’t think can be summed up in a number.
August 28, 2012, 1:29 am
I think you have quite nicely summed up why I don’t rate books at all: my feelings change, or perhaps I was ambivalent in the first place. Plus, I want another reader to come to the book fresh, without being overly influenced by my opinion. It’s hard for me to write a review if I really didn’t like the book because the author worked so hard, and I hate hurting feelings! Therefore, I’ll say it, briefly, if a book doesn’t strike a chord with me. And I’ll rave about it if it does. But as for ratings? They’re too subjective for me to use with any certainty.
Another point you bring up which is quite interesting is how we “like” a book if we understand it. We need to bring a little background knowledge, as I teach my class, to a novel so that we can connect with it. I think part of why I abandoned Bolano’s Savage Detectives, for example, is because I just couldn’t relate to it; I didn’t have a reference for it. Or, it bored me silly, either one.
August 28, 2012, 2:34 am
Great topic for consideration – I don’t use them on the blog, and even am even often uncomfortable rating books on goodreads – sometimes an overwhelming love for a book is so clear, even when you know it has some issues, and yet there are other books that are technically well written that don’t move you in the same way- how do you balance that out? sometimes it’s very clear, when it isn’t it can feel unfair to brand a book with a number, especially publicly. and sometimes they shift in comparison with one another!
August 28, 2012, 5:26 pm
Andrew: I agree with that, a review should be able to say by itself what the opinion and even the rating would be. That’s why I like that ratings are a personal decision and that we can use them on other sites instead, if wanted. Your point about book sites is a good one, in those cases it’s easier to look at numbers first, words later.
Aarti: Yes, and that’s what comes into my mind, too. You can look back at earlier reviews and cringe, and yes you can change them on your site, but does that make you untrustworthy? I don’t mind rating on Goodreads, but I think it could do with half-stars so that there is more chance to say what you really thought.
Alice: “Continuum on opinions” isn’t a bad way of putting it. I think you do review, though whether what any of us bloggers do is officially a “review”, who knows? I like that the word is changing in its meaning to encompass more variety. Knowing a bit about the person who reviewed is so important to knowing if you’ll like the book too, and yes to varied reviews. I tend to pick a negative one as my introduction to lessen those pesky high expectations. That’s a good point of remembering ratings.
Jessica: A good point. Feelings from a scale of 1 to 10 is pretty difficult to say because one person’s 1 is another’s 3. My ratings are definitely personal, be it an (as much as possible) objective rating.
Bellezza: A more informative, factual review. Saying a book didn’t strike a chord with you is a good way of putting it, because the reader can fill in the rest from what you’ve said, and you’re able to get around the issue of being too negative. The understanding of context is something I’ve come to realise from my inability to appreciate school literature classes. In my adulthood and with the time to do a bit of research I’ve learned how important knowing the background is. Perhaps the Bolano was unsuccessful for both reasons?
Jennifer: That’s something I’ve found it’s important to work around, a big love for a book that you know is actually not too good. In those cases, and the reverse one you mention, I think it’s important to establish for yourself which you’re going to follow – as in are you going to rate in accordance with objectivity or with your heart? Either would be just as valid, and as long as you always conform to a single method it would feel more credible. Comparisons can be a pain!