As the great philosopher, Heraclitus said, you can never step in the same river twice. He didn’t say exactly that, but I can never remember the real quote, so that will suffice. I think reading is directly applicable to that observation about the state of the world though. You can never read a book the same way twice. To extend that idea, no two people will ever read a book the same way. Every reading experience is dependent on a vast array of factors. So today I want to talk a little bit about a big factor in my book rating system.
Honestly, it takes a lot for me to rate a book lower than 3 stars. I have a lot of elements I look for in a book, and usually as long as those are present in some way I will give a book 3 stars. I think everyone looks for things like strong character development, and well-constructed worlds when they read. There is one thing that I always ask when I read, and I don’t think everyone does.
What’s the point of the story?
This is a question I struggle to answer for books I rate a bit lower. I always expect to find a deeper meaning to a book. I want to feel some of the author’s personal motivations for writing it. There is always a reason for a story to be written, whether it’s creating a character the author never found themselves, exploring real-world issues like racism through fantasy, or delving into alternate realities. I want every book I read to make me think about something in a new way or to make me consider a question I wouldn’t have otherwise. I read to find new stories outside myself, and also to learn more about who I am through my response to those stories. Some books don’t do this, and those I will rate lower. A perfect example is The Folk of the Air series by Holly Black.
What!? How could I say such a thing, those books have 4+ ratings on GR, and even Leigh Bardugo loves them!? I am here to say that I just don’t get it. I have yet to find a reason for the story to exist. I have yet to find a purpose for the story outside of fae violence and drama. They read like a soap opera to me, which has its place, but I can’t find any meaningful content in those pages. If you have found something, that’s awesome! I would love to know what it is. I want so badly to say that I find Jude empowering as a female underdog archetype, but I cannot.
I think it can get worse than Folk of the Air though. There are books I have read that just feel like a cash grab. They are written solely because the author knew the story could be successful based on other trends at the time, or maybe because they were asked to write a book they weren’t particularly passionate about. Of course, there is no way to confirm that, but reading a book and feeling like it was only written for a paycheck is never good.
Thankfully, I find that this lack of purpose is not something I encounter very often. Occasionally the opposite is true and the narrative of the story gets lost in trying to make sure the reader understands the metaphor. Sleeping Beauties by Stephen and Owen King is the first example that springs to mind. The feminist message of the book comes through loud and clear, but for me, it was a detriment to the overall story. The mythos and horror got lost as a result of explaining how mistreated and underestimated all the women were. It also muddied its own message by trying to show that not all women feel mistreated. In an effort to be very inclusive, the message became distorted.
So, what do I demand of my 4/5 start reads? I almost prefer for the message to sneak up on me. You get to know the characters a bit, and what they will be facing in the book, and then it becomes clear that they are really facing a question of religious doubt or institutionalized racism. Strange the Dreamer is an amazing example of this. The real antagonistic force is not a single person, or group but the unfair prejudice of a whole city’s worth of people. They act out against something they don’t understand, primarily out of fear. This is such a strong analogue to events in the world today. I left that book feeling a sense of hope, and with questions about how I would handle that type of fear.
Books that present these deeper ideas are always just better to me. Whether or not I’m consciously aware of the message while I’m reading, having something like social discrimination at the core of a book just strengthens the narrative. The characters can have a myriad of different experiences and journeys, but when it all converges on a central theme I think those are the books that really stick with you long after you turn the last page.
I would love to hear your thoughts on this! Is the metaphor of the story something you consciously think about while you’re reading? What makes a story really stick with you, or make you want to go back for a reread?