Why I Think It’s Fine to Rate Books You DNF’ed (Did Not Finish)

It's Fine to Rate Books You Didn't Finish Reading

One recurring question in the reading world is whether it’s fair to give a rating to a book you didn’t finish.  (Usually the discussion is around consumer sites like Amazon or Goodreads that compile ratings and reviews and may be seen by a large audience; I think fewer people care about rating DNF reads on personal blogs.)  While I personally don’t rate books I haven’t finished (generally; there might be a couple exceptions on my Goodreads account), I think it’s fair to do so.  Here’s why.

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“I Couldn’t Finish the Book” Is a Review

The most common argument against rating a book you have only partially read is that, of course, you don’t the whole story; maybe the end of the book is much better than the beginning.  Personally, however, I think saying, “This book is so bad for reasons x, y, and z that it was too tortuous to keep reading” is a fair and informative review.  And if “so bad I couldn’t make it past chapter five” isn’t a good reason for giving a book one or two stars, I hardly know what is.  Say what you want about other books you’ve given low ratings to; at least you managed to get through them!

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In Most Cases, the Rating Won’t Get Much Higher Anyway

It is possible, of course, that one will find a book here and there that has a much better second half than a first half.  I’ve read some myself.  The problem here is that if 50% of the book is terrible and I found myself wanting to tear my eyes out, but 50% of the book is fine, I’m not going to give the book a high rating whether I finish it or not.  If the ending of the book is absolutely stellar, I might average things out and give the book a final three stars.  But generally if I want to DNF the book through a large chunk of it, it’s getting two stars even if it improves as it goes along.  That means my rating isn’t going to be very different whether I read all of the book or just the first third.

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No One Rating DNF’ed Books Could Possibly Skew the Average Rating “Too High”

As mentioned above, many people think that rating a book you haven’t finished is unfair because you might have rated it higher if you finished; therefore, you are skewing the average rating on sites like Goodreads too low if you rate a DNF’ed book.  However, I can imagine a possible scenario (if perhaps a rare one) where a bunch of people DNF the book because they didn’t like it, but the people who did finish give it four or five stars.  This means that the average rating on Goodreads might be something like 4.3, making the book look well-liked—but obscuring the fact that a large number of readers couldn’t even make themselves read the whole thing.  In a case like this, rating a DNF’ed book can give a book accurate picture of how readers are reacting to the book.

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Conclusion

My personal rule of thumb would be that I should have read a significant portion of the book if I want to rate it.  Giving a book one star after five pages is, of course, ridiculous.  But I believe that giving a quick impression of how much you didn’t like the book and couldn’t bring yourself to keep going with a star rating is fair.  After all, people who use sites like Goodreads for reading suggestions should do their own due diligence of actually reading some of the reviews and seeing why people rated low or high, and they can take into account whether multiple people are rating the book who haven’t actually finished it and whether that matters to them.  (I think this is very different from rating a book you have not read at all, to be clear.)

What do you think?  Do you rate DNF’ed books?  Do you like it when others do?

Briana

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Are Some Books Just Too Difficult for Teachers to Assign?

Difficult Required Reading

When the issue of required reading crops up, opponents of the practice often cite the difficulty of some (usually older) books as a reason required reading should end.  Being asked to read classic books is simply too hard for the average student, they argue.  The solution?  Let students read whatever they want instead, so they never have to feel challenged or step out of their comfort zone.  But this argument ignores the very purpose and function of school as a place where students learn and grow.  It assumes school should always be pleasurable, even if this means students never acquire new skills or new knowledge.

Students (and their parents) today feel an increased need to succeed; only by achieving perfect marks do many feel they will be able to get accepted into their ideal school or hired for their dream job.  As a result, many now seem to see school as a place where the teacher is required to give them high grades–and something is clearly wrong with the teacher if they do not.  But this attitude forgets that school is supposed to be a place of learning.  And, when a person learns something, they typically do not do it perfectly on their first try.

