The Inadequacy of Book Rating Systems

I signed up on Goodreads.com a while back and, while my usage of the site has been sporadic at best, I have been trying to update my library over there on a regular basis.  I don’t spend too much time – no long reviews – but I try to update my “Already Read” books and give each a quick rating.  The rating system is quite simple, one through five stars, and is more than adequate for a quick review.

The Drowned and the Saved by Primo LeviHowever, I ran into a bit of a philosophical conundrum when updating my libraries this morning, specifically when it came to giving a rating to Primo Levi’s The Drowned and the Saved.  Levi’s book is a sobering meditation on the Holocaust – the memory, the shame, the violence, the legacy.  It is a brilliant book – as one who has read thousands of pages on World War II and the Holocaust, this may very well be one of the most insightful and important books I’ve read on the subject.  In less than two hundred pages, it clearly makes a case for the Holocaust as the defining event of modernity and its implications on our past, our present, and our future.  It’s a masterwork, one that should be read by any student of history, ethics, philosophy, or any other discipline that deals with humanity.

So, when I plugged this book into Goodreads and it came time to give it a rating, I paused.  One click of “Five Stars” and my review would go up right next to the user who started her review with “Preparing for the waterworks…SO SO SO GOOD.”  As if it were the latest episode of Gossip Girls.  Five stars – a rating paradigm that is used to rank restaurants, hotels, lip gloss on Amazon.com, and public toilets in China – seems in no way adequate to pass judgement on a book of such import.  It’s almost obscene to place The Drowned and the Saved on the same continuum as such trivial nonsense, much less to place it on the same pedestal as one teenage boy might place the latest Transformer movie.

Lest I come across as an extremely pretentious curmudgeon, I fully appreciate the idea of reading (or watching TV or doing pretty much whatever) for entertainment.  I’m happy to give five stars to a Grisham novel or a TV show.  Yet, how do you even compare those to a book which attempts to understand (if such a thing is possible) the systematic and dispassionate massacre of six million people.  By way of an example, I recently gave Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma five stars on Goodreads.  It was a wonderful book, one of those works that can fundamentally change the way one views the idea of food.  But, by giving The Drowned and the Saved the exact same rating on the exact same platform, how could it not be seen as equating the two?  As if the modern dilemma of whether to eat organic or factory farmed vegetables in any way compares to the moral Gordian knot that was the Holocaust.  This rating system creates a false equivalency in which these two books are are placed on the same level.

I can’t blame Goodreads for this problem – it’s a genuinely good site which fosters dialogue and discussion about books of all sorts and this should be applauded.  I’m still uncomfortable, however, when it comes to those rare works that tackle issues which in no way compare to the other 99.9 percent of books available.  I see no other practical way around this problem for the moment other than, when it comes to certain books, to opt out altogether:  I gave no rating on Goodreads to The Drowned and the Saved.

January Reading Round-Up

The Racketeer by John Grisham

The Racketeer by John Grisham

I haven’t read a Grisham book in years, but I don’t remember them being this gleefully devious.  The protagonist, Malcom Bannister, isn’t a noble lawyer on a crusade against social ills or injustices – he’s brilliant lawyer who’s been wronged and hatches an elaborate revenge scheme.  The Count of Monte Cristo meets Matlock.  Grisham keeps the story moving and the characters interesting making this a quick and exciting read.

Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs by Chuck Klosterman

Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs by Chuck Klosterman

I’m a fan of the low-brow.  Television shows, Billy Joel, potty humor, Dumb and Dumber.  So, it’s fun to see these topics discussed in an intellectually interesting way.  Klosterman’s book is full of essays on video games, internet porn, 80′s rom-coms, Saved by the Bell, and a host of other eclectic and decidedly low-culture topics.  Klosterman’s writing is hilarious and he dissects these subjects with surprising insight.

The Art of Racing in the Rain by Gareth Stein

The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

I don’t often cry myself to sleep.  But, finishing this wonderful novel at 3AM, I couldn’t help myself.  Stein tells the story of a broken family through the eyes of the one member insightful and wise enough to see the big picture – the family dog.   All novels explore, in some way, what it means to be human.  To Enzo, the terrier protagonist, this exploration takes on a special meaning as he is convinced (after watching a History Channel documentary on the Mongolians) that he will return in his next life as a man.  While a bit of a gimmicky conceit, this book is told with such heart that any doubts about the inherent humanity of Enzo are quickly forgotten.

