In a previous post, I wrote about what each rating (out of five stars) means for me. Five stars indicate an amazing book… not just a book that I liked, but one that I loved. One star books are books I hated. In all likelihood, I didn’t even finish a book that was that bad. Everything else fits somewhere in between.
In this post, I’d like to explain why I give those ratings to books. Everyone judges a book as good or bad based on a different set of criteria. Some judge a book based on how well it was written or the poetry of its language. Some readers might call a book “good” because of that book’s social impact or the way it exposes some aspect of the human condition. Other folks are only interested in how a book entertained them; did the story make them happy or not?
I find myself judging a book by all three aspects, and I take each of them into account when I give a book a rating.
The first aspect of a book to catch my attention is usually the artistry of a book. By this I mean how well the book is written. Are the words beautiful? Are the sentences poetic? Is the world of the novel filled with vivid color and life-like characters? In essence, this rating is about the manner in which the story is told.
Secondly, I evaluate books by their social impact or potential impact. As I get caught up in the story, hopefully it provokes me to think deeply. Hopefully it makes me feel something, whether good or bad. I want a book that grapples with real issues. I want my emotions to be stirred. I want to be challenged. For me, this is the result or impact of the story.
Finally, I rate books simply for whether I enjoyed them or not. Often, I can’t judge this aspect until I reach the conclusion, because a depressingly tragic story might end in final redemption, or a hopeful story might take a turn towards tragedy. Some stories are beautifully written and deeply thought-provoking, but they end in hopelessness and pain. Such books provide me little to no enjoyment. They do not relax, please, or entertain. The essence of the story is what I’m alluding to here.
Sula, by Toni Morrison, is one such book. Morrison’s writing is brilliantly evocative, and she challenged my assumptions in deeply emotional ways, but I finished her book with a heavy heart. Books like Sula are difficult for me to read, though I find that many literary classics fall in this category. They are good for educating the mind and appealing to the aesthetic nature, but they bring me little joy. If a book has nothing noble, decent, redemptive, or hopeful in it, I can’t help giving that book a low rating. If there is no triumphing over evil, and no hope of ever doing so, no amount of artistry or intellectual weight will make it a good book in my mind.
However, if either of the other two are deeply lacking, that will lower my estimation of a book as well. Martha Hall Kelly’s book Lilac Girls lacks artistic skill almost entirely, although it is a powerful story with a redemptive ending. The writing is stale, simplistic, and immature. The characters are flat and predictable. It is an incredible story, very badly told.
Similarly, a well-told story that makes me happy still needs substance to it. I don’t generally care for stories that are only shallow fluff and clichéd happy endings. Admittedly, I do enjoy the smallest scattering of such books in my literary diet. It’s like watching a sitcom or a cute, fluffy romantic comedy. Sometimes, I just need to not think or feel deeply; sometimes I just need a good laugh or a sappy cry. I imagine we all need that at times. However, I could never be satisfied only with books like this. I want books with depth and meaning.
When I read a book, I take in all three of these components and harmonize them into one cohesive rating. It’s not a scientific system, and personal taste is wholly involved in it. A book that resonates deeply with me may not speak to you at all. In a story that I find depressing, you may find your own experiences echoed and glimmers of redemption shining forth. I may dismiss a novel as fluffy and poorly written, but it’s just the sort of comfort “food” you need.
Hopefully, my reviews will provide you with a balanced perspective and give you a sense of a book that guides your decision to read it or not. Most of all, I hope I can encourage you on your own reading journey, whatever pages line your path.