A student feeling challenged by a book is a sign that the teacher is doing something right, not something wrong.  Yes, it is possible for a text to be too challenging, enough so that a student may give up completely.  But teachers are trained professionals.  They are aware that a sweet spot exists, one where students are challenged just enough that they grow.  Setbacks will occur along the way.  Frustration may ensue.  But, ultimately, reading a difficult text should help a student advance by teaching them to recognize new vocabulary, tackle more complex sentence structures, and engage with new and complex ideas. These are things that may never happen if teachers never ask students to stretch their boundaries a little.

And school is the perfect place for students to try new things because they have a trained professional to guide them and classmates to help them.  Required reading is required precisely because it does not happen in isolation.  If a student is asked to read a book they find difficult, they are also provided with the tools and the training to make it more accessible.  Glossaries, reading guides, summaries, author biographies, historical overviews, class discussions, and more are all provided because the teacher knows the text is difficult.  But they also know they can teach students what to do when they are faced with a challenge.  Not to give up.  But to find ways to approach the text despite how scary it might feel.

Frustration, fear, and failure are a natural part of the learning process, and things that should be embraced rather than avoided.  Removing difficult books from classes because they are difficult means students would never be asked to go beyond their ABCs or Doctor Seuss, or wherever they last felt comfortable because they knew they could get an “A” without even trying.  But life does work that way.  It is  not a rubber stamp of a person’s previous knowledge, but a constant learning experience in which people are asked to try new things.  If a person has not learned in school how to fail, learn something from the failure, and move on, school has not fulfilled its function.  So let’s not remove books from the curriculum because we think they are too hard for students to read.  Let’s teach students how to read them.

Why Don’t Authors Fully Allow YA Protagonists to Turn to the Dark Side?

YA Antiheroes

YA has grown increasingly dark in recent years as authors tend to write more for the adults buying their books than for the teens YA is supposed to be for.  Still, even though many book summaries promise dark storylines, gruesome deaths, and increasingly inventive ways to torture their characters, many YA protagonists never seem to turn fully to the dark side, as promised.  Even when they reach their lowest point, their actions are typically somehow justified; they do not really have to face the fact that they have turned into the person they used to hate.  Perhaps no one wants to write a true YA antihero in a market where every character must be “relatable.”  Perhaps authors and publishers fear no one could read a book where they do not sympathize with the protagonist.  But, in keeping antiheroes out of YA, we are limiting the literary possibilities.

The publication of The Hungers Games(2008) was a watershed moment for young adult literature.  It did not only start a trend of dystopian novels and YA love triangles, but also opened the door to increasingly darker YA content–for example, Three  Dark Crowns (2016), in which three sisters must try to kill each other to be queen or Six of Crows (2015), which features characters from the underworld and which spawned its own trend of heist novels.  However, The Hunger Games never really asks Katniss to descend so far into darkness they she never comes back–and few other YA books have done so, either.

(Hunger Games trilogy spoilers) Even though The Hunger Games trilogy is focused around a reality TV show in which children kill each other, Katniss is presented as morally superior to the others both because she is not eager to kill (though she is willing to, unlike her fellow contestant Peeta) and because she rarely does kill someone directly: she typically does something like drops a nest of dangerous insects upon someone or she kills someone by accident, such as when someone eats poisonous berries she leaves out.  If she has to kill, it is clearly in self-defence.  Even by the end of the trilogy, when Katniss is training for war, her most heartless kill is possibly the innocent citizen who unluckily appears just in time to give away the location of Katniss’s infiltration team; Katniss kills the woman to silence her.  On the one hand, this is terrible; the woman is not a soldier. On the other hand, Katniss is just trying to keep herself–and her friends–alive.  Katniss is not really a murderer, not a monster.  She’s just a teenage girl trying to survive.

(Six of Crows spoilers) This pattern seems to reemerge quite often in YA; even the most heartless of characters usually have some heart.  Take, for example, Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows, which features a criminal gang undertaking a political heist in order to make money.  The team is composed of thieves, spies, and gamblers–but they are all morally superior to the people they are trying to outwit.  They are only criminals because life has forced them into the dirt, because they were robbed from, or kidnapped, or the victim of an addiction they cannot control.  They would be better, if they could.  And, when it comes down to it, they’re willing to forego money if it means doing the right thing.