Escape From Camp Fourteen by Blaine Harden

Ecsape From Camp 14

Shin Dong-hyuk was born in Camp 14, one in a string of North Korean prison camps, from where he managed to escape through China to South Korea and eventually the USA.  This book is his story.  Far from the uplifting tale of survival against all odds, this book is a meditation on the consequences of a system which strips people of their humanity.  It’s a dark, disturbing book but an important one.

The Average American Male by Chad Kultgen

The Average American Male by Chad Kultgen

A nameless protagonist watches porn, plays X-box, watches more porn, hangs out with a gay friend, fantasizes about every female he sees, has sex with his girlfriend.  Repeat.  It’s lurid, misogynistic, outrageous, and offensive – and manages to induce quite a few gut wrenching laughing fits.  I’d never recommend this book.  To anyone, lest they get the wrong idea about my reading proclivities.  But I may very well end up reading the sequel…

World War Z by Max Brooks

World War Z

Billed as an oral history of the zombie apocalypse, this novel is a collection of interviews with those people lucky enough to have survived humanity’s brush with collapse.  The zombie genre (like the vampire craze which preceded it) is getting worn a bit thin.  Yet, this book had enough imagination to remain interesting.

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford

Ghengis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford

This was a fascinating history of the 13th century Mongolian conqueror.  More than simply recounting Genghis Khan’s rise to power and his dynasty’s eventual conquest of  most of the known world, Weatherford examines Genghis Khan’s historical vilification.  While certainly a product of his time in terms of brutality and disregard for human life, Genghis Khan also championed an almost modern liberal worldview when it came to trade, religious freedom, racial harmony, and crime and punishment.  Weatherford makes a compelling argument that Khan’s vilification was more a result of his challenge to the status quo than it was due to his brutality and violence.

Iranian Rappers and Persian Porn by Jamie Maslin

Iranian Rappers and Persian Porn by Jamie Maslin

A botched book in both conception and presentation.  Harsh words, I know, but this was a travelogue of the worst kind: a privileged white guy’s charmed journey through a misunderstood and alien land. What’s so unfortunate about this tale is that it could have been an extremely interesting examination of a culture in flux.  Instead, he came across as a parody of the hippie backpacker, hitch hiking, sleeping on floors, and taking every opportunity to explain to the natives why George Bush and Tony Blair are war criminals.  His basic conceit – that all Westerners view Iranians as snarling terrorists – is just as offensive as the phantom ideologies which he professes to abhor.

Dear Life by Alice Munro

Dear Life by Alice Munro

An unfortunate collection of short stories which, while quite well written, failed to generate a single instance of genuine emotion in this reader.  I wanted to like this collection so much, and I felt like I should.  But I constantly found myself reading pages and immediately forgetting what the hell I was reading about.  And worse, I just didn’t care.

 

 

Hand Holding a Book by Adolf von Menzel

In my meandering  around the internet this week, I came across this piece on FT.com reviewing a number of books.  Not much in the content was too memorable except when the author was discussing an excerpt from Book Was There by Andrew Piper.   Piper talks about a specific painting by the 19th century artist Adolf von Menzel titled “Hand Holding a Book.”  The painting is described as “one of the most sensuous depictions of the relationship between a hand and a book I have ever seen.”  This I had to see, and here it is:

Hand Holding a Book

I don’t know if sensual is quite the word I’d use, but it’s an evocative painting nonetheless.   As in a novel or short story, the first-person perspective draws the observer into the painting in a visceral way.  What is the book, what does it contain?  We want to know but cannot.  All that is apparent is that the book is of extreme import and value.   In a world where reading is increasingly done on tablets, phones, and other devices, this painting is a profound reminder of the power of books as both sources of knowledge and as objects of reverence and value.

