Monday, August 2, 2010

Book Reviews... Because You Care

I often can't even remember the books I read, so this year I made a goal of not only reading lots of books, but putting them on a list, and then giving them a grade so I remember what I thought of them. (This is, incidentally, an exact replica of my daddy's system. I'm just trying to finish my daddy's war. You know, against books.)

I want to post my thoughts on my blog in case of the odd converging matrix of coincidences that could lead to somebody else actually wanting to read them.

I thought about a lot of different ways to think about books, and I think trying to create some sort of objective rating for your appreciation of a book is a great idea. Also, it makes me think about what makes different writing good or bad as I weigh the scales.

There are lots of rating systems. The Rotten Tomatoes ratings seem a little too Dewey-Decimal for my tastes, relying on awkwardly exact formulas and creating inexplicably specific percentage scores. The Siskel and Ebert Communal Analog Thumb System (SECATS), on the other hand, strikes me as incredibly knee-jerky and arbitrary.

When I came up with my rating system for these books that I'm reading, I wanted to be able to delineate clear levels of storytelling and writing without so much of the “this book is exactly 2 points better than this book” nit-picking, and the contrived schemes and regulations that must follow such a system.

So, like unto the manner of grading generals, I am going with a four star system.

In my mind, there are theoretically 8 levels of writing (excluding the zero star rating, which I have both logical and mathematical issues with). I've read many books at the 2.5, 3 star level. These are the books that I like to think I read most often—they are certainly the books that I remember best, and enjoy reading.

I can't tell you whether a certain book at the 3 star level is superior to another book at that level, and you'll find that that's often a useless pursuit, anyway. Can one story be better than another, at some point? Can the writing really be that much better when so much of what we humans are concerned with is so different? There's also the function of genre, of course. Can a classic science fiction book really measure against an emotionally rich new literary fiction?

What I didn't want my ratings system to turn into was a top-heavy parade-fest for any book I enjoyed enough to read through. Being excellent “for what it does” isn't enough for a top rating. 4/4 is 100%, which means that it's the best story that I think I'll ever read, or the best writing I think I'll ever read. And frankly, I dunno if I'll ever be qualified to say something like that. I like to think that the best story is still out there, and that the best writing lurks in similar corners. In a way, my reluctance to four-out-of-four these books is a product of my own awareness as an imperfect reader.

I'm likewise wary about the 3.5 rating. After describing the sanctity of the Four, I'm worried that it'll become so untouchable that I simply stuff the 3.5 level with everything I like, and then my ratings become just as meaningless. Three-point-fives are NOT the best stories I'll ever read. However, they are absolutely a cut above the rest.

I've already written a handful of reviews for the books I've read so far, and I'll start posting those every few days (or so). Here's a list of the books whose reviews you can look forward to (or shield your eyes from):

Dune, Starship Troopers, White Sand, Foundation, The Lonely Polygamist, Lord of the Flies, Drown, The Fob Bible, Best American Short Stories of 2009, Watchmen, the A Song of Ice and Fire series, the Graveyard book...and much, much more!

Feel free to chime in with sarcastic remarks, droll comments, timely zingers or blithe cynicisms. Or, y'know, regular thoughts.


Schmetterling said...

You've read the Fob Bible?? Wow, I certainly DO look forward to that review.

So is this post just to say that you HAVEN'T settled on a rating system, then?

On 9 October 2007, I wrote this on my blog after talking about some books I had just read:

{open quote}

I suppose I should come up with some complicated system of rating these works if I'm going to go to the trouble of reviewing them--may as well, anyway.
I don't want it to be too subjective, though, so howabout

Quality and likability being rated 1-10

{close quote}

Now, almost 3 years later, I look back and shake my head at my silliness.

I abandoned that formula when it started giving reviews I didn't agree with, but I still don't have a better system, though....

Carl Duzett said...

No, I'm going with the four star system. (With half stars.)

Though I'm now tempted to go back and see what kinds of scores you pumped out...

Also, yes, I read the Fob Bible earlier this year and have several thoughts about it.