June 11, 2019
This year, I’ve been updating my reading progress meticulously on Goodreads. It’s nice to do so, and every time I finish a book, I get a slight tinge of satisfaction from going online and telling everyone I finished it. It also lets me nicely categorize books according to shelf (which I could easily also do myself).
However, there’s something about Goodreads that I don’t like, and that’s the fact that every book has to be given a 5-star rating. I’m not even railing against the fact that the book has to be distilled to a number; that’s fine. However, giving me only five options is too restrictive. What does 5 stars mean? What is the difference between 3 and 4 stars? I think it depends on how you go about the task of rating.
I have some keystone books that, in my head, define my benchmarks for “great”, “good”, “average”, “mediocre” and so on. The benchmarks don’t end there, though. For example, there’s a keystone book for “funny but also excessively crude, read parts of it when wanting to feel like being slapped in the face” (A Confederacy of Dunces). So when Goodreads tells me to assign some rating to a book, I immediately compare it to my “standard” 3-, 4- and 5-star books, pick which it’s closest to, and boom.
This is overtly simplistic. Where is the 3.5 stars? The 3.75? They need to exist! Side anecdote: when in my undergrad, as we were finishing our time there, I would go up to people I knew and ask them to rate their college life on a scale of 3.7, or 4.9, or some other random number. The idea was to dislodge the default 3/5, 4/5 or so rating that they might have thought of already, and to make them think about a more precise answer. Sometimes I add books to a shelf that’s for books I need to read again – surely those books deserve 5 stars according to Goodreads? No, not really.
This brings me to something else that I think about a lot: should we really measure these things? Of course, many of the things that we experience in our lives are totally intangible, and can’t be reduced to mere numbers. When I track my life excessively through spreadsheets, sometimes I feel like I’m living for the numbers, rather than let the numbers be a byproduct of my actions. Would life be easier (marginally) if I didn’t have to think about what rating to provide to each book? I think the answer to this is no. When you consume a lot of anything – food, books, music, etc., you are bound to start a sort of dictionary and encyclopedia for them in your head. Whether or not you assign them numbers, ratings and rankings, you still try to think of them as a composite whole and holistically combine them into how they have shaped you. This may result in categorizing, identifying masterpieces, and so on. I want to know how these have affected me. I want to keep a list of books that can be my friends, which I can call upon when I need to. I also want teachers, jokers, stern mentors, and so on. Unless I start thinking of books relative to all the other books I’ve read, I can’t create these lists in my head.
I want to write some posts in the future mulling about my spreadsheet habit. Keeping track of everything is rewarding, although it sometimes becomes dreary and a liability.