Whether it’s a book, a film, or even an idea, we associate it with a certain numerical score. We can read Shakespeare’s Hamlet and give it a five-star review, and then read the latest instalment of the Fifty Shades of Gray series and give it a zero. This is the way that we recommend various titles to one another… but why?
I’ve been writing book reviews for a while now but have never yet been tempted to conclude a review with any kind of score. To me, summing up a book with a number is simply wrong.
My first question is: what are we grading these books on? How much we enjoyed them? Whether we would recommend them to a friend? How thought-provoking they were? How frightening they were? Or, perhaps, how easy to read they were? Trust me, there’s a lot more questions like this that I could ask, but I won’t, because there isn’t there an answer.
Whilst some people may rate a book on how much they enjoyed it, others might rate it on its ability to make them cry. This latter option might be unlikely, but there’s no set rules with book reviews. People rarely seem to define their grading systems, or even ask themselves why they exist.
This isn’t the only problem, either. Even if we clearly distinguish what we are going to be rating a book on, we are still allowing ourselves to compare something like Hamlet to Fifty Shades of Gray, simply by using the same system.
It doesn’t make much sense, and here’s the reason: books are complex.
A book isn’t only made up of its plot. There are the characters, the language, the narrator, the pace, the climaxes, the ideas, the surprises and the way in which they are all delivered. On top of that, there’s the book’s cover and blurb, and although we tell ourselves to not judge a book on its cover, that’s not always an easy thing to do.
So, as I said, books are complex.
To summarise all these features into a single number is not only going to be entirely subjective (and probably inaccurate, if you neglected to consider the pace in one book review, but did so in another), but it’s wrong. There’s too much to a book to simply reduce it in this way; in my mind, its an insult. Books are powerful things that can affect people in many hundreds of different ways, yet if one reviewer doesn’t like it, they can brand it with a zero.
I’m not going to tell you that books have souls or anything like that, but by giving a bad book review, you can prevent other people from reading a book that may appeal to them. This is well justified when you are able to explain why you didn’t like a book, but if you’ve already done that, then why do you need to stamp that number underneath your explanation? It undermines your own review, in a way, because it suggests that the reasons don’t mean anything: all that matters is that number.
I realise that I am going to come across many ways of reviewing books as I continue to read and write and, at some point, will probably also be asked to give a book a rating. I will do it if that’s what a company wants me to do, but I won’t like doing it. I will do it carefully, but I will hate it, because, when it comes down to it, it’s not something that I think we should do. Numbers are simple and books, well… books are complex.
Currently studying towards a BA English degree at the University of Exeter, Emily has recently had a short story published in The Monkey Collection – Volume 2 and spends much of her spare time writing book reviews, creative fiction and non-fiction articles.
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