Today I finished reading Gilead by Marilynne Robinson—a book that has lingered on my to-read list for two years and was recently gifted to me by a dear friend. After a slow start and a brief break, and with speed reminiscent of True Grit and West with the Night, it took me around 24-hours to complete the remaining portions after that initial startup (perhaps longer than that, if I want to be specific, but I don’t want to be). It’s now amongst the books on my ironically-titled “Favorites List” on Goodreads. I fully intend on giving it a proper review in the coming weeks, too, although I’ll go ahead say I give it 5/5 stars.
I took a look at that list, cleared off a few older reads that are still highly-rated but not “favorites,” and added a few that I thought deserved to be there. The net number remained the same by the end, and, expectedly, I’d also given 5/5 stars most of the books on that list—but not all. A few had 4 stars, which I wouldn’t bump up despite also considering them favorites.
Every reader I know who also uses the 5-star rating system has their own criteria for each ranking. Most are more similar than they are different, and those differences tend to come down to: a) how much the high/low rankings depend more on emotions felt vs. the technical qualities and/or objectionable content of the book, and b) how stingy the person is about giving out five-star ratings (and sometimes one-star ratings). I find these methods interesting because there’s always logic to them as well as a heavy helping of personal “instinct” that is equally as important. Such is the nature of art—some level of its perception remains subjective, and that’s some of the fun of it. And, naturally, I started thinking about my method of rating books, and the overlap between that system and my favorites list.
My rating system is rather simple: 5 stars for books with excellent storytelling, gripping narratives, beautiful prose, and very few points of detraction (characters I didn’t like, overuse or misuse of content I find objectionable, philosophical points of view I strongly disagree with, etc.); 4 stars for books that have excellent storytelling, gripping narratives, beautiful prose, and a few points of detraction (usually, this comes down to some philosophical or theological issue that’s not significant but not enough to ignore, or even more often a book that’s not a genre I typically like and, thus, has tropes or conventions that aren’t my favorite); 3 stars for books that strike me as middle-of-the-road or even mediocre, or books that have a mix of very good elements and elements I find distasteful or bad; 2 stars for books that I disliked, whether for personal, stylistic, or moral reasons, but have some redeeming qualities (for instance, pretty prose, or enjoyable characters); and 1 star (or 0 stars) for books for books that I find little to no redeeming qualities for on any front.
There’s nothing out of the ordinary there—I figure that many people follow a similar “rubric,” though we might differ with what we like for genre and tropes and what we find most objectionable. But what intrigued me, as I considered this, is how it contrasts my criterion for my favorite books. It’d be hard for a book that’s 3 or fewer stars to end up on the list because of content reasons, but that aside, my favorite books are the ones that linger after I finish them—not necessary the ones nearest perfection. The longer they linger, the more likely they’ll either find their way onto the favorites list or remain on the list. That is, I suppose, why there are many five-star books that don’t make the cut and several four-star books that do.
There’s nothing unusual about this difference, and it’s something I’ve thought about before now. But it’s still comforting to look at those varied ratings and genres and purposes remember that flawed or incomplete stories (a.k.a. all of them) can still accomplish what they need to accomplish, can still convey their fragment of truth (Truth in the realest sense), and can still be significant. That isn’t a new idea, nor particularly profound. But if ideas needed to be new or profound in order to be important enough to reiterate, writers would be out of a job and readers out of a hobby. That, I suppose, is the point of these musings.