Wednesday, June 10, 2015

What a Three Star Review Means to Me

I was on Book Riot recently and saw post about an author who had a meltdown on Goodreads because a person read his book and gave it one lonely star. He seemed to view this as a personal attack on him an on all that is good in humanity. I have also read/heard some authors say how they would much prefer five stars or one star over a three star review on the theory that a three star review means the book didn't provoke a strong interest in the reader one way or another. Love and hate are strong emotions and perhaps a three seems too boring. All this got me thinking about what a starred rating means to me.

Before Goodreads I never rated books. I kept a paper journal where I wrote what I thought and felt about a book. This never took the form of a rating, stars or otherwise. Then came Goodreads and its star rating system. I rarely rate books in my paper journal but feel kind of compelled to do so on Goodreads. Most of the books I rate on Goodreads are three stars. Three stars is good. It means I liked the book. It means I’m glad to have met the characters and spent some time in the world the author created. Three stars means that although reading the book so rated may not have been a life changing experience for me, my time was nevertheless well spent.

Remember when you were a teenager and everyday seemed like either the best day or the worst day of your life? I'm exhausted just thinking about being teenager. As an adult I find some days are spectacular, a few are truly horrible, but most are good. Perhaps even pretty good. In other words, somewhere in the middle. I feel this more or less applies to books as well. A significant portion of my reading consists of threes and that seems right to me. I hear people say that life is too short to not read great books but how do you know a book is great until you’ve read it? And how could it possibly be that every book you pick up ends up being truly great? If not for any reason besides statistics it seems that most would fall short of being great, but still might be good.

Favorite books I can’t stop thinking about, that I want to reread again and again, that spoke to me deeply in some way – those get a five. Four stars are pretty good books but not the best because every book cannot be the best or “the best” wouldn’t mean anything as a category and also because not all great books become favorite books. One star means I really didn’t like it, so much so that if I own the book I won’t own it for much longer. Two stars are where things get tricky. A two-starred book is a book I had issues with. I may not have particularly liked it but can see that it has some redeeming qualities.

When it comes to other people’s ratings, I take it all with a grain of salt and am amazed that anyone takes the Goodreads rating system with any degree of seriousness. For one thing, there is no agreed upon criteria for reviewing books. Anne might consider three stars a pretty good book while Betty equates three starts with mediocrity. You just never know. Every so often I come across people who have given every book on their Read shelf four or five stars and I think well this person likes everything and therefore cannot be trusted because who likes everything.

I do pay attention to the stars but mostly to get a sense of extremes. If I’m contemplating a book by an author I’ve never heard of before, particularly if the book came to my attention in a less traditional way, then I look for a five star review, a one star review, and a three star review. When you love something, it is easy to overlook the flaws, and vice versa, hence the one and five star reviews. As for threes, they tend to recognize the strengths and the weaknesses of a book. More importantly, I don’t just look at the stars. I read the review. That’s where the gold is. In the end the stars don’t mean much, but your thoughts do. 

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