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Why I don’t give review stars

I joined Goodreads* a while ago and only recently have begun posting reviews on the site. Though I can give each book 1 to 5 stars, I decided early on that I wouldn’t give any. I write what I think, but I leave off ranking the books.

Why?

I do have strong opinions about what I like or don’t like. But I find star-ranking reviews to be misleading.

Let me give some examples—three books that I have recently finished (“finished” being a term of art since I only read, from beginning to end, two of the books).

A Wizard of Earthsea cover I have tried and failed to read A Wizard of Earthsea  by Ursula Le Guin several times now. I’ve picked it up, made my way through the first chapter, put it down vowing to continue reading, but then I was invariably distracted by something else on my shelves and didn’t get back to it. This time I made it part way into the second chapter—it took me three sittings. On the fourth, I read half a page and wondered why I was forcing myself to read something I was clearly not enjoying. That’s when I decided I had finished with the book.

I view this as a personal defeat. There are many people, whose reading tastes I respect, who consider the book to be one of the best stories of their young adult lives—a book, for a few, that drew them into the fantasy genre. And Ursula Le Guin is the grande dame of SF & F. There is much I can learn from her work. Unfortunately, what I learned is that there’s something about the voice in that story that totally turned me off—it prevented me from connecting with any of the characters. As a result, each new plot development became glaring: I could see a fall being set up and all I wanted to do was cringe.

If I were to rank the book among the ones in my library, I’d probably give it one star. Yet, in the greater scheme, I know that so many people have loved the tale that it has become a classic. Clearly the story has captured people’s imaginations—and the book’s voice is far less important to them. In fact, folks may like it, or love it, even.

My ranking would be an outlier—i.e., on the extreme of the scale. And my problem with the book is entirely idiosyncratic. I might have thoroughly enjoyed the plot if I hadn’t been so turned off by the voice. A single star would not convey any of this information—and might mislead a reader who has a different taste for voices.

But it’s not only that the stars don’t convey important information. Stars mean different things to different people.

Two Hot Dogs with Everything coverTwo Hot Dogs with Everything by Paul Haven  is a middle grade novel aimed squarely for the middle grade reader. It is filled with amusing baseball lore, quirky characters, a satisfyingly evil villain, and a dollop of magic. Now, although I like baseball well enough, I do not love the sport, and I find game play-by-plays tedious. My review for Goodreads: “A fun book for those who love baseball.”

In fact, for those who love baseball, this book might be worth four or five stars. On my shelves, it’d probably get three. And if I gave it three, would it convey how wonderful I think the book would be to a baseball fan? I need separate star ratings: 5 stars for the baseball lover; 3 stars for those with only a passing interest in the sport; 1 star for people who dislike sports.

And what about the books that I wholeheartedly love? The very things that please me might leave someone else indifferent, or be distasteful to others.

 Bake Sale coverBake Sale by Sara Varon  is the example here. It’s a graphic novel set in a Brooklyn populated by food items that live human lives. The main character is a cupcake who owns a bakery. His best friend is an eggplant who paints (buildings and such). Both play in a band with a doughnut, an egg, a pear, and an avocado.

What follows is an affecting story about friendship. We get to tour some of the memorable if less famous wonders of Brooklyn and NYC while learning a great deal about baking. The art is simple and colorful but cleverly detailed. The only (non-food) human characters appear on a handbill advertising a boxing match. There are plenty of animals—who remain animals—which leads to the wonderful incongruity of a giant cooked turkey leg walking a dog in the park.

The gentle story will please children, and adults who revel in graphic novels (or yummy recipes). If I were to grant stars, the book would get five.

But hold on. I am a fan of naive art. I am amused by the idea of a bag of sugar eating a brownie, but someone else might be turned off by food eating food. The point for me is to revel in the absurdity while capturing the human story portrayed by the characters. My five stars would mislead a reader who might view the book as a bizarre paean to cannibalism.

My point in all of this is that what affects my likes and dislikes is personal. Though others may agree with me, it’s just as possible that what matters to me may not matter to anyone else. No star can convey personal quirks—and so I prefer to leave them out entirely.


*For those unfamiliar with Goodreads, it’s a social site where members post information about books they read.

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