A few days ago, I had a conversation with my older kids—who, like me, are fairly voracious readers—about books, and one of the things that came up was how to think about the relative ranking of what we read. I can see myself using some of these posts to review or talk about things I’ve read, so before I do that, I want to give some context.

My contention is that the measure of a good book is how well it rewards rereading. Sudden plot twists and excitement are all well and good, but when rereading I often find they are, actually, cover and distraction for suboptimal writing or plotting. And it works! “Why didn't I notice this plot hole the first time I read this!?” has come out of my mouth more times than I like admitting. But a good book, I think, should be enjoyable on the third or fifth or twelfth read as well as the first—perhaps not quite in the same way, of course. But then, on the twelfth read, you’re probably not quite the same reader, either.

A corollary to this is that—contrary to what the Internet at large appears to believe—spoilers are good, actually. I don’t necessarily suggest that you go around telling the endings of things to people who don’t want to hear them, to be clear. That seems impolite. But a not-terrible heuristic for whether to keep reading a book is “Would I still read this if I already knew the plot?”

So, for what it’s worth, and in the hope that it would be useful to anyone else considering the media they consume, here is the rating scheme I use—and I’ve concentrated on books above, but (though I rarely watch anything) the same applies to movies, mutatis mutandis, though with movies the concerns are also more multifaceted. It is perfectly reasonable to, for example, thoroughly dislike the plot of a movie, yet still find it worth watching, and even rewatching,because of the acting, or the cinematography, or the sound design, and so forth. Substitute “watch” for “read” as appropriate.

  • ⭐️: I either did not finish this, or could tell without beginning it that I would not like it.
  • ⭐️⭐️: I finished this, but in some measure I regret doing so. It is unlikely I will ever read it again.
  • ⭐️⭐️⭐️: I finished this, and do not regret it. It is unlikely I will ever read it again.
  • ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️: I finished this, and will probably read it again if the opportunity presents itself.
  • ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️: I finished this, and will definitely read it again. I want to own this, so I can read it whenever the mood strikes me.

Interestingly, I rarely find myself classifying something in the last category on the initial read: it’s much more often that I rank something as 4 stars—and then realize on the third or fourth read that it was actually 5 stars all along. Likely that says something about my self-awareness.