Judging a Book By It’s Cover

There are many reasons to decide to read a book – a favorite author, a recommendation from a friend, buzz, dearth of  other reading material next to the toilet… the list is endless.   One that I know is quite common (although not often acknowledged by some ‘intellectual’ readers) is very simple – the cover.  It’s happened to me on more than one occasion, especially back in my compulsive book-buying days.  One example I can think of off the top of my head is Nicola Barker’s Darkmans.   This is the cover that sucked me in:

Darkmans

I can’t even necessarily tell you why it is that this cover appealed to me so much (although, as Stephen King’s It is one of my favorite books, I have a fondness for stories that might have something to do with a sinister clown).   Whatever the reason, I bought Darkmans on the spot, knowing nothing about it other than what I could infer from the cover.  That’s the power that covers have.

The New York Times has a great review of the 19 Best Book Covers of 2012.  It’s well worth a look.  Here are some of my favorites from their list:

Bloodland by Alan Glynn The Yellow World by Albert Espinosa Wisden Cricketers Almanac

2012: The Year in Reading

It’s been quiet around here.  Chalk it up to a wedding, new apartment, a job change,  or a Sisyphean struggle against the inanities of Chinese censorship law, but 2012 was a struggle on both the blogging and reading fronts.   The time, it feels, just wasn’t there.   Yet, I’ve already done a mea culpa earlier this year about my blogging habits (one that ultimately didn’t take) and I have no intention of writing another one here.  As it’s a new year, it’s time to reflect a bit on the books of 2012.

Number of books read:  34

As I mentioned, 2013 was a struggle and, for the first time in recent years, I just couldn’t didn’t make reading a priority.  34 is a pitiful, sad little  number, not even amounting to 3 books a month over the course of the year.  I could console myself with the fact that 19% of Americans don’t read any books in a given year and that, of the remainder, the average number is 17. This is little comfort as 5% of Americans read more than 50 books and, sadly, I am no longer in that particular category.

Fiction/Non-Fiction Split:  17/17

A slightly higher percentage of non-fiction than last year and, all in all, one that I’m satisfied with.  The topics of the non-fiction were quite eclectic including musical biography, cooking memoir, travelogue, philosophy of religion, philosophy of science, international diplomacy, cultural reportage, and television analysis.

E-Book/Paper Book Split: 24/10

One of my goals for this year was to get away from my iPad/Sony reader a bit more and read some of the real books that I keep around.  As compared to 2011, where I only read one paper book the entire year, this goal, at least, was successful.

Highlights:

The group of books I read this year was, by and large, forgettable.  The majority of them were amusing or interesting in the moment, but I’m having a having a hard time recalling almost anything specific about them now.  Still, there were a few that stood out and deserve a mention.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

gone girlOstensibly a mystery about a missing woman, this book is a scathingly funny and black-hearted satire about a marriage gone bad in a culture of economic decline and social shallowness.   Through the use of several very unreliable narrators, the story keeps you guessing through it’s brilliant set-up and into it’s rewarding conclusion.  The characters are, for the most part, despicable but they’re human, they’re interesting, and they’ll make you uncomfortable by how close they come to reminding you of someone you know – or, perhaps, yourself.

Spillover by David Quammen

spilloverHypochondriacs beware – if you read this, you may never again be comfortable doing the following:  walking in the forest, riding on an airplane, eating chicken, staying in a hotel, taking a taxi, or generally interacting with any other living thing (human or otherwise) for the rest of your life.  The title refers to the phenomenon of an animal disease ‘spilling over’ into a human population where it either sputters out unnoticed (countless, unnamed times in human history), sporadically erupts causing localized devastation before burning out (Ebola, Marburg) or goes on to wreak long-term and widespread havoc on humanity (AIDS, influenza).  Heavy topics, but Quammen keeps things interesting and surprisingly funny – in a dark sort of way.  I’ll leave you with my favorite quote from the book:  “Advisory:  If your husband catches an ebolavirus, give him food and water and love and maybe prayers but keep your distance, wait patiently, hope for the best – and if he dies, don’t clean out his bowels by hand. ”  Sage advice we all can live by.

The Hunger Games Trilogy

the hunger gamesI don’t think remember the “young adult” genre existing when it would have been age appropriate for me (although I suppose it must have), but I don’t regularly (ever) dip into this pool of books for reading material.  With all the hype surrounding this series, and the release of the movies, I took a chance and was pleasantly surprised.  The story was addictive and taut and the characters were appropriately complex.  To be sure, this series went downhill from the first installment, but The Hunger Games was certainly one of the best written stories I read last year.

