Tag Archives: Tristram Shandy

How Many Stars Should a Book Get on Goodreads?

7 Aug

redpony

Yesterday I wrote about my experience on Goodreads. I think most people use it to write and read reviews of books, but truth be told I don’t do that. The only “review” I give is ranking a book through Goodreads’ star system, and I only do that because it seems sort of mandatory.

I actually feel a sense of anxiety in ranking books. I have very idiosyncratic tastes. I often read books that have gotten a lot of hype and dislike them. But give me a book that the general reading public finds “strange” or that “no one” has heard of and I smatter it with stars.

I think it’s important to acknowledge that we all have different tastes and that a book can be worthwhile even if we didn’t enjoy it. I know that sounds strange, crazy even, but hear me out: I don’t particularly love the story of Hamlet (I mean, come on, it has a ghost in it), but the dialogue, structure, and literary techniques are genius, pure genius.

Also, tastes change over time. I didn’t like David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars the first time I read it. It was required summer reading when I was in high school, and I was decidedly not into love stories or books that heavily emphasized ethnicity issues, a topic my school focused on a lot. When I read it again in college, though, I was drawn into the story itself as if I were reading it for the first time. Sometimes I don’t even re-read a book and my opinion of it changes. I was looking over my Goodreads list and was surprised at how I’d rated some books. Books with three or four stars are the trickiest. I can really enjoy a book yet give it a lower ranking just because it’s not something I feel will stand the test of time or because it doesn’t have that extra little something. In contrast, sometimes I’ll give a book a slightly higher ranking than my gut reaction to it because it is a good book and I don’t want to discredit it even though in my mind there was something missing from it. See, this is why I should probably actually write reviews!

Anyway, here’s a bit of insight into the method of my ranking madness:

  • Five stars—the highest a book can get—are only for books that I feel have changed my life in some way, that are impressively written, and/or that I would reread. They’re the books I would own a copy of, have either marked up profusely or am careful to keep pristine, and would selfishly not lend out. Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy is a book I gave five stars to. An eighteenth-century British novel, it still feels strikingly fresh and relevant to today’s postmodern literature. Read it. It’s wild.
  • Four stars are for books I enjoyed a lot and got absorbed in reading and would recommend to others. I would want to own a copy of the book. I gave J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye four stars, for example, because I recognize it’s a well-written, thoughtful book with deep implications for our culture but it didn’t really move me. I read it when I was a teenager and I read it again a year or two ago for my alumnae book club and my reaction was the same.
  • Three stars are for books that are good—good in the sense that they are solid reading for on the subway, on a plane, or at the beach. Maybe the story was appealing or maybe there was something interesting about the writing style that got me thinking. I’d pass the book along to my mom or a friend without wanting it back. A book like Ethan Hawke’s Ash Wednesday gets three stars. It met my expectations but didn’t blow me away.
  • Two stars are for books that somehow miss the mark for me personally. They’re for books I couldn’t get into, that tried too hard, that maybe had an interesting concept but failed to execute it properly, or that didn’t use interesting diction. Oftentimes they’re for books I was excited to read but weren’t worth the hype. They’re for books where I tend to feel cheated for some reason. Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women gets two stars from me. I’d heard so much about this book I was really expecting it to be something special, but it was kinda a snooze fest. Sorry.
  • One star is for books that irritated me. John Steinbeck’s The Red Pony is an example of a book I only gave one star to. I read it back in high school and maybe I’d feel differently now but at the time I remember feeling tortured as I read it. (Conversely, I gave five stars to Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley and Cannery Row.)

Do you think I’m too harsh? Too fickle? How do you rank books on Goodreads? Do you ever go back and change your ranking?

Advertisements

Biggest Advice for… English Majors

22 Mar

 

I’ve received a lot of emails lately from students at my alma mater, Scripps College, wanting to know how I got started in book publishing and what advice I have for them.  I’ve been responding to emails individually but I thought it might be helpful to do a series of career-advice posts in addition to my regular Writing Wednesday posts here on the blog.

As with all my posts, this is simply my opinion.  There are a lot of great books, articles, and career counselors who can set you on the path to choosing and establishing your career.  I’m offering my perspective because it’s been requested and because sometimes it’s helpful to hear personal experience, but it’s by no means the only advice and methods available.

