0/5 For the Book Review System

Whether it’s a book, a film, or even an idea, we associate it with a certain numerical score. We can read Shakespeare’s Hamlet and give it a five-star review, and then read the latest instalment of the Fifty Shades of Gray series and give it a zero. This is the way that we recommend various titles to one another… but why?

emily-pics-3I’ve been writing book reviews for a while now but have never yet been tempted to conclude a review with any kind of score. To me, summing up a book with a number is simply wrong.

My first question is: what are we grading these books on? How much we enjoyed them? Whether we would recommend them to a friend? How thought-provoking they were? How frightening they were? Or, perhaps, how easy to read they were? Trust me, there are a lot more questions like this that I could ask, but I won’t, because there isn’t there an answer.

Whilst some people may rate a book on how much they enjoyed it, others might rate it on its ability to make them cry. This latter option might be unlikely, but there are no set rules with book reviews. People rarely seem to define their grading systems, or even ask themselves why they exist.

This isn’t the only problem, either. Even if we clearly distinguish what we are going to be rating a book on, we are still allowing ourselves to compare something like Hamlet to Fifty Shades of Gray, simply by using the same system.

It doesn’t make much sense, and here’s the reason: books are complex.

A book isn’t only made up of its plot. There are the characters, the language, the narrator, the pace, the climaxes, the ideas, the surprises and the way in which they are all delivered. On top of that, there’s the book’s cover and blurb, and although we tell ourselves to not judge a book on its cover, that’s not always an easy thing to do.

So, as I said, books are complex.

To summarise all these features through a single number is not only going to be entirely subjective (and probably inaccurate, if you neglected to consider the pace in one book review, but did so in another), but it’s wrong. There’s too much to a book to simply reduce it in this way; in my mind, its an insult. Books are powerful things that can affect people in many hundreds of different ways, yet if one reviewer doesn’t like it, they can brand it with a zero.

I’m not going to tell you that books have souls or anything like that, but by giving a bad book review, you can prevent other people from reading a book that may appeal to them. This is well justified when you are able to explain why you didn’t like a book, but if you’ve already done that, then why do you need to stamp that number underneath your explanation? It undermines your own review, in a way, because it suggests that the reasons don’t mean anything: all that matters is that number.

I realise that I am going to come across many ways of reviewing books as I continue to read and write and, at some point, will probably also be asked to give a book a rating. I will do it if that’s what a company wants me to do, but I won’t like doing it. I will do it carefully, but I will hate it, because, when it comes down to it, it’s not something that I think we should do. Numbers are simple and books, well… books are complex.

This post originally featured on Sue Vincent’s Daily Echo as a guest post. I wrote it a little ago when in the midst of my reading and decided to share it on my own blog. Thanks for reading! If you have any thoughts, please do leave me a comment below – it’ll make my day!

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7 thoughts on “0/5 For the Book Review System

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  1. In agreement about the worthlessness of numerical ratings. It’s part of a general trend in the modern world to convey a false sense of precision to qualitative matters. And, of course, quantitative assessments work out a lot better for databases.

    The only time I use a numerical ranking system is when a platform like Amazon or LibraryThing forces me to.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s probably true; like many modern trends, it’s a way of chunking information into smaller pieces so that people don’t have to read so much.

      Thanks so much for reading; I’m glad I’m not alone in my opinion!


  2. Fantastic point. Numerical scores are far too arbitrary and have different meanings and associations for different people. A longer, more thoughtful review that ends with a recommendation is far more useful, I think, as long as readers have time on their hands. Good post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much! I’m glad that you agree; numerical scores at the ends of book reviews have always bothered me – they don’t make sense and can undermine the entire review.

      Liked by 1 person

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