(The Rise of Kyoshi spoilers) The Rise of Kyoshi by F. C. Lee and Michael Dante DiMartino (2019) is just the latest in a string of YA titles that promises an antihero, but refrains from having the protagonist transform completely.  The summary informs readers that Kyoshi will join a gang of criminals and later found a group whose corruption will lead to her nation’s downfall.  She is a grey character whose pursuit of justice is performed through dubious means.  Even Kyoshi, however, is ultimately never asked how far she is really willing to go.  When she is faced with the question of whether she can commit murder, someone else takes the choice away from her.  Kyoshi is preserved for YA readers as a little shady, but still sympathetic and definitely redeemable.

Perhaps the reason YA authors steer away from really awful characters is because readers will not like them.  I myself complained that Mary E. Pearson’s Dance of Thieves (2018) has terrible characters whose terrible actions are glossed over in favor of developing a steamy romance; who cares how many people they torture and murder, as long as there’s a hot love interest, right?  I also struggled to finish Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone (2018) because (spoilers) the protagonist is shown to be justified in retaliating against mass murder with her own mass murders; the love interest is also a mass murderer, one who decimated the protagonist’s home.  However, my problem with these books is  not that the protagonists do terrible things; my problem is that the protagonists are depicted as justified in doing terrible things, because someone else did something terrible to them first.

I still have yet to read a YA book featuring a protagonist who is a true antihero, someone so far gone readers feel a moral dilemma in their own desire to root for their success (see: Shakespeare’s Richard III), and who is depicted as being an antihero, and not presented as completely justified in their retaliatory violence.  I want a YA character who is awful, whom readers know is awful, whom authors admit is awful.  It might be risky, but it would certainly be a new twist on the current YA formula.

Why Should We Care about the Macmillan E-Book Embargo?

Why Care about the Macmillan Ebook Embargo

Starting in November 2019, Macmillan announced an embargo on all new e-book titles.  Libraries will be allowed to buy only one copy of new e-books for the first two months after release, no matter how large the library system or how many patrons it serves.  Only after the initial hype has died down will libraries be allowed to buy additional copies.  Macmillan’s CEO John Sargent argues that this step is necessary because libraries are decreasing e-book sales.  In essence, he is hoping that library patrons annoyed by long waits for e-books will buy the books instead.  (Steve Potash, CEO of Overdrive, questions Macmillan’s assertion that libraries decrease e-book sales.)

This announcement has met with loud resistance from librarians, but has been generally overlooked by the public.  Macmillan’s new business model, however, has troubling implications–ones that could become more widespread should other publishers decide to follow its lead.

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Why Should WE Care about the macmillan e-book embargo? (Even If we don’t borrow library e-books)

The Macmillan e-book embargo negatively impacts the ability of libraries to serve their communities and provide equal access.  Even as libraries have evolved over their years, their core mission to provide access to materials, education, and information to everyone, regardless of income or socioeconomic background, has not changed.  The Macmillan e-book embargo prevents equal access by forcing people to pay for books; those without the means to do so will have to do without, or possibly wait months for the chance to read a popular new title.

The gap between the very wealthy and the very poor in the U.S. shows no immediate signs of narrowing.  Libraries are one of the remaining institutions in the U.S. that seek to reduce this gap.  Even if you do not personally need the library, even if you can choose to buy the e-books Macmillan withholds from libraries, libraries still benefit you. Creating equal access to resources and knowledge helps the community as a whole, enabling more people to graduate, more people to find employment, more people to learn a necessary language, and more people to seek help from other community organizations and resources. All these things create a better quality of life in a community and can possibly boost the local economy.   In short, supporting the library means lifting up the entire community.

The Macmillan e-book embargo may seem like a minor annoyance, an obnoxious way to frustrate library patrons into purchasing Macmillan’s titles instead of borrowing them.  However, the policy has long-term implications that threaten the mission of libraries to provide equal access.  Accepting this policy as our new reality means accepting that some will have to continue to do without.  Some will continue to be left behind.  Anyone who believes that social inequality must be eliminated should oppose Macmillan’s embargo, even if they have never checked out a library e-book.

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What Can You Do?

Contact Macmillan (Tweet, Email, Write!)

