This is a guest post from Laura Sackton. Laura is a lifelong reader, writer, and lover of made-up worlds. Until recently, she ran a small organic vegetable farm outside Boston, MA. After fifteen years of farming, she decided it was time to devote herself full time to writing fiction. She currently lives in Nantucket, where she spends her days wrangling a novel-in-prgoress, chasing her dog across the moors, and spending as much time as physically possible in the ocean. She blogs at www.book-open.com.
A few years ago, I started keeping a reading spreadsheet. It includes, among other information, a rating of every book I finish, on scale of 1-5. I’ve been doing this for almost two decades, ever since I started keeping track of what I read. But I’ve been wary of rating books on a scale for a while now, so I decided to sort my 2016 and 2017 spreadsheets by rating. What I found revealed just how useless I believe star ratings actually are.
Books that I’ve awarded four stars in the last two years include Kelly Jensen and Jenn Burke’s Chaos Station series, a delightful science fiction M/M romance, Another Country by James Baldwin, The Dream of a Common Language by Adrienne Rich, the hilarious children’s comic Phoebe and her Unicorn by Dana Simpson, Peter Darling by Austin Chant (an incredible retelling of Peter Pan), Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay, and shockingly, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, an audiobook so incredible that I cannot now imagine what possessed me to give it four stars instead of five.
Looking through this disparate collection of books that I deemed truly wonderful, it is apparent to me that “four stars,” objectively, means little. The list actually makes me uncomfortable: it seems somehow perverse that Phoebe and her Unicorn is rated equally with Another Country. It’s not that Phoebe and her Unicorn—a comic I love and that makes me laugh out loud constantly—is undeserving of four stars. It’s that comparing this wry, silly comic to a searing and serious novel like Another Country is absurd. None of these books are comparable. Rating them on the same scale makes no sense.
I’ve always loosely interpreted a four star rating as “I loved this book.” And while I did indeed love all the books listed above, I didn’t love them in the same way. In the case of the Chaos Station series, four stars meant that it was perfect entertainment: a fun, sexy, fast-paced, satisfying escape. The four stars I gave to Bad Feminist were for the way Gay’s smart and honest essays made me think deeply about feminism, race, and pop culture. Phoebe and her Unicorn has some important messages about friendship and identity, but it was Simpson’s humor that merited its stars. As for The Goldfinch, one of the best novels I’ve ever read and hands-down the best audiobook, even four stars seems a stingy way to articulate how this book is still reverberating though my life.
In this world, I love many things. I love the ocean. I love fresh tomatoes with salt. I love my nephews. I love The Lord of the Rings. I love pilot precise fine tip rolling ball pens. I love my dog. These loves, all valid, are only vaguely related. Our lives are full of big and little loves, loves that hold us and change us, loves as fleeting and fanciful as rainbow sprinkles, powerful loves that define who we are. When I tell my nephew I love him, it means something utterly different from when I tell my friend I love the chocolate chip cookies she baked me. The love of a human being is not comparable to the love of a baked good. Yet I don’t cease to love chocolate chip cookies just because my love for my nephews is more vast than anything I have ever felt for a concoction of flour and sugar.
Nor should I have to rate and compare these different kinds of love. When everything has an opposite—married or single, gay or straight, man or woman, one star or five—no room remains for the tangled web of stories we carry within ourselves. It’s a dichotomy that insists something must be perfect in order to have worth. It excludes all the intersections of experience and identity that make us the flawed, multi-faceted, marvelous beings that we are.
Perhaps this seems unrelated to a system of ranking books, but I believe there is an underlying, and troubling, pattern. We like to put things into boxes, to rank them in order to then compare them and determine their value. It is alluring to be able to define something by simply glancing at it. But all this categorization and ranking corrodes the gorgeous complexity and nuance of our world, reducing its messy contradictions into simple, one word answers. It is not possible to define a book by a number of stars. It is not possible to quantify all the millions of kinds of love on this earth.
Books, like lives, are not uniform; they cannot be measured and judged by the same criteria. Books, after all, are products of human brains and hearts and muscle. Language is an extension of ourselves, and it can no more be summed up with a simple number of stars than we ourselves can be.
On my reading spreadsheet, I’ve stopped ranking books using a scale. Instead, I rate them worthwhile or not worthwhile. When a book moves me deeply, I write about it my reading journal and talk about it to everyone I can. But I’m no longer trying to compare James Baldwin to space opera. If a book moves me, entertains me, challenges me, makes me laugh or weep, surprises me, changes me, or provides me with an escape from reality, I deem it worthwhile. Full stop.