2013 – The Resolutions

In my current job, I’m constantly working with long-term goals, and as much as I abhor the meta-jargon of project management, it is true that the best plans are SMART plans – Specific, Meaningful, Attainable, Relevant, Timely.  In this vein, I have two reading resolutions for 2013:

1.  Read at least five books every month – Self explanatory, with the caveat that this is not an average over the year.  Every month should have at least five books read. 

2.  Post on this blog twice a week – again, self explanatory. 

Sounds simple now, but we all know what is said about the best laid plans of mice and men.  But, Jan 1st, while a manufactured milestone through the arbitrary assignment of days on a calendar, is the time for lofty (or not so lofty) goals and these are two that I intend to stick to.

Happy New Year’s everyone and happy reading in  2013!

Each Age Gets the Sherlock Holmes It Deserves

I love to argue with what other people write.  Usually only in my head, but it’s the thought that counts.  This week’s installment of “Things I Found Online and Disagree With in a Way that Doesn’t Involve Profuse Profanity” comes courtesy of the Los Angelas Review of Books in an essay by Nicholas Meyer.

The piece is structured around Sherlock Holmes and the cinematic portrayals of the world’s most famous detective.   Each on-screen Holmes, Meyer points out, has been updated to represent the contemporary political/social/economic circumstances.  The patriotic Holmes of the WWII era.  The junkie-Holmes of the 1970′s.  The ADD-Holmes for the Ritalin age.   And, in an age where Romeo and his posse pack heat and The Great Gatsby is scored by T-Pain, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is not the only classic text being given a pop-culture makeover.  These “updates”, Meyer argues,  “seem designed more to show off the director’s inventiveness than to illuminate the text — a text in which they arguably place no confidence.”  Even harsher, he feels that the source material “do not require the fumbling contributions of second-rate minds to sustain them.”

Fair enough.  I’ve been disappointed by enough horrible adaptations to feel Meyer’s pain.  He’s quite fair in his criticism of the Guy Ritchie/Robert Downy, Jr. spectacles as being “updated for a modern audience, a crowd that clearly suffers from attention deficit disorder, who cannot tolerate a shot that lasts more than four seconds, who has no use or interest in narrative coherence, merely an appetite for action and eye candy, regardless of logic, and — not unrelated — suffers from a reluctance to cease texting during the movie.”

Yet, my argument comes with his blanket denunciation of all things new and updated for modern media.   I think that Sherlock Holmes is a great example of how a modern retelling can energize a classic story (or set of stories) and even lead to some ingenious re-imaginings.  While Meyer has every justification to defecate all over the Guy Ritchie long-form MTV video (although I will admit that these films had their enjoyable moments),  I think that he’d have a harder time dismissing BBC’s Sherlock and the titular character as portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch.  While updated to modern London with a slightly more neurotic Holmes, it remains faithful to the original literary creation while taking imaginative leaps.  And it works spectacularly!  It’s probably one of the finest television show on the air.

While we’re on the subject of modern incarnations of Sherlock Holmes, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention House.  This is a TV show that, while very often formulaic and unconvincing, gave a modern version of Sherlock Holmes so different from, yet clearly indebted to, the original.  Dr. Gregory House, while no Sherlock Holmes, was a truly fascinating character in his own right.  He was intriguing to watch and probably wouldn’t exist if not for Sir  Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous character.

My point here is not to put House on the same level as The Hound of the Baskervilles. My point is simply that, if you sift through the inevitable rubbish, you’ll find some truly interesting thought-provoking takes on classic works.   While Meyer finds these continual remakes uniformly “depressing,” I’d argue that they can be exciting and surprising as well as ridiculous and boring.

One thing that I do agree wholeheartedly with Meyer about, however, is his closing thought.  ” Not all books can be made into swell films,” he says.  “Indeed, the better the book, the harder the job.”  Spot on.  But just because it’s a hard job means it’s all that much of a triumph when an adaptation or updating turns out to be really, really good.

Are there any updated classics that you’ve been impressed with?