How do you compare books, which might be quite different from one another, in a way that yields a unified linear scale? Well, most people go by instinct, and perhaps that is the best way – but I’m far too insecure for that.
Instead, I’ve chosen a far more pedantic and deliberate approach. I’ve tried to break down my general impression of a book into more specific dimensions. I’ve chosen to evaluate book on seven (/eight) different criteria, compiling the result into an overall score. Rather than choose objective criteria (plot, pace, characterisation, etc), which may preassume a particular ideal form of book, I’ve gone with subjective criteria – measuring a book by its effect on me.
This has several advantages. First, it enables me to more directly compare books, and hopefully prevent the tendencies toward inflation/deflation over time that can plague more instinctive valuations. Second, it encourages me to think about exactly what I did and didn’t like about a book. Third, it gives the reader more information – I may give the same overall score to two different books, but you can hopefully get a better sense of which you will like by seeing what I thought its strong points were. Of course, hopefully some sense of that will come across in the review itself, but my reviews can be rambling and impressionistic and talk about what I found most interesting, so in my case at least I think it helps to force myself into a more precise, numerical straightjacket at the end.
I score for each criterion on a 1-5 scale. Broadly and impressionistically speaking, this can be interpreted: 1 – not something this book really offers, seriously don’t read this book if this factor is all-important for you; 2 – not terrible, but a weakness, and a reason I might not recommend it; 3 – meh, wouldn’t be something I’d say much about either way; 4 – a strength of the book, making it stand out from the crowd in this respect at least; 5 – couldn’t ask for better. Note: 5 isn’t perfect, it’s just ‘as good as I can ask for’.
I score on seven criteria, using the words that happened to pop into my head the first time I did this. Those criteria are:
Adrenaline: hopefully pretty clear. A high score means that I found the book exciting. I’m likely to have had a raised heartbeat and found it hard to put the book down. A low score meant I found it relatively dull. I could put the book down easily, felt no compulsion to pick it up again, and probably got distracted easily. A warning, however: I don’t think pace and excitement are the same. A fast pace makes it easier to be exciting, and a slow pace makes it harder to be exciting – but not impossible. I sometimes give high Adrenaline scores to books that might seem boring at first – because sometime you have to get into a book (and accept its style and form) before you become gripped by it.
Emotion: how emotional it made me. This tends to be negative emotion, admittedly. 4s and 5s may well have been tear-jerkers, or at least eye-moisteners; although I do try to take positive emotion into account as well. Importantly, this is emotion about the events of the book – not emotion ABOUT the book. It need not be enjoyable emotion. I think a book is good if it can have an impact – whether you like the impact is another factor entirely.
High emotion scores tend to be associated with big events in the plot, and in particular with characters I can really invest in emotionally. This isn’t strictly a “character” category, however.
Thought: this is a bit trickier. Some books are mindless, and some aren’t. This can show itself in several ways. Most obviously, books that explore interesting intellectual themes may have high Thought scores; so too might books that have plots that encourage plot predictions, and then require many re-predictions as events unfold; so too might books with extensive mystery elements, or that require the reader to work hard to make sense of what is going on. This is probably the hardest criterion to top, because in many case high Thought scores may come at the cost of other scores – it’s hard to make a thrilling and emotionally engaging novel when the reader has little idea what’s going on and the plot stops every ten minutes to talk about phenomenology. Nonetheless, a book that can be thrilling and engaging AND intellectually satisfying at the same time is better than a book that only has the first two – and likewise, a book with no other good qualities is made at least a little better by at least being mentally stimulating.
Beauty: maybe the vaguest criterion. The biggest part of this is usually the prose – is the writing beautiful or not? That said, other elements can also come to the fore – the plot can be beautiful (typically if it shows symmetry of some kind – across time, between characters, between themes, and so on), and the things described can be beautiful (all else being equal, I’d rather read a story where the characters are surrounded by stunning architecture than one where they live in a sewer – because I’d rather read about beauty. That’s not to say you can’t write a brilliant book set in a sewer, but you have to give me a better book to persuade me it was worth wading through twenty cumulative pages of description of shit – whereas if your book is set in an art gallery at the foot of Mt Fuji, I’m more likely to tolerant of minor flaws).
It’s important to note that this beauty is beauty experienced AS beauty. By which I mean, I’m not talking about beauty that makes you go “it’s beautiful how this improves the plot”, or “its beauty amplifies the intellectual point” or anything instrumental like that – I’m talking about actual direct sensations of beauty, as you get from any other work of art. Where you feel ‘oh wow, this is beautiful stuff!’, and can admire it on that level even if it lacks in other regards.
Craft: another feeling we can get reading a book is admiration for the skill of the author. This is the Craft criterion. When reading this book, did I sit back and go “wow, the author really is good at this stuff! I’m not sure I’d want to write the same book, but I sure wish I were able to!”?
This is closely associated with Beauty, I find, since they tend to be provoked by the same things – good prose, good structure. There can be differences, however. Some books may be accidentally beautiful – I’m particularly thinking of autobiographies, where the author may lack craft, but has the benefit of a brilliant and beautiful story to tell. Other books may be ugly but well-crafted – the author may be trying to be ugly, or the author may just have a very functional, direct, unostentatious style and just doesn’t care about beauty.
