I’ve been on Goodreads for a little over a year now, and I’ve officially decided: I’m a fan. The site does a number of great things. It provides you with a tidy list of your reading past and offers you a space in which to plan for your reading future. It sparks global conversations about books, gives you the chance to meet other readers and writers (as well as keep in touch with the ones you already know), and makes all kinds of valuable (and often spot-on) recommendations.
Then there are the ratings. They’re optional, of course, but from the beginning I opted to use them. Goodreads employs a five-star scale. The ratings are supposed to correspond to the following responses:
1 star: “did not like it”
2 stars: “it was ok”
3 stars: “liked it”
4 stars: “really liked it”
5 stars: “it was amazing”
The emotion-based, conversational tone of these ratings helps keep things on the site casual. They prevent you from taking yourself too seriously (something that many book critics tend to do, and that I myself will begin doing in about two paragraphs).
At first, I didn’t think much about the ratings. I used Goodreads more as a virtual catalog of what I’d read, when I’d read it, and what I happened to feel and think about it at the time. But gradually, as my catalog grew, I began to think a lot more about how many stars I was giving this or that book. I might sign on to the site thinking that I’d give the book I’d just finished three stars, but then see that I’d given some other book three stars last month. Suddenly, I’d be torn – because this month’s book’s characters were so much more finely drawn than last month’s. But then again, the plot sagged a little toward the middle of this month’s book, and last month’s was taut, propulsive all the way through.
These are problems inherent in any simplified rating system. How do you distill 100,000 words and hours and hours of active reading into “liked it” or “really liked it”? The five-star scale is a blunt instrument. That’s one of the reasons Goodreads used the language they used and didn’t, say, assign 5 stars “flawless classic” and 1 star “hopeless piece of inarticulate crap.” They’re trying to keep the atmosphere loose and laidback.
But, perhaps inevitably, I stopped being loose and laidback about my ratings. I started to worry about them, to go back and tweak them according to new analyses (if you’ve read previous posts about my perfectionist tendencies, this should come as no surprise: here and here), and even stop in the middle of reading a book to ask myself, What would I give this thing on Goodreads?
If anyone who works for Goodreads happens to be reading this right now, they’re probably jumping up and down with glee, seeing as this is exactly the sort of reflexive response they want to cultivate in readers. It’s good for business.
But one great thing that the business that is Goodreads has done: it’s leveled the playing field. By encouraging people to publicly post their opinions about the books they read, the site is quietly according some legitimacy to those opinions, ones that had heretofore been unavailable and/or ignored. It’s letting the common, average readers of the world know that their thoughts and feelings about books matter, and that they can take their reading lives seriously (the rating system then reminds them not to get too serious, that reading can and often should be fun, that the majority of people on the site are book-lovers just like them).
Of course, there are plenty of people who use this public space crudely and cruelly. People who will post (and then, often, post and post and post some more) with malicious, ignorant, or plain bad-sportsmanlike intent. But if you’re a good reader – and, if you’re active on Goodreads, I think it’s safe to assume that you’re at least a somewhat discerning, open-minded reader – you can typically tell what sorts of reviews you should take into consideration and which you should probably ignore.
Here’s another criticism I’ve heard about Goodreads (and that has no doubt been voiced about any site that allows people to post personal opinions): that opening up the gates and giving any amount of legitimacy to unvetted opinions will lower the level of our national discourse, like each publically posted, unprofessional opinion will act as a sandbag tied to the ankles of American Culture. And yes, it’s possible – and even, based on numbers alone, likely – that the typical Goodreads reviewer doesn’t have the same sort of reading and/or educational background as the typical “book critic” (by which I mean someone who publishes their opinions about books professionally, for money, as a career or part of their career).
But to me, that’s a good thing. I read The New York Times Sunday Book Review, pay attention to who’s receiving awards and accolades, and have a handful of trusted book critics whose recommendations and writings I closely follow. But I don’t want to, and don’t feel comfortable, making decisions about what to read and what to think about what I’ve read based solely on these “sanctioned” opinions. I might also want to know what a schoolteacher in South Africa thinks about a book, how it made a high school kid feel, and why some guy in England is telling me to drop everything I’m doing and read the thing now. And the fact that I can find all that out – well, that’s pretty freaking cool.
So long as you recognize how blunt of an instrument the five-star scale is, so long as you read posted reviews with a grain or two of salt (which goes for those professionally published, “sanctified” reviews, too) – and so long as you don’t let either get in the way of your enjoyment of and empathetic involvement in reading – thinking about how you’d rate and write about a book while you’re in the middle of it is an excellent way to keep yourself critically engaged. If you feel like you’re reading a four-star novel, and then suddenly read a chapter that has you thinking three stars, it will (hopefully) get you thinking about why these pages aren’t as gripping or effective as the previous ones. And as a reader, these are extraordinarily productive questions to ask.