Cynical Opinion: Why I don’t rate books

I’m a nerd

I keep detailed records of the books that I read. Very detailed records. I have a self-made spreadsheet that if you saw it, you would very likely get mixed feelings about the concept of me as a person. Every time I read a book, I use the spreadsheet to fill in the basic information about it, such as title, author and genre (Fiction/Non-Fiction), but also more granular stuff like original publishing year, number of pages, and on which exact date I started reading the book. After finishing, I fill in the date on which I completed it, as well as a short note on the content, to record my immediate reaction.


The hypothetical elephant missing from the metaphorical room of this spreadsheet is some sort of rating system. If you disagree with that, you might not be as into numbers as I am. Anyway, I don’t engage in that kind of behaviour. No 1-10 scale, no number of stars, no throw of the dice, no thumbs up, no meowmeowbeenz. How can this possibly be, considering my clearly compulsive need to categorise everything with figures and data?

The dashboard here is slightly ruined by Jonas Jonasson and his refusal to come up with book titles that fit in the allocated cell for books that I’m currently reading.

Surveys are rubbish

In my work as a data analyst, I strongly prefer behavioural data to surveys and other self-reportig tools. The premise of a survey is to quantify people’s thoughts and opinions. The problem is that people in surveys don’t actually report what they think, they report what they think they think, which is something very different, because people are dishonest morons.

In a 2015 study conducted by YouGov, the ambition was to find out which demographic segments people had prejudices about in the UK. I won’t bother you with the methodology beyond saying that it was actually quite clever, and recommending that you check it out if you’re interested. The link is in the bit of this paragraph that is clearly a link. The results show that Britain’s most heavily judged demographic are… White men in their 20s! Now, I actually am a white man in my 20s, living and working in Britain. If we indeed suffer the worst prejudices, then the rest of you lot have got a pretty sweet deal. Clearly, these results don’t really reflect people’s actual opinions, as much as the opinions people will admit to or feel like they should have.

So what does that have to do with rating books? I may consider myself more or less superior to most people in a lot of respects, but I don’t think I’m immune to the lack of self-awareness that the rest of humanity also suffers from. So how I think I feel about a book I just read, might actually really be how I felt about my life in its entirety while I was reading it, or how my mood was when I delivered the verdict.


The Solution

So I avoid rating books. However, I do split my reviews here on Cynical Bookshelf into two categories – Cynical (Such as the review of Dan Brown’s Inferno) and Un-Cynical (Such as that of Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational). This boils the rating down to a simple question of whether the book deserves more criticism (I.e. cynicism) or praise (Due to a lack of decent alternatives labelled Un-cynicism. For all the merits of the English language, I do wish that it had a proper antonym for cynical, so I wouldn’t have to make up words).

So how do I decide which category a book falls into? Where do I draw the line? That’s very simple; at Dave Eggers’ You Shall Know Our Velocity, a book that is aggressively average. For all the irrational subjectivity that goes into making a call on the quantifiable quality of something, I believe that the averageness (Look, English language – see what you made me do!) of this book is an objective fact in the same category as the velocity of light in a vacuum. So whenever I review a book, I ask myself whether I enjoyed it more or less than I did Eggers’ literary manifestation of mediocrity, hoping that such a specific question might reduce the influence of human stupidity that I so futilely try not contributing to. I hope this clears things up.

Some more or less useful notes

On my goodreads.com account, I actually do rate books according to the site’s 1-5 star system. This is mostly out of obedience to the creators of the site, and their opinions on how it should best be enjoyed.

The Excel document that I use to keep track of the books that I read only contains books consumed from 1st Jan 2016 onwards, as that was more or less when I got the idea of keeping records. So the data is unfortunately only partial.

The aforementioned document allows me to look up the exact details about my reading of the epitome of average – You Shall Know Our Velocity. It’s 350 pages long (Which you may notice is almost the exact average length of the books I have read over the last 14 months), I started it on the 19th of June 2016, and finished it 16 days later, on 5th July. This makes for a 22 pages per day average, which is actually quite low for me, but this is mainly because I at the time was busy watching EURO 2016 in a series of London pubs, fuelled by an excessive amount of beer.