Book Review star meanings

Novels in a Polish bookstore

Novels in a Polish bookstore (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you’ve read some of the book reviews I’ve posted recently you might have wondered why even the books I criticize pretty harshly still get some stars.

The system I usually use (here and elsewhere) is:

  1. This book has no redeeming qualities.
  2. This book is bad but has some redeeming quality.
  3. This book has flaws but is readable.  I definitely wouldn’t waste shelf space on it.
  4. This book is nearly perfect.  I don’t regret reading it but I probably wouldn’t put it on my bookshelf.
  5. This book has no flaws.  I would read it again.

Consequently I’ve only given out a dozen or so 5’s, a couple 1’s and a lot of 4’s and 3’s.

I do something very similar with movies – just replace “book” with “movie”, “read” with “watch” etc.

This raises the issue that stars aren’t always equivalent – people don’t always use them to mean the same thing.  If someone else has rated a book a 3, what does that mean?  Does it mean the same thing I would mean by a 3 or do they mean something completely different?  Maybe they rate everything a 5 except for giving really terrible books 3, or maybe they rate everything a 3 except for giving really terrible books 1 – you have no way of knowing.

That makes things like the rating histogram on Amazon less useful, because not only can the stars mean different things but each mix of reviewers will be different.  Unfortunately a lot of the time the stars are almost all we have to base our purchasing decisions on.  Which brings up the fact that getting book recommendations are hard.  There are a lot of sites that attempt it, but personal taste is a tenuous thing to pin down and the “goodness” of a book is hard to determine algorithmically.

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