If you disagree with the Macmillan embargo, let them know!  You can reach out to them at Twitter, email them, or even send snail mail to their office.   The American Library Association (ALA) has all the ways you can contact Macmillan.  It’s important that library patrons, as well as library workers, speak up!

Blog about the Issue

Blogging is what bloggers do best, right?  Plenty of people may have missed the news about the Macmillan embargo, especially if they do not follow industry news. Get the word out to fellow bloggers and library lovers by letting them know!  The more we talk about this issue, the more Macmillan will understand that people are willing to protect equal access and to reject a business model that purposefully creates consumer frustration to drive sales. (We first blogged about the Macmillan e-book embargo in early August.)

Tell Everyone You Know in Real Life

Informing people about the issue means more people can voice their disagreement to Macmillan.  It also can help libraries, so patrons know that their frustration with long hold lists should not be taken out on librarians who wish they could buy more copies of titles, but cannot. Casual conversations about this issue may have more of an impact than you realize.  I mentioned the Macmillan embargo to two employees at my local library–neither had heard of it. General readers who do not follow industry news are even less likely to be aware of the issue.  So bring up the news with your friends, family, and colleagues!  You never know what action they might be inspired to take.

Boycott?

Perhaps the obvious strategy to informing companies that you disagree with their policies is to boycott them.  After all, money speaks. In this case, however, readers may be hesitant to boycott because such a move may also negatively impact authors and publishers.  So readers will have to decide for themselves if they think it ethical to boycott.  One solution, however, might be not to boycott the entire company, but instead to boycott only e-books, buying physical copies of books instead.

The Circularity of Book Blogging (Discussion Post)

The Circularity of Book Blogging

Krysta and I have been blogging for over eight years now, and while she recently wrote a post about the things that have changed in book blogging over those eight years, both of us have also been struck by how much has stayed the same.  While scrolling through posts in our readers or brainstorming our own discussion post topics, we’ve both noticed that there seem to be perennial questions, that things we wrote posts about five years ago continue to pop up as new conversations.

I’m sure this is partially because there’s a decent amount of turnover in the book blogging community, both in bloggers and readers.  So although we wrote posts on things like “Do you comment back?” and “Why I Don’t Listen to Audiobooks” quite a while ago, these questions are going to seem new to people who simply were not blogging or reading blogs five years ago.

Yet even questions that seem as if they ought to have “settled,” like whether paper books are better than e-books, whether listening to audiobooks counts as reading, and whether YA books have any value or are trash written for children, come up year after year.  Even when one thinks the debate is over and the topic has been discussed from every angle possible, the conversation continues.

It’s interesting to note that the same questions repeat themselves, but sometimes it makes it a bit difficult to be an “older” blogger.  Sometimes this is because I’ve already read a large number of posts on the same topic over the past eight years, so unless something new is being brought to light in the discussion, I have no personal interest in reading the most recent posts on the issue.  This means I can scroll past a dozen discussion posts in my reader and not want to read a single one.  Sometimes it also feels as if it makes it difficult to write discussion posts.  If “everyone” seems to be discussing something like “why adults should be allowed to read YA” but I already wrote a post about that—maybe even more than one—a few years ago, do I write another?  Can find something new to add to the conversation?

I love that people read and discuss books, and of course I think people should blog about what they like and realize that the conversations will in fact be new to many readers.  That’s why they get so many comments and engagement!  Yet on a personal level, I do sometimes struggle with the repetition, if only in the sense I personally no longer find these topics as shiny and new and interesting.

What do you think?  Have you seen some of the same conversations repeat while you’ve been blogging?  What is your reaction?  Do you keep reading the posts?  Keep writing new ones of your own?

Briana

Allusions to Other Books: How Much Is Too Much?

Can There Be Too Many Allusions in a Book_

Many readers seem excited to find characters who are bookworms or to notice allusions to other texts in the books they read.  I’ve seen people squeal on social media about the fact that a novel mentioned Harry Potter or (much more rarely) another favorite book, as if the allusion alone were a recommendation for the novel.  The author or the character or both like the same book that the reader does, so there’s some sort of connection.  The entire novel is better for it.  Yet I find myself on the other end of the spectrum.  I often don’t like allusions to other books because they feel forced or overwhelming.

