Why no stars? Why I don’t rate the books I read

A fraught topic, no? Yikes. I’ll bite.

A star rating system…I get it: it’s quick. It’s easy. It’s somehow “definitive.”

Which is why I don’t like it.

Five stars have about as much meaning as the phrase “New York Times bestseller” (which is none).

What does it matter if I rate a book with four stars if you and I can’t agree on what four stars even means? Hell if I know what four stars means! My expectations aren’t going to be the same for each book (nor should they be), and those four stars could mean any number of things:

Good characters (what makes a character “good”?) and good pacing (again this vague “good”) but a bit stiff in the dialogue (How do you mean exactly – “stiff”?),

OR

A bland story but perfection in prose (“perfection”?), ingenuity in style and characters I came to love,

OR

Poor writing, maybe even less than mediocre, but a strong and inventive (how so?) story unlike anything I’ve read and one that, despite its sub-par prose, will stick with me even when I leave it behind,

OR

A wealth of ideas, at rare points plodding (though you say “always plodding”), a book that makes me think about things differently and with characters who, though exaggerated, are more real because of this,

OR

Everything – writing, characters, originality, pacing – is near perfection, but….why that stupid side romance and why “stupid”?

And so on.

I read Dostoevsky differently than I read Stephen King, and I read Stephen King differently than I do Vonnegut (whom, again, I read differently than I do J.K. Rowling or Mario Puzo and so on ad infinitum). I expect different things from each.

What I hate is false advertising. And I loathe a story that falls off halfway and then devolves into filler. We don’t need a massive book for good reading, just ask Capote or Hemingway. (Incidentally, both of these guys were journalists. They knew what’s up).

I appreciate a cult classic like Thank You for Smoking as much as I do a modern thriller (looking at you, Stieg Larsson). I like my books thick (War and Peace) and thin (Breakfast at Tiffany’s). I like story-driven books almost as much as I do character-driven books – if it works, but a star or four won’t tell you how it works (or doesn’t work). I like books that have a strong political background (like much of Mahfouz’s writing) and ones that have nothing to do with politics. I like the bestsellers (The Stand) and I like the ones no one knows about (Hangover Square).

Give me a book that’s raunchy and give me a book that hurts my brain. Dense prose or sparse? I prefer thick descriptions, but as a reviewer I know that both methods have their place. A star can’t tell you that.

Different books for different purposes: I still judge them, only I judge them as a reviewer judges them. I judge them according to their purpose and place.

The books I read are constantly shifting about in my head, some of them climbing a steady ascent, others rocketing to the coveted Top Ten status and still others tumbling down a few places (or even being summarily pushed away) the more I read.

Reading and reviewing (that is, judging) books is a bit of a synergistic enterprise, and I try my damnedest to judge them on their aggregate “wholeness,” though it’s only a meager part of this “wholeness” that any human being can hope to transcribe into words, let alone a number.

Stars just don’t cut it. They’re not “definitive” despite their seeming so. They’re too indistinct, too far off, to be “definitive.”

Quite simply, I like good content, and if you don’t need the stars….well, then I guess you like good content, too. I trust many of you are here because, also quite simply, you like to read and read widely, and if you do know what I mean by four stars then we’re on the same page. (Thing is, you’re probably also the ones who read the full reviews – and don’t need the stars).

Happy reading; happy reviewing!

– EMH

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