This is a guest post by Margaret of Steam Trains and Ghosts. Do you think books should be rated on a logarithmic scale? Do you think they should be rated at all?
I don’t like giving books numerical ratings when I review them. There is something unsatisfying about the 1-5 star ratings you can find on Amazon and Goodreads, and I think the problem is that five stars don’t begin to capture the range of literary greatness that is out there. The best book ever is only five times better than the worst book ever? Really? Even rating books on a 1 to 10 scale doesn’t seem like enough.
I think a better way to do things would be to take a lesson from earthquake-prone California. I grew up there, so I learned about earthquake magnitudes along with my ABC’s and how to tie my shoes. Scientists measure earthquakes on a logarithmic scale that goes from 0 to roughly 9.5. “Logarithmic” means that a 5 on this scale is actually 105, a 6 is 106, ten times bigger than a 5, and a 7 is 100 times bigger than a 5, and so on. The scale’s useful because it gives you a big range – from 0 to 1,000,000,000.
Tiny earthquakes happen literally all the time. Every few minutes. We can’t even feel them and we only know they exist because of seismographs. Once an earthquake gets up to about a 4.0 on the scale, it’s starting to rattle dishes in the cabinets. A 6.7 is going to be something like the Northridge earthquake of 1994, which tore up streets in the L.A. area, damaged a lot of houses, and people are still talking about it today. The Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, which caused most of the city to burn down, was an 8.0. The largest earthquake ever recorded was a 9.5 in Valdivia, Chile in 1960.
Books are like earthquakes. Hundreds of thousands of little ones pass by without anybody’s notice all the time. Every year or so, a book makes you sit up and go, “What was that?” And every once in a great while, a book knocks you over, rips your socks off, and burns your house down. Well, hopefully not that last part. But anyway, I think that the best books are thousands of times better than the worst books.
So here’s my proposal for a better book rating scale:
1-3) Poorly written. One has the sneaking sense that the author does not have a firm grasp on grammar or punctuation. Plot? What plot? This is a first draft that isn’t ready to show to people yet, but unfortunately, you find these on the Internet all the time.
4-5) Mass-produced stuff. Like those pulpy mystery novels you find sometimes where the author has written 32 other titles. These have a plot and characters but they’re forgettable.
6) This is an okay book. It’s got a decent story, comes to a satisfying ending, and maybe even makes you think about the conventions of the genre. A good example would be Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton. Makes you looks at dragons differently after you read it.
7) The good stuff. These are bestsellers or at the very least extremely strong sellers. Compelling characters, vivid worlds, storylines that challenge the reader. Ursula le Guin and Phillip Pullman belong here.
8) Classic literature. The stuff they make you read in English class. The book may have defined a genre (Tolkien), captured the essence of a way of life (Steinbeck), or added new phrases to the English language (Dickens).
9) Paradise Lost. Seriously. This story tells the story of the history of the entire universe, has the entire population of Heaven, Hell, and Earth as its cast of characters, and pulls the whole thing off in iambic pentameter. And John Milton was blind when he wrote it. Read it and just try to think about Satan the same way ever again.