A well-placed allusion that adds something to the novel and does not distract from the main story is fine.  However, many allusions seem like throw-away lines that are simply there, and if a book has too many, they overwhelm the main narrative, and I start wondering if the author is making a weird effort to look well-read themselves.  This is particularly true if the “allusion” is mainly a name drop of a litany of titles, rather than a thoughtful working-in of a quote or other more subtle reference.

In other cases, I frequently feel (perhaps unjustly) that the allusion is there to make a quick connection with the reader without any real work on the part of the author.  Shouting “We’re all Harry Potter fans here!” seems like a short-cut to make readers like the book or the character—and that short-cut rests on the fact that Harry Potter is good, regardless of whether the book alluding to it is also good.  This struck me most recently as I was reading Blastaway by Melissa Landers (a book that has other strong qualities, to be fair).  The story is set 500 years in the future in space, but the protagonist frequently waxes poetic about how the twenty-first century on Earth was a golden age of literature, and he mentions Harry Potter throughout the book.  Furthermore, he has a full conversation with another character about Harry Potter, what Houses they’re in, etc.  Far from immersing me in the story or making me identify with the protagonist as a fellow HP fan, I felt ripped out of it.  Was I reading a story set in space or an ode to Harry Potter?  Worse, the novel then dedicated a lengthy paragraph to a discussion of Percy Jackson, as if the author wanted to be sure she hit two of the biggest fandoms in middle grade.

A couple pages of characters in a book geeking out about other books does not contribute much in my opinion, particularly if the point is simply that the characters like the book and, hey!, you the reader probably do, too!  If the books alluded to were relevant to the plot, or if there were some overlap in themes between the two stories that merited being commented upon, I think a lengthy allusion could be valuable. (Although probably rare in contemporary literature. I wouldn’t blink an eye at characters in a classic novel discussing, say, Wordsworth for reasons that became clear over the course of the story.  Such a thing just generally doesn’t happen in books written today.)

I might be overreacting to such allusions.  Likely the authors are genuine fans of the books and simply think that mentioning them is fun, but I find it distracting, and the allusions are poor substitutes for making me like or care about the characters or the story in other ways.

What do you think? Do you like allusions in books?  Are some allusions better done than others?

Briana

Do You Read Backlist Titles?

Do You Read Backlist Titles

Book bloggers often seem to focus on new releases, working hard to get advanced reader copies (ARCs) for review or blogging primarily about books being published that same year, or the next.  However, the worth of a book cannot be measured by its release date alone.  Plenty of “older” titles (an adjective that can apply to a book released maybe even only three years ago) are still vibrant and compelling stories–ones worth reading.

Reading every book published every year simply is not possible, even for those who read incessantly. Even if readers limit themselves only to categories like “middle-grade books” or “fantasy YA,” they still will not be able to read every book published in a given year.  This means that, every year, there are plenty of exciting stories that I fail to read.  But they still have intriguing summaries, glowing reviews, or provocative premises.  I still want to read them.

I regularly read backlist titles because a good story remains a good story, even after time has passed.  It is not the newness of a book that makes it moving or gripping or memorable.  Rather, it is the characters, the plot, and the prose that combine to make a book the type of story that nestles deep into your heart, that makes you think, that maybe changes your life forever.  I would hate to miss out on something wonderful simply because it is no longer new.

But reading backlist titles has benefits–namely, that I am more likely to find others who have read the book, too.  Discussions of books is difficult when reviewing ARCs or even when reviewing a book only a few weeks old, because not many others have  read or finished the story.  In these cases, comments on reviews are often confined to statements like, “Great review!” or “I’m looking forward to reading this!” In-depth comments on the story and readers’ reactions to it are not yet possible.  But I love hearing what others thought of the book, whether that means they are sharing my enthusiasm or pointing out aspects of the book I may have overlooked or interpreted differently.  Talking about books is half the fun of reading.

Reading backlist titles gives me the opportunity to find gems I may have missed and the opportunity to talk about my new finds with others who have already read and loved them.  I would never want to miss out on a good book simply because it was not published this  year.

Do you read backlist titles?