They say that a person’s personality is the sum of their experiences. But that isn’t true, at least not entirely, because if our past was all that defined us, we’d never be able to put up with ourselves. We need to be allowed to convince ourselves that we’re more than the mistakes we made yesterday. That we are all of our next choices, too, all of our tomorrows.
I recently gave five stars to Fredrik Backman’s Anxious People on Goodreads, from which the above quote is taken. But as I clicked “submit review,” I hesitated.
Was five stars, Goodreads’ highest possible rating, a fair assessment of this book? Was I right to effectively tell all my friends, foes, and followers that this book was practically perfect in every way?
Letting my personal beef with the star rating system slide for the time being (I’d prefer a scale of 1–10, rather than 1–5, to allow for more nuance), I went ahead and posted my review with all five stars. But, as I am wont to do, I worried and fretted in great disproportion to the actual problem, that someone would read the book and think me a nincompoop for giving it FIVE WHOLE STARS.
Err on the side of generosity, I say.
But of course I don’t give five stars to every book. I don’t give fifty claps to every article. What’s the rationale, then?
As a kid, I cast a scornful side-eye toward recipe descriptions in my mom’s Taste of Home magazines (which I read for fun on quiet Sunday afternoons because I was a weird child).
“Tasty” broccoli cheese casserole, Janet from South Dakota? I scoffed inwardly.
How can you say such a silly thing? Just because YOU think it’s tasty doesn’t mean everyone ELSE will think it’s tasty. You don’t know what they like and dislike.
Food, I felt, was the most subjective subject on earth. My sister abhorred bananas, while I thought them delicious. I loathed rice, and she requested it for her birthday dinner. (I still feel a latent brooding resentment for that betrayal.) It was almost like lying to simply state that a food WAS good. Grownups, man.
Now, of course, I too am a grownup and my tastes have expanded. I like rice these days and I don’t sneer at people who deal in absolutes when it comes to describing food.
But I do wonder if I am unable to be objective when I recommend a book.
A Man Called Ove is still my favorite Backman novel, but I’ve enjoyed almost all of his books so far. (Beartown had a bit too much of what I typically refer to as sportsball, but I guess in this instance it was sportspuck — and I couldn’t finish Us Against You since it was more of the same.)
Anxious People was no exception; it made me laugh and cry in short order, and both emotions continued throughout the book. The dialogue was witty without being so witty as to be aware of itself; that is, it read with the natural fluidity of a normal conversation. I found the narrative clever and suspenseful, which is especially impressive when you consider that this book has been translated from Swedish to English, and at least one plot twist hinges on how the narrative is worded.
And yet all the mechanics of the book were not really what won my five-star rating. It was the anxious people themselves, the sympathetic characters who irritated me and yet kept me turning pages; the poor choices and reckless decisions and kindness winning out in the end. (Is that a spoiler? It shouldn’t be.)
I’m a sucker for that kind of thing.
I don’t want to give away too many spoilers in case you haven’t read the book, but one subplot revolves around a man who is wrestling with the fact that he was unable to prevent someone else’s suicide. The frank depiction of clinical depression in particular and mental instability in general was an unusual choice for a story that purports to be a locked-room mystery, and yet it all fitted and framed together and by the time the last pages arrived, I didn’t want it to end.
As an anxious person myself, even the most unlikable dancers in Backman’s beautifully calculated choreography managed to tug at my heartstrings. All these people, bound together with their very different problems and their one mutual problem (being locked in an apartment with a bank robber)… they leapt off the page.
And I gave the book five stars.
Then I read the other Goodreads reviews, as I am wont to do.
Some of them made me smile. Some of them made me cringe. And a couple of them made me want to change my rating, just for a moment, because those reviews pointed out elements I hadn’t seen and analyzed from a perspective I hadn’t taken.
In the end, though, I kept my five stars. Because Anxious People made me feel five stars (although I respect the opinion of those who felt only two stars). And even if that statement wouldn’t fly in any kind of serious literary-criticism situation, I take comfort in the fact that am not a serious literary critic. I am just an anxious person who read a book about anxious people and felt seen.
The question of how much weight an author’s intentions should hold in a discussion of what