Sunday, December 12, 2010

Book Rankings vs. Keeper Shelf (not necessarily a direct relationship)

Last month I was inspired to write about book grading systems and this led to what might be found on the ole Keeper Shelf. My Keeper Shelf includes books that I've rated from 3 - 5 stars and there are many books I've rated above average that I'm not at all interested in keeping. So, how is it that I might want to keep a book but not give it a "good" rating? Well, I have a very healthy appreciation for the fact that what I enjoy and what is an example of an excellent book are not always one and the same.  Let's start with some examples from the Keeper Shelf and then some explanations.

sgwordy's Keeper Shelf, a mostly random sampling

3 of 5 star books-
R is for Ricochet by Sue Grafton
The Actor and the Housewife by Shannon Hale
Atonement by Ian McEwan
The Dream Hunter by Laura Kinsale
The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Neffenegger

4 of 5 star books-
Gates of Fire by Stephen Pressfield
White Cat by Holly Black
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin 
Horse Heaven by Jane Smiley
Stalking the Angel by Robert Crais

5 of 5 star books-
Life of Pi by Yann Martel
The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner
Without Remorse by Tom Clancy
Persuasion by Jane Austen
Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez
The Power of the Dog by Don Winslow
The Shadow and the Star by Laura Kinsale

While I was riffling through the shelf, trying to cover several genres, I realized it takes any one of the following three things to get a book on my Keeper Shelf:
1. It's a book I will read again
2. It's a book I want to remember to recommend to people
3. It's a book I want to "show off" that I've read (tip of the cap to Seinfeld for recognizing this tendency)

If I had to get all scientific (and, really, why not?) I'd say ~87% of the Shelf is stacked with books from number 1, ~10% from number 2, and ~3% from number 3. All books listed above are for reason number 1.

The 4 and 5 star categories probably don't need any explanation (unless we want to quibble over the ratings:) but why do I want to read books again when I've "only" rated them 3 stars? The truth of the matter is, and I'm sure this will come as no surprise, books are read for so many different reasons that they do not always have to be wonderful to attract an audience. I rate a book 3 stars if it will be satisfying to its intended audience, but probably unsatisfying to a wider audience, and it's not offensively bad. (Obviously that's pretty subjective but critiques usually are.)

Let's take The Actor and the Housewife as a very good example of a perfect book to receive 3 stars from me. First off, this is going to appeal to specific groups of people but will be completely uninteresting to a wider audience. It's certainly not offensively bad: it's well-written (though perhaps too long), the characters are depicted well enough but they are not the types to draw in a wide audience, the story/plot is well-defined and easy to follow but it's going to appeal even less to a wider audience than the characters. These are not necessarily bad things but it definitely means the book is a solid 3 stars. I connected with this book on a pretty personal level and truly enjoyed it. However, I was part of one of those specific groups. This is not a wider audience book and I think I've only recommended it to one person. (I've also given 3 stars to books I personally didn't like but that I knew filled my criteria. In those cases I was not the target audience but I was able to see how the book would be satisfying if a reader was - these obviously don't make it on my Keeper Shelf.)

How do I decide if something gets bumped up from 3 to 4? The writing is generally better (in my case I lean quite heavily towards rewarding anyone who says more with fewer words (oh, irony!)); characterization, plot, storyline, dramatic tension, etc have all been kicked up a notch; but most importantly the book will reach out to a wider audience. For this example we'll look at White Cat. The book is intended for young adults interested in speculative fiction. However, the writing, characterization, dramatic tension, and story environment are going to be satisfying to a lot of people who might never have thought to pick up YA books or spec fiction. I've recommended this title to several people and they've been universally satisfied. In fact, I'm looking forward to reading it again myself but it's still out on loan. It keeps getting cycled through many pairs of hands. Hmmm, better re-think that strategy. :)

Being completely cognizant of how utterly subjective this all is I now want to do a post dedicated to my complete bafflement as to how some books get on folks' Keeper Shelves and/or get high ratings. But that's the joy of being a reader, there is so much out there to sample and love or revile. It keeps the bloggers blogging, yeah?

What's on your Keeper Shelf that might not get a high ranking?


  1. 'If I had to get all scientific (and, really, why not?)" haha!

    Interesting thought process, R. I've never really thought about factoring breadth of audience appeal into my ratings. I've not heard of some of those titles on your keeper shelf, but i have recently started White Cat, Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, and The Time Traveller's Wife (because even though some aspects of Her Fearful Symmetry frustrated me there was enough good stuff there for me to want to read the author's previous novel).

    The second two were on my list from other recs, but you can chalk White Cat up to your enthusiasm.

    Hey, cool reading challenge! Very creative. of the plum series I've only read the first, didn't want to keep going and going and also I was strangely unprepared for some of the violent bits after thinking it was a primarily comedic novel.

  2. I hope my White Cat enthusiasm has a happy ending for you. I'd love to hear what you think.

    Ditto on the others but esp TTTW. When I was reading it, for the first 2/3s I was convinced I was reading one of the best books of the past decade. Then the last 1/3 was so bad that I wish I could take it back, end the book early and make up my own story for the rest. I'm not a huge fan of time travel books but the set-up in this one was enough to keep me going. I also found the characters just engaging and infuriating enough to feel very real. :) Hope we can discuss further...

    Also, thanks for the heads up on the Plum book - I had it in mind that they were funny so I wouldn't have been all that prepared for violence.