First up in this series is my biggest advice for English majors.

 

Congratulations!  You’ve decided to become an English major.  An English degree is incredibly versatile.  It can be applied to such exciting fields such as book publishing, journalism, teaching, writing, law, and so much more.  You need to know how to write and comprehend the written word in practically every job, whether you’re writing your cover letter for an application or writing a compelling business proposal once you’ve gotten the job of your dreams.

Plus, English majors are just plain cool.  They’re always walking around with dog-eared paperbacks.  They scribble poetry in blue ink on hand-bound journals and think typewriters are still relevant.  They’re in touch with their emotions.  They’re in touch with the emotions of others around them.  They know big words.  They read the book before the movie comes out.  Okay, so maybe I’m stereotyping, but there’s just something so romantic about English majors as opposed to many of the other majors.  I should know.  I was one.

I knew going into college that I wanted to major in English.  I love working with words.  Reading them, writing them, painting them, savoring them.  Though I do wish I’d taken a few more “practical” courses, I don’t regret my decision to major in English.  It’s had a tremendous impact in my career choice as a writer and editor, and I just plain enjoy studying literature on a personal level.

Here are a few tips garnered from my personal experience as an English major that I hope will help those of you pursuing your degree.

  1. Select a wide variety of English courses.  Variety is the spice of life!  Instead of limiting yourself right away to a particular time period in English literature, load up on courses from different time periods and regions.  You’ll gain a more complete awareness of the full history of English literature and learn how they interact and respond to each other.  Remember that in order to fully understand postmodernism, you need to also study modernism.  Take a Southern Gothic class and an Elizabethan Shakespeare class.  Take a women writers course and an Asian American lit course.
  2. Be open-minded.  My undergrad program was heavy on British literature.  At the time I didn’t really appreciate reading books by Samuel Johnson and poetry by Edmund Spenser because I wanted to study the Beats.  Now, while my focus is still on Beat literature, I’m so thankful that I have a wider knowledge of English literature because it informs me of the history and progression of writing.  Plus, Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, published in 1759, could give postmodernists a run for their money any day!
  3. Research the authors you read.  A little trick I learned in grad school was to look up information on the author before I came to class.  Knowing the author’s biography and bibliography helps give context to their books.
  4. Take creative courses outside your major.  One of the courses that had the most impact on my writing was not an English literature class; it was Introduction to Film, taught at Pitzer College by Professor Alexandra Juhasz.  Through the jump cuts and camera angles, I learned about craft and point of view in a way I’d never thought about so clearly before then.
  5. Take digital art classes.  I studied digital art under Professor Nancy Macko at Scripps, and having that background opened up opportunities in web design, typesetting and page layout, branding and marketing, and production.  Even though I have a production manager now who deals with printer specifications of my books, it helps that I have an understanding of production issues.  Furthermore, I know how to create logos and manipulate images, which I can use on my personal blog to promote my own writing.
  6. Find a second subject that captivates you.  If you’re planning on becoming a writer of any sort or working at a publication, it will be useful to have specialized knowledge in a subject outside of literature.  Whether it’s classical music or psychology, the subject will inform your style and subject matter.  I took History of New York at CMC and continually find myself drawn back to what I learned in that class.  It gave me a broader scope of the New York lit scene I admire so much, and I’ve since gone on to study writing under one of the authors of the books we read in that class.
  7. Think outside the campus bubble.  While many college campuses lend themselves to picturesque academic landscapes, I have to brag that in 2010 Forbes ranked Scripps’ campus one of the most beautiful in the world.  The campus is so pretty and yet the academics so rigorous that I really didn’t think much beyond Elm Tree lawn while I was there.  Not only is there life after college, there’s life going on while you’re at college.  Try to picture where you want to be after college and look into what options are available.  Schoolwork is invaluable but so is eating, so try to remember that your schoolwork is only a means toward something greater: your career.  One lousy paper isn’t going to matter in the grand scheme of your career.  In fact, seeking help from your professor may foster a mentoring relationship that will help you in the long run.

All of this is what I learned from trial and error.  I’d love to hear from other English majors.  What advice would you give to undergrads?  What would you do differently?

I’d also love to hear why those of you who were or are English majors chose that major.  What career do you have or hope to have?