The trouble with Goodreads

As you may have noticed if you’ve clicked over to the About Me page, I’m a pretty avid Goodreads user. Especially since I started really focusing on youth services, I’ve been using Goodreads to keep track of pretty much all of my non-school reading. I read a lot, so it helps me remember what I’ve read, and when I’m actually a working librarian, I hope all the tags I’ve set up for myself will help me answer reader’s advisory questions quickly and easily. I love to see what my friends are reading, and it’s fun to compare my literary tastes with theirs (slash use Goodreads to slow take over their reading lives with YA. Let’s be honest, that’s what I’m really about here).

As I’ve noted here before, I just don’t have the time to write a review of everything I read. Sometimes, especially if I’m not crazy about a book, I choose not to review it. Other times, I don’t write a review because I’m not sure I have anything articulate to say about a book (especially things I really liked. I just read Anna and the French Kiss, and I think I’m not going to review it because the review would go something like this: Paris! Lovable protagonist! Ridiculously attractive/adorable British boy! Boarding school! EXPLOSION OF SWOON! and while that pretty much encapsulates my feelings for the book, it’s not a particularly informative review, unless you know you like explosions and swooning. Secondary side note: almost kissing is equal to or better than ACTUAL kissing. ROMANTIC TENSION). ANYway, regardless of whether or not I review something, I try to make sure I add to my ‘read’ shelf on Goodreads and give a star rating so I can remember that I read it and how much I liked. But the stars, my friends – therein lies the problem.

I can never decide how exactly to determine what star rating to give a book and so am totally inconsistent with my star-bequeathal. Take Anna and the French Kiss, for example. Obviously I LOVED it. So five stars, right? Except, well, maybe when I think about it I’ve read books with more interesting or compelling prose. Ok. Four stars for the swoon. But then again, maybe Stephanie Perkins doesn’t give a rats ass for fancy prose, and just wants to tell a great story, in which case she completely succeeded. Five stars! Or take this year’s Printz winner, Ship Breaker. I read Ship Breaker before the Printz was announced, and I just wasn’t all that in to it. I could see what the author, Paolo Bacigalupi, was doing, and I could see why other people enjoyed it, but it just didn’t speak to me. So I gave it three stars. That seems fair, right? Rating things based on how much I, as a reader and a person, liked them?

Ok, but the problem with that is that I like things for so many different reasons. I loved The Reapers Are the Angels, and I loved Putting Makeup on Dead People, and I loved The Things They Carried, and all of Emily Gravett’s slyly funny picture books, but I love each of them differently and for different reasons. It’s like comparing cake and pie (side note: I’m trying to make that phrase happen in place of apples and oranges, ’cause it’s so much more delicious). How can I decide if five stars of read-it-straight-through-’cause-you-love-Katniss-and-have-to-find-out-what-happens are equal to five stars of read-a-paragraph-or-two-at-at-time -because-the-prose-is-lovely-but-strange a la Marilyn Robinson’s Housekeeping. When you hover over the fifth star on Goodreads, the little pop-up box says, “it was amazing.” But what makes a book amazing? I try, when I read a book and don’t like it, to understand what about it doesn’t appeal to me, because that’s often the difference between three stars and two stars. If I didn’t like the book because I’m not the intended reader, or because it was unpleasant somehow, but I still think the author succeeded in what she was trying to do, that’s a three-star book to me. If I didn’t like the book because the writing was lazy or condescending or cliche-ridden, or the book was somehow offensive, that’s a two-star book. I’ll admit to judging books that are really popular a little more harshly (the only book I’ve give one star to was The Kite Runner, because not only was it, in my opinion, not very good, it was somehow beloved by tons of people, and  that annoyed me because I’m petty and immature).

If I judge not-so-good books on their success, I guess I should judge good books on their success too (and I mean successful writing/storytelling, not commercial success). If Anna and the French Kiss made me weak at the knees, it’s pretty darn successful. I’m still not a hundred-percent sold on the value of the star system, but I’m not sure there’s a better way to do, so stars and subjectivity will have to do.

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2 thoughts on “The trouble with Goodreads

  1. I have this same problem with Netflix. Like, I feel slightly guilty when I give Clueless the same rating as An American In Paris. I’ve just decided to settle for rating something solely on the basis of how much I enjoyed it, and not the “artistry” of a particular work. For example, if I got more pleasure out of reading Hunger Games than The Catcher in the Rye, then I’ll just give Hunger Games more stars. I had to stop thinking of them as services in which I rate books for the sake of other people and more ways to keep track of how much I enjoyed books…

    • I pretty much agree with you, although even that isn’t totally consistent. I find myself going back and changing star ratings sometimes, especially if it’s something that I gave five stars to. I’ll start to think, “Oh, maybe it wasn’t THAT good…” But I’m trying to quit doing that and just stick with my original rating. It has to be based on something, right?

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