The manner in which we perceive the world has historically been highly dichotomous in nature. It is common to identify categories as opposites and place them into binary constructs that force us to identify objects as being either one thing or the other; big/small, male/female, or good/bad, for example. While this pervasive worldview provides us with the core opposing ideas, it is our own personal, phenomenological experience of something that helps us determine, subjectively, where something lies between those two extremes. Talking about these phenomenological experiences, whether it is by giving ratings, making rankings, or sharing opinions, is something that people the world over love to do. They just can’t help themselves. There must be thousands, if not millions, of blogs, websites, publications, and broadcasts around the world that people use as platforms to share their views on whatever topics are of particular interest to them.
I’m certainly no different.
Beyond The Unseen Library, I’m an active user of Goodreads, Amazon, TripAdvisor, and Rotten Tomatoes, to name just a few, all of which allow me to both share my opinions and give ratings to various products and pieces of art or culture. Indeed, the series of which this post is a part, Bloggers in the Attic, was conceived for this exact reason – a place for like-minded people to share their views on certain topics. Not only that, but the current topic happens to be about the value of rating systems; What issues do they suffer from? How do I choose to use rating systems on my blog? How could they be improved? Well, considering what I’ve already discussed, you won’t be surprised to know I have plenty to say on the matter…
What is Bloggers in the Attic?
Organised and hosted by Cami over at Reader in the Attic, Bloggers in the Attic is a discussion chain. It involves myself and a group of other bloggers (11 this month) selecting a topic that interests us and spending the month discussing it one by one and sharing our individual perspectives on the matter.
The first full post in this month’s series was written and uploaded yesterday by Clo over at BookDragons247 so be sure to have a ganders at her take on the topic once you’re done here if you haven’t already.
Issues with rating systems
The overwhelming majority of rating systems fit one of two molds. They are either a number scale, usually from 0-5 or 0-10, or a letter scale between ‘A’ and ‘F’, much like those used in traditional western education systems. The glaring issue that immediately stands out, even just from my description above, is that there is no way that such a simple system could adequately (or sometimes accurately) express how you really feel about a book. There are so many different aspects to any book, that trying to boil all of those down into a singular rating is, in my opinion, almost an insult not only to the book itself, which someone would have put an immense amount of effort into, but also to the experience that I had while reading the damn thing.
With so many people using the same rating systems, they also suffer from a lack of uniformity. Just because two people both give a book a 4/5 rating, it doesn’t necessarily mean they thought the book was equally as good. In fact, there is a very good chance that they would disagree to some extent. Sullivan’s Theorem is a perfect example of that. Joking aside, a rating alone doesn’t express the weight that a reviewer gives to different factors and, as such, I would argue renders a rating without context to be about as useful as a chocolate teapot.
My other major gripe with rating systems is a fundamental flaw that, as far as I can tell, cannot be fixed. Since rating systems always operate on a finite scale, what do you do when you read a book that you think is much better than other books that you have already awarded the highest possible score in your rating scale? I’ve heard the suggestion that you could simply add another level to the system, but to me such an action would only serve to invalidate any worth the system had. If anyone can think of a solution to this issue, I’m all ears.
So, what about The Unseen Library and its rating system?
If you’ve ever read any of my reviews, you’ll know that I employ a fairly standard 5-star system with which to rate books by. When I started my blog, I mulled over whether to rate books out of 5 or out of 10, but my final decision came down to a couple of key factors; familiarity and importance. Much of the online book community is centered around Goodreads which, as I’m sure you know, employs a 5-star rating system. I felt that people’s familiarity with the use of the 5-star system in relation to books would make the ratings that I provided as part of my reviews more understandable and relatable (It also meant that there were a load of ready-to-use graphics available on google). Furthermore, giving a book a rating is very much an afterthought for me in the entire reviewing process, and I was concerned that using a more complex system may lead people to believe that I put more stock in how I rated a book compared with the views and opinions that I expressed.
As I already argued, however, it is hard to quantify exactly what different ratings mean, given the infinite range of potential experiences with any singular book. As such, I believe it is best not to define what a particular rating may signify, but rather allow the person reading the review to make that interpretation for themselves. After all, the rating that I give a book is determined not only by what I thought of the book, but also by my experience when reading it. If there is a place for subjectivity in how a review is written, then I believe that it is not just appropriate, but also necessary for subjectivity to play a role in how that same review is interpreted.
Are rating systems important? You tell me. I’ve mentioned my belief in the importance of subjectivity already, and that is what this question ultimately comes down to. Everyone who contributes to this Bloggers in the attic discussion will give you a different answer and not one of them will be wrong. Personally, I would argue that, given that a rating can only convey pre-conceived notions of what one individual believes it to mean, it is an unreliable method of evaluating a book. At best, the average of an accumulation of ratings is capable of identifying those books that are phenomenally good or horrendously bad. At their worst however, individual ratings which are given no context or explanation can prevent you from reading a book that you might love or encourage you to read something that you detest.
So why do I bother to include them in my reviews?
I just can’t help myself.
What do you think about rating systems? Are they worth people’s time and effort? Share your thoughts in the comments section below and be sure to check out the rest of the Bloggers in the Attic chain throughout the month of April.
8th – Lauren @ Northen Plunder
12th – Isabelle @ Bookwyrm Bites
15th – Ben @ Books With Ben
18th – Nora @ Papertea and Flowers
20th – Kerys @ The Everlastin Library
22nd – Anthony @ Keep Reading Forward
25th – Kal @ Reader Voracious
27th – Susan @ Novel Lives
29th – Rain @ bookdragonism