When books are…fine.

If you follow me on GoodReads, you’ve probably noticed that I rate almost everything at three stars. I wish there were more options. Three stars can mean books that were pretty good but not life-changing, or that I’m happy I read but probably wouldn’t re-read. Or they can mean books that were just…fine. Not poorly written or annoying enough to rate a two-star designation, but overall lackluster.

See what I mean? We need more differentiation, or at least a clear framework of what constitutes different ratings.

Then again, it’s just GoodReads.

I need to get better at weeding out the low-threes. Often, it’s the sort of book with potential: I like the author’s other work, or the concept is interesting. But then, it doesn’t deliver. And yet, I keep hoping that it will pick up until, at last, it peters out at the end.

97 orchardIn one recent example, I read 97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement. Great title, right? The premise is solid: food history, immigrant history, tenement history…and there were some good moments. I did learn a few things. But, overall, the book read like a lengthier version of an early college term paper. It didn’t feel in-depth enough, there wasn’t enough analysis, and it didn’t read in an original way. So, maybe I went in with expectations that were too high, but I wound up disappointed. It wasn’t a bad book, just not great. I’m not sure at what point I should have cut my losses.

at-home-in-the-world-bookAnother title that I fully expected to love was Tsh Oxenrider’s At Home in the World. I really enjoy Tsh’s podcast, have read her other books, and would love to travel the world with my family. Again, perhaps it wasn’t fair to impose such high expectations, or perhaps Tsh’s book suffered from my inevitable comparison to the similarly themed Mother Tongue (link is to my review).

Unlike Mother Tongue, At Home felt very surface-level, like skimming on top of the travel, the locations, the issues, and the conclusions Tsh and her family experienced on their trip. I was reading the book for inspiration and insight, but instead I kept wishing for more in-depth stories, for richer descriptions, for actual details of off-hand comments.

  • For example, Tsh tosses off lines about how the trip was tough on the marriage relationship. Really? How? I’d be interested to know the pitfalls in case we ever do something like that.
  • She mentions homeschooling on the road with passing reference to Kindles and worksheets. OK, can you let us know how you changed your goals to accommodate the travel, how you managed to fit in school, how you pulled in your travels for history/geography/literature/art/whatever, or what kind of schedule you kept, or how the kids fared academically after the year on the road?
  • We get a glimpse of some sort of existential soul-searching going on, but there is only loose linkage to the travel happening and because we don’t understand the problem, we can’t see how travel helped her wrestle with it. A cursory description of a visit to a spiritual advisor and a walk through a labyrinth is not enough. It seems like if you don’t want to really explore a topic, you shouldn’t bring it up in your memoir.
  • I wanted more detail about the travel itself. How did the logistics work, how did they manage to work on the road, how did they set up for that in advance? How did it work out day to day? Were there times when money dried up or ebbed (a serious reality in contracting and freelance work)? Were there times when they changed plans because of money? Did this cause them any worry? I’m left not really knowing how they made it work, and thus I’m not inspired to figure out my own possibilities.
  • The whole trip felt random. We don’t hear enough about the decision-making part of setting the itinerary. We don’t know why they stayed a short time in some places or other. We don’t really ever get a glimpse into cultures. There isn’t much personal connection. Contrasting that with Mother Tongue, where the whole book is about deep connections and real conflicts and the author wrestling with how her own personality comes out in her travels, I was left feeling pretty blah about At Home.

So it was fine. And I kept reading because I’m hosting the book club that’s meeting to discuss it. But as I read, I kept checking how many pages I had left. If you’re interested in At Home in the World because of the content and premise, I’d highly recommend Mother Tongue instead. And if you’re interested because you’re a fan of Tsh Oxenrider (as I am!), I found her book Notes From a Blue Bike far, far better.

Life is short. Books can’t all be winners. And books can show up at the wrong time for me while being perfect for someone else. Still, I would love to only read high-threes and above. And so I’m pondering how to revise my book selection criteria once again. I’m thinking that if I’m not wowed or at least firmly hooked by page 50, I’m going to let go. If I read much past that point, I’ll feel like I’ve invested too much time to give up. And if I already know after the first chapter, I’ll be ok with leaving then, too.

How about you? Do you abandon books when you feel blah about them, or only when they are absolutely awful? Have you identified any ways to weed out the low-threes on your shelf?

 

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6 thoughts on “When books are…fine.

  1. I’m often a three star rater as well:) I haven’t pursued reading At Home in the World because I wasn’t a fan of Notes from a Blue Bike. I concluded some blogger/podcasters are communicating in their best ways in those formats. I also think my age/stage of mothering influence my interest (when I’m older than the author I may have already trod the path). As far as finishing books I’m not loving, I do it for my book club and out of habit some. I want to change this. My book club just suffered the passing of one of our members. She was my age and received her cancer diagnosis last spring. Reading has been unexpectedly difficult as I grieve her loss. We actually tabled this past month’s book and met for dinner last week instead. After that I seem to be engaging with books more again. The whole experience has reminded me to number my days, and yes, my books. By the way, I always appreciate your blog and newsletter even if I don’t take the time to comment. You have the kind of depth that I think would translate well into book format.

  2. What’s funny about this is that I found /Mother Tongue/ to be…fine. Ha!

    I’ve been curious about /At Home in the World/, but the things you listed as being missing are pretty much exactly what I was hoping to read about in the book. I followed along with her travels on Instagram and blog posts as it was happening, and wanted to hear more about those nitty gritty details on how to do it and how it effected them. So, I’ll probably skip it unless I hear a review that makes me think otherwise.

    As to learning to skip books in general, I struggle with this, too. I also am a mostly-three-stars rater on Goodreads. Sometimes I don’t mind reading even a low-three-star book, because sometimes I just want junk food, y’know? But dropping ones that I had high hopes for is something I struggle with. I do have some rules in place to screen out books from ever even getting on the TBR list–I don’t read productivity/self-help books or romances. It’s like how I also just don’t wear pink–sometimes I find rules, even arbitrary ones, helpful to eliminate choices and decision-making fatigue. I’ll break them occasionally–if someone I trust tells me I should read a book on my no list, or for book club in order to discuss it–but my TBR list is plenty long enough as it is. It’s a lot harder for me to put a book down once I’ve started it, so it’s a better strategy to keep a book off the list in the first place.

  3. Yes, I agree with you on the At Home book…..(which happened to be perfect airplane reading for me heading off on a big trip when I just needed to be entertained and inspired for my own small trip and didn’t need a lot of info). I agree about all the missing parts….I was also troubled about the lack of spiritual input along the way — I think she mentioned they intentionally didn’t go to church. For me, attending church, meeting believers in other countries, and experiencing that bit of heaven on earth is an essential part of travel and adds a great dimension to it.

    I think it is scary contemplating writing a book and figuring it could just be one of those 3-starred books. 🙁 But then again, there are always some people who love the books that we give 3 or 4 stars to instead of 5.
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