How To

How to Rate Books: An Unscientific Inquiry


A Goodreads page with ratings for UNBROKEN.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved rating things. My friends and I used to take turns choosing random topics, High Fidelity-style, and coming up with rankings of best movie deaths, best album closers, book characters you’d most want to have dinner with, and so on. In the same vein, I’m always interested in other people’s rankings of things.

I understand that they’re not definitive, but I love getting the little glimpse into somebody else’s mind that a rundown, review, rating or ranking invariably reveals. I mean, what better way is there to get to know someone that discussing their favorite books?

But as much fun as all this rating and ranking can be, it’s also not always easy to put our qualitative impressions of something as complex as, say, a 400-page novel into a 10-point numerical scale or a star rating.

Even setting definitions of what your ratings mean is a challenge. There are a lot of questions you have to answer: How precise am I trying to be? What’s the minimum rating I could give to a book and still recommend it to a general audience? What has to be true of a book for me to give it a 10/10 or 5-star review? Is each number or star an equal distance from the one preceding and following it? Publications like Rolling Stone sometimes offer vague definitions (like “Classic” for four stars and “Very Good” for three and-a-half, for example) for each of their ratings, but they often feel too imprecise and, even after reading their lengthier reviews, inconsistent.

As somebody who likes to be thorough when it comes to my appraisals, I can report that asking enough of these types of questions leads to an almost silly degree of exactitude. I mean, what’s the difference between a 7.4 and a 7.9 (no doubt there’s someone reading this who can tell me exactly what the difference between a 7.4 and a 7.9 is, because Book Riot readers are a wonderfully weird group)?

Speaking of silly levels of precision, there’s the whole formula approach. I’ve tried coming up with something reliable a few times (assigning and adding up individual scores for plot, writing, characters, originality, and emotional resonance, for example), but it always feels like I’m morphing into J. Evans Pritchard from the first page of the poetry textbook in Dead Poets Society. RIP! RIP IT OUT! Still, though it hasn’t worked for me, I see the appeal. Coming up with a standardized formula would, theoretically, keep things consistent over time, so you really could know how you felt about book A compared to book B, even if you read them years apart. Plus, there’s something about trying to objectively measure the subjective that some of us just can’t help. Far be it for me to stand in the way of your climb up that particular mountain.

Of course, if you find numbers and stars too reductive, you can always go with the more fully-fleshed out subjective review. The internet has certainly made it possible for anyone and everyone to offer up their unfiltered opinions — at length — on their favorite and least favorite of just about everything. But let’s be honest: for many readers, just finding enough time in the day to get through a couple dozen pages can feel like a Herculean task. Trying to also make room for full-scale reviews is not always plausible.

I’m sure many of you find all this hand-wringing absurd. Perhaps you simply “feel” ratings in your gut (or your heart, or in whichever organ you’d like to associate with literary appreciation), mark ‘em down, and move on. Why is a two-star book a two-star book? “Because the only thing I liked about it was that character who owned the pig farm, OK? Now hand me another book.”

I respect this more holistic approach, but I fear that I veer a little too far to the analytical side to feel comfortable making this kind of assessment without at least a little more investigation into my own brain.

As you can tell, I have a lot of thoughts about this, and none of them comes close to answering the question posed by the title of this piece.

And so I’m turning it over to you. Share with me your systems for rating and ranking books (or if you apply the same system to a different kind of media, pass that along too), and maybe in the wisdom of the crowd, I’ll find a way — or, more likely, a combination of ways — to rate books that works for me.

Post your comments below, send me a tweet (@JoshACorman), or email me (josh at riotnewmedia dot com). Elaborate charts, diagrams, rubrics, and incantations are encouraged.

Just don’t rate this piece. I couldn’t take it if it got lower than a 7.9. Seriously, a  7.4 would just crush me.