Book Reviews – My Contrarian Opinion

Everyone has an opinion about everything.

A colleague once insisted that everyone should have a list of their favorites about everything, particularly books, movies, and other media. He said if you can’t decide what you like, you aren’t really thinking and evaluating. I agree. 

The following is my opinion about book reviews and my methodology for reviewing books. I’m a contrarian in this, as I believe reviewers today rate books too highly. I believe this phenomenon started with Amazon, but I also think it’s human nature.

First, my unscientific research: If you do a random sampling of Amazon book reviews, you’ll see that there are very few books that are rated less than 4 stars. The lowest rated book on Goodreads is I want to tell you by OJ Simpson (1.93 stars). Next lowest is Scientology by L Ron Hubbard (2.35 stars).

Consider this book:  Hannah Montana and Miley Cyrus (3.14 stars); since 3 is average, this book is judged “average.” Hubbard’s Dianetics is rated 4.3 stars, just a little lower than To Kill a Mockingbird (4.6 stars). REALLY?

Why do people reviewing books rate them so highly?

You received the book as a gift.  Many books reviewed on Amazon are given in review or pre-review programs. We’re taught that it’s not nice to trash something you received as a gift.(Check out the discussion of reciprocation in Influence by Robert Cialdini. This book is about the way our minds work, and it should be required reading for anyone in politics or marketing. Cialdini did his research, and backs up his assertions with many examples.)

I’ve reviewed books on NetGalley, and there is definitely a tendency to rate a little higher. If I rate all books too low, the publishers won’t be interested in giving me more books to review.

The Garrison Keillor principle. Do you know Keillor’s closing line in his Lake Wobegon tales, in which “all the children are above average?” Everyone can’t be above average; it’s mathematically – and logically – impossible. All books, like all of anything, are not created equal. Most books, like most of everything, fall into the middle and are not bad, not great, but just good. Only a few are at the low end (one star) and only a few are at the top end (five stars). It’s called a bell curve.

The “everything is my favorite” people. I asked someone once what was her favorite book and she said: “the one I read last.” That’s an inability to discriminate. And I mean “discriminate” in its general sense, as the ability to distinguish between good and bad and great and awful. Many people seem not to be able to judge experiences. As I mentioned above, some books are just awful and should not be read. Some books are excellent, and most are good. Everyone has an ability to discriminate, but we are taught not to. It’s not nice to discriminate between people, so we extend this discrimination to other things, like books. But we MUST discriminate. There are too many books in the world to read them all.

How to Decide Which Books to ReadSome books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested

One of my favorite quotes is from Francis Bacon: “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” I once wrote a review on Amazon in which I gave a low rating to a book* and I mentioned that I hadn’t finished it. I got some nasty comments back. One said I had “poisoned the well,” whatever that means. Others said I didn’t have the right to comment on the book unless I had read it completely. NO WAY was I going to waste my time on a really bad book. I could tell in the first 50 pages that it was bad. I didn’t need to read the whole thing.

My Opinion About Book Reviews

Now that I’m done ranting, I’ll give you my philosophy of book reviews. As I’m reading a book, I start out by giving it 3 stars. I assume it’s going to be average unless something happens to change my rating. Then, as I’m reading, I’m mentally moving it up or down depending on how well I like it, how well it’s written.

In my review of a non-fiction work, I look at citations. Did the author provide an appropriate number of citations? Did he/she delve into speculation? Did the author make up stuff? In a biography, were the words the subjects said made up? Did the author have an ax to grind? Was he/she trying to be objective? Was he/she trying to make the subject out to be a hero? a villain? Was there ample justification for this point of view?

In business or motivational or some psychology books, I usually don’t read the entire work, because I usually can get the main point by about a third of the way in. Only in special cases will I read the entire book in these genres. So, usually I stick to the middle unless the book is exceptionally bad (doesn’t have a point or the author’s case is poorly stated and supported) or exceptionally good (I actually read the whole book and I found good information and motivation throughout).

In my review of a fiction work, in most cases, I keep reading unless, as above, the book is just awful  Was did the first page grab me and make me want to keep reading? Did the author keep the book moving, with enough description but not too much? Were there places where the book dragged? Did the author use fresh language, no cliches? Were the characters attractive and appealing? In a mystery, was the solution guessable, but not too easily? In fiction reviews, I usually reserve final judgment until I have read the ending, which has to be satisfactory, tying up loose ends, believable and in accord with the rest of the story. I very rarely give a 5-star review to a fiction work unless it made me say, “Wow! What a great book!” at the end. Case in point: All the Light We Cannot See and The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. 

Handing Out Stars 

By the end of my reading, I can tell how many stars to give a book. I give 5 stars very very seldom. Only one book in six months, maybe, gets 5 stars. The same with 1 star; a book has to be truly awful to get 1 star. The rest are 2 stars, 3 stars, 4 stars. And I don’t give many 4 stars. A book has to be really well done to get 4 stars. Not even Stephen King gets 4 or 5 stars from me all the time.

Am I stingy with my stars? Maybe, but what’s the point if you give every book 4 or 5 stars? All books, like all of anything in life, are not created equal. Or perfect.

I love reading books, and you can tell by my Goodreads book list that I am a voracious reader of both fiction and non-fiction. I try to discriminate, in the best sense, and give those who read my reviews an honest assessment of a book. Not everyone will agree with me. I really don’t care if you agree with me. It’s my opinion and I’m sticking to it.

I stopped reviewing books for a while because I was tired

*I originally inserted the name of the book and its author but decided I didn’t want to give it undue publicity nor subject myself to more nasty comments on my low review. Email me (jean at jeanwilsonmurray dot com) if you want to know the name.

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