Craft may also be the score that distinguishes ‘classics’ on many occasions. It’s hard to have a low Craft score when the other scores are all high, but it does happen from time to time – because there’s a difference between reading a book and liking it by chance, and reading a book and feeling certain that all the good things were intentional. Craft to some degree reflects my degree of trust in the author – if the author gives the impression of generally knowing what they’re doing, I might give them the benefit of the doubt in this score, assuming that the flaws in the book are flaws that were intentional (or at least, flaws that the author didn’t bother to fix because they weren’t what the author cared about). You could say that this is a backdoor by which my reviews may be influenced by prejudiced presumptions about which authors are good and which aren’t – but, while that’s certainly true, it’s also true of all scores and all reviews. We can’t view anything entirely divorced from our prejudices. At least identifying this problem with the Craft score might give me a bit more self-knowledge about where I may be getting fooled.
Endearingness: if Craft is tricky, Endearingness is a pit of bias, prejudice, and irrational emotion. It’s meant to be. This is basically how much I liked the book. Some people might make this their only score. I try, however, to distinguish how much I liked a book from how good I thought it was. I may love a book, but recognise that the love is more due to me than to the book, and expect others to be unimpressed by it. Alternatively, I may think a book is brilliant, admire it greatly, even recommend it, even intend to reread it – without actually liking it much. Perhaps I should say rather than Endearingness is about love. A high Endearingness score means a book that I can see myself curling up with in front of a fire for some comfort reading, again and again. A low Endearingness score tends to mean that, while I might decide to re-read the book at some point thinking ‘oh yeah, that was good book, I should read that again’, I’m unlikely to ever think ‘oh, i don’t know what to read – oh, of course, i’ll read such-and-such! I always loving reading that book, don’t know why I’m not reading it already!’. But, even though I’d almost always prefer ice cream to steak, I still think steak is better – not only nutritionally, but as an eating experience. It’s just not an experience I necessarily am ready for at every moment of the day, whereas ice cream is far more immediately accessible. Of course, the best books are nutritious, delicious, AND easily digested.
Originality: a bit of a misnomer. I’m not trying to judge a book’s historical originality, how different it was from the books of the time, but really more how unique it is as a reading experience. Sort of the answer to the question: “could I have written this?”. A high score indicates a one-of-a-kind, I-don’t-know-how-they-came-up-with-this book; a low score indicates a cliche, seen-it-all-before book (which doesn’t rule out the chance that the old themes are executed excellently). This tends to be most obviously displayed in how predictable the plot is, but it also covers everything else – prose, form, characters, setting, and so forth.
To these seven scores I intermittently add an eighth, which I call “Echo“. This is a measure of my experience of not reading the book, as it were. Some books, you finish the book and walk away – other books put a feeling inside you that you don’t know how to express. They make you want to do something, but you’re not sure what; they make the rest of the world seem less (or maybe more) real for a while, until the ‘echo’ wears off. They make everything seem different, even if you’re not entirely sure how exactly.
I give books a score from 0-2 on this, with most books getting 0 (I often don’t bother mentioning it). 1 means ‘i got a bit of echo’, 2 means ‘I was on my knees and the world was reeling’.
I then put these scores together – giving added weight to 5s – and translate the resulting score into marks from 1-7. I usually translate the combined total directly into the final scale, but sometimes I exercise discretion when the raw total is on the borderline between two grades.
I explain these seven grades as:
1: awful. Really, appalling, unpleasantly, objectionably bad. Don’t read except for scientific purposes.
2: maybe not repulsively bad, but still nonetheless genuinely, seriously, just plain bad.
3: bad, but with redeeming features. Overall, it’s not a good book at all, but you know, from certain angles, I can see reasons to like this book. Liking a 1 or a 2 non-ironically is in my opinion bad taste, perversion, or infection from other qualities (eg nostalgia, obsession with the genre); likeing a 3 is a bit kinky, but basically respectable, because there are good things here and I can see why you might value them highly. Though the rest of the book kind of sucks.
4: not bad. I read this book and I didn’t think there were any gaping flaws in it. There were plenty of things wrong with it, but none seemed to be fatal. Overall, pretty solid, if you like that kind of thing, though probably not what I’d recommend to somebody to change their mind about a genre/author/etc.
5: good. This is worth recommending. It’s worth reading, and not just because you’re looking for something to read. It’s not perfect, and it may not have universal appeal, and maybe i’m just being baised in liking it, but I think it’s a truly good book.
6: very good. Now, this is notable. There aren’t a huge number of these books – they’re books I’d like to see in favourites lists, books that I think are worth reading even if you don’t normally like their genre, or even if you don’t like reading (though they aren’t all necessarily easy reads, so in practice I might not recommend them to everybody). These stand out from the crowd.
7:brilliant. These TOP the crowd. These are in ‘best books I’ve ever read’ territory. They’re serious classics, or ought to be considered such. Go out and teach them in your schools.
I theoretically intend to grant 8/7 to really good books (the standard for brilliant is actually quite low compared to the hypothetical maximum scores), but since starting this system I’ve yet to encounter a book that deserves it.
I may also allow myself to grant 6/5 criterion scores, but again, I’ve never yet seen the need.