The Meaning in the Stars: How I Evaluate the Books I Read

Book ratings seem pretty straightforward. Assign a number of stars to a book to indicate how much you liked it. Nothing very complicated there. But I’ve discovered that everybody means something different by those stars. Some people will only give five stars to a very select few books–the true, timeless classics, or the books that rocked their world. Others give five stars to just about every book they read. I wanted to explain what my ratings mean.

I prefer to be generous with my ratings, so if I love a book, I give it five stars. Among my top rated books are some real classics, with excellent writing and timeless stories. There are also some light, easy-reading pieces that were just really fun for me to read. They all got five stars.

It may seem a little unbalanced (how can Great Expectations and Spinning Silver be given equal status?), but remember, all I have to work with are five stars. There’s not a lot of room to differentiate between a comforting, cozy read (the mac-n-cheese for books) and a deeply philosophical literary gem (the 5-course gourmet dinner of books). If I love ‘em, I love ‘em. I gave five stars to all of Fredrik Backman’s novels, to the Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter series, and to Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. 

If I give a book four stars, that means I merely like it. I’m not over the moon about it, and I probably won’t read it again (even if I didn’t have a reading list ten miles long). But I enjoyed it and I’m glad I read it. Two such books are Pachinko by Min Jin Lee and Someday, Someday, Maybe by Lauren Graham. 

Three stars are given to books that I’m ambivalent or indifferent about. I just can’t make up my mind. Usually, such books have some things I really appreciate, but other aspects that flopped. Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle and the classic Arabian Nights are examples of three-star books. 

Two stars are for books that I decidedly don’t like. They may have their strengths, but weighed in the balance, those strengths just don’t count for much against their weaknesses. For example, Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly told an incredible story based on historical events. However, the telling of that great story was executed horribly. The writing was pitifully unengaging. There was no emotional depth. If it weren’t for the historical veracity of the story, I wouldn’t have been able to care about the characters’ sufferings at all. 

One star ratings are very, very rare for me, because if I dislike a book that much, I just don’t finish it. American Gods by Neil Gaiman was one such book. It had a really fascinating premise, but the creep factor was way too high. I was viscerally repulsed within the first few chapters and sold the book to a used book store. Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom is probably the last book I finished that only got one star from me. I used to feel compelled to finish every book I started, but Kitchen House was so bad, I realized that I don’t want to waste my time on books that make me feel that horrible. 

Hopefully that clarifies the ratings I give books. Next time, I’ll explain how I come to those ratings and what I mean by calling something “a good book.”

You may also like