0 out of 5 Stars for the 5-Star System of Rating Books

My grand conclusion after a month of using Goodreads: As a reader, I am vexed to the point of melodrama at the idea of assigning books 1 – 5 stars.

It’s basically grading, right? I’m painfully familiar with grading. As a college professor, it’s my least favorite part of teaching. BUT at least assessment criteria are clearly articulated. No one can pretend there’s not a subjective element when we’re talking about writing, speaking and constructing arguments. BUT at least we spell out for students exactly what we value and is expected of them – in achingly specific detail. Seriously, you should see the rubrics.

You really should see the rubrics.

First, each assignment has its own rubric because, obviously, what makes an informative speech successful isn’t the same as what makes a persuasive speech successful. And both of these differ from a successful feature article, which differs from a successful profile. And a literary analysis essay is another animal entirely. In short: Different genres, difference expectations and standards.

Second, rubrics are not horizontal lines. No they are not.

Rubrics are made up of horizontal and vertical lines (otherwise know as grids). On the vertical axis, you have a description of your expectations (for example, in a persuasive speech, using ethos, pathos, and logos). On your horizontal axis, you have your standards, meaning how effectively ethos, pathos, and logos are engaged in an assignment. These are usually assessed on a scale of 0 – 100 and/or A – D and F.

Most grading nightmares happen in that vertical axis area (picture me gesticulating frantically at the top line of the grid). Still, the existence of the horizontal helps make sense of the vertical, for students, for me, and for us in conversation.

With books, there’s no grid of expectations and standards, just five stars – which probably mean something different to each reader – sitting there in a row, like ducks at a carnival game lined up only to be knocked down. Also, I’m supposed to assign 1 – 5 stars to Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations and to M. C. Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth murder mysteries and to Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary? Because they’re all totally, exactly comparable?

I don’t think so, my friends.

It feels painfully, impossibly reductive. I guess I could come up with my own rating rubrics, with a different rubric for each genre. But oh, I forgot to mention: Writing them is sheer torture. It’s truly the closest I ever come to clinical depression. It’s like trying to reduce a rainbow to a math problem except, unlike in math (which is beautiful), there’s no objective truth lying in wait.

In the end, I want to read and discuss books – what I loved, what I valued, what I want to think more about – not spend my time fretting over what numerical value best expresses a book’s absolute value (as if such a thing were possible). It’s true of teaching as well: I’d much rather spend my energy on teaching and learning than on summative grading. I’d much rather profess than assess. Alas, in the classroom, I have no choice.

Just don’t expect to see me assigning five-star ratings on Goodreads.


2 Replies to “0 out of 5 Stars for the 5-Star System of Rating Books”

  1. Ha! I completely agree. I get so frustrated on the 5 star system. Sometimes I think “if I could just assign it a 3.5, I might feel better…” but that doesn’t solve it either. You can’t compare Liane Moriarty “What Alice Forgot” to Pearl S. Buck’s “The Good Earth”. I love both… for very different reasons.

    Sometimes I think “I’ll reserve 5 stars for only my very favorite books, the books that I will highly recommend to others to read”. But that just never completely works out well.

    And being a math-minded, objective personality, I WANT a rating system so I can neatly line everything up on their own different shelves and feel like I’ve accomplished something.

    Shall we just leave this at #firstworldproblems?


    1. Oh my gosh, definitely first world problems! 🙂 Though I wouldn’t complain if you came up with a better system. Somehow, I think you’re just the lady to do it!

Comments are closed.