The Fault in our Arbitrary Stars

Reading without reflecting is like eating without digesting – Edmund Burke

I despise the star system.

No, not those burning balls of gas light-years away, but the rating system so often signified by stars (sometimes letter grades).

Netflix and Goodreads use them to help us assess the quality of our entertainment. Amazon uses them to help us select the highest quality microwaveable cat water bowl. From Yelp to YouTube, stars abound, and we are under fire daily from companies to relay our opinions.

How flattering, one is tempted to think.

But what do those stars mean? In the aggregate, I think stars are useful for helping us make sound choices. “That balance ball chair has four and a half stars? One-click buying, here I come!” Or “This crappy looking horror movie appears to have ZERO stars. Watch now!”

It’s typically easy for me to rate that commercial-sized box of beef jerky (“can I give it SIX stars?!?”) or the level of service I received at the Wendy’s drive-thru. But it’s a little harder when it comes to art, which is much more subjective and complicated.

I am someone who dislikes absolutes. I’m always quick to qualify an “I loved it!” with “I loved it! But…” I often find 5 stars doesn’t allow for enough nuance. On Goodreads, I typically give 3 stars to books that weren’t terrible, books I didn’t actively dislike, or books that are “good” but never really inspired me. It’s an emotional choice, especially when it comes to fiction.

But it also means juxtaposing books that have no reason to ever exist on the same bookshelf, much less in the same star category. I could never compare the dreary, yet proficient Drood by Dan Simmons with the wonderful, exhausting weirdness of Infinite Jest, yet there they sit, side by side, 3 stars to each.

The star system leaves too many unanswered questions. What if I didn’t enjoy a book, but admit that it was well-written and I probably wasn’t the target audience? Orphan X by Gregg Hurwitz was probably well-written and certainly included a lot of detail, but I’m pretty sure Audible tricked me into listening to it, because that secret agent stuff just isn’t my bag (Ditto to Divergent and The Maze Runner). 

What about classics? If you have ever tried to read The Origin of Species or The Interpretation of Dreams, then first, I applaud you, and second, I’m sorry. These books started revolutions, Natural Selection and Psychoanalysis, respectively, but they are hard to read. Nobody does digression like old-timey white male authors. So how do I rate it?

And what do the ratings mean? Imagine I am a normal American making a judgment between two books I’ve never read based on ratings: The Scarlet Letter and The Hunger Games. On Goodreads, The Hunger Games has a 4.36 average rating. The Scarlet Letter has a 3.36 average rating. Therefore, The Hunger Games is a superior novel to The Scarlet Letter. 

What?!? That’s like saying this donut is better than your clam chowder. There are too many differences to compare the two (Like, what time of day is it? What are you in the mood for? Is there jelly in the donut? What is the potato to clam ratio in the soup?).

Star ratings are an easy way to give instant opinions (and Lord knows, we have a lot. See: blogs). I have a few 1 star ratings on my Goodreads and even fewer 5 star ratings, but the majority fall squarely in the middle, a bell curve that ultimately means little.

Is there a better way? My advice is this: Read. Just read the book, form your own opinion, feel free to love or hate it regardless of what Goodreads users or the New York Times thinks about it. And then go read some more.

*Unrated Material

5 Star Ratings on my “Read” Bookshelf:

  • The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
  • We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
  • A History of Last Night’s Dream by Joseph Kamenetz
  • How the Grinch Stole Christmas! by Dr. Suess
  • The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson

1 Star Ratings on my “Read” Bookshelf:

  • The Entire Twilight Series by Stephenie Meyer
  • Halloween Rain (Buffy the Vampire Slayer #1) by Christopher Golden
  • Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
  • House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski
  • Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen
  • The DaVinci Code by Dan Brown
  • Plague of the Dead by Z.A. Recht
  • Cell by Stephen King
  • The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
  • The Mist by Stephen King
  • A Walk to Remember by Nicholas Sparks
  • Left Behind by Tim LaHaye






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