For all I tell myself that I am objective in how I view the books I read, the movies I watch, and in general any media I consume, I am acutely aware that I am lying to myself. As a human, I am a collection of biases and opinions. My thoughts are the products of my household and education, personal decisions and unexpected struggles, a balancing act between how I see the world now and the desire to grow into new perspectives. My tastes lead to conclusions that are neither universal nor the One True Reading. The joy of the internet is that we all get to share these aspects of ourselves, and in the case of books, our opinions often have the privilege of including a star rating. Who hasn’t agonized just a little over whether a book deserves 3 or 4 stars on Goodreads? Who hasn’t cursed the lack of a half-star option? Probably a lot of people, honestly, but the passionate can get caught up in the minutiae of such things.
Recently I found myself in the position of having finished a book and feeling completely incapable of labeling it with those coveted, fickle stars. I began reading Gaute Heivoll’s Before I Burn on January 22; Goodreads informs me that I marked it as “read” on March 31. In the intervening two months I read two other novels, a novel-length fanfiction, and a handful of graphic novels. On a surface level, the data suggests that I was not enjoying my original literary pursuit and so flitted my way through other stories. On the contrary, I found Before I Burn a deeply considered work, reflecting on the nature of self and community, with prose that flirted with magical realism and carefully regulated narrative tension. I had been anticipating reading the book for months, waiting for my bank account to have enough free funds to justify the purchase. I even made the point of typing out some notes in my memo app while I read, so I could return to my thoughts at the end and revise. By all expectations, I was sure I’d have it read within a week. But there was one horrendous, subjective problem: it simply wasn’t the right time.
We all have stories that find us at the perfect moment. Somehow, someway, fate or chance or the random number generator running this simulation we perceive as life pulls the strings so that we get a story when we need it most. Reading Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita in my senior year high school English class was, at the time, simply an enjoyable academic assignment, but it opened my fascination with literature that reimagines religious tradition. More importantly, it planted the seeds for me to become more critical, over the next three and a half years of college, of the religion I was raised in, and thus directly impacted the person I am today. Justin Hocking’s memoir, The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld, was the first Goodreads giveaway I won, back in April 2014, and remains one of my most powerful reading experiences. At a time when I was at odds with my identity and faith, Hocking’s story reflected my concerns; though aspects of us are wildly different, his questions and insecurities, dreams and experiences, were in many ways in perfect resonance with my own. His memoir stabilized me, and I have held it incredibly close to my heart since.
I admit my esteem for these books is largely subjective. Countless others may actively dislike them, see their stories as mediocre or pretentious, but to me, because they entered my life at pivotal moments, I cannot help but be grateful. They are two of my literary guiding stars, and though my specific memories of them may fade, my passion doesn’t. As I fought my way through Before I Burn, I faced the realization that as much as I enjoyed the prose, I simply wasn’t connecting to the narrative on that deeper level. It wasn’t the right time, I wasn’t in the right moods, to activate that passion I expected. My attention wandered and finally, two months and several additional reading projects later, I finished. Signing onto Goodreads to shift the book to my “Read” shelf, I was faced with the quandary of the stars. Did I try to assign an objective rating for an experience that was constantly disrupted, sometimes for a week or more? Should I not put any rating despite the powerful merits I saw in the work? Could I assign it stars based on my anticipated experience if I had held the encounter for a more appropriate time?
Ultimately, after much deliberation, I assigned four stars, for its merits and because I believe it holds the potential to cause a powerful experience at the right time. But in the fallout from my dilemma, I can’t help but wonder if the ratings are toxic. Those little stars induce potent expectations before any discussion or explanation is ever seen. I’ve seen comments from people saying they won’t even consider a book unless its average rating beats a certain threshold, a depressing ultimatum considering the sheer variety in literary tastes.
One of the basic rules I’ve set for myself on the internet is to never take an average rating at face value. There are too many numbers from too many perspectives, and there is no certainty as to how the algorithms determining the average might skew the data. Beyond these technical issues, there is the pressing issue that a novel I declare a 3-star work today might reinvigorate itself as a 4-star narrative five years from now under a different set of circumstances and further life experience. There is a finality in declaring a rating, a judgment that may never be revoked despite the subjectivity of art and the mutability of perspective. I cannot help but feel that assigning a value out of five or ten to represent a complex creation is inherently reductionist; without the context of the bias behind the numbers, they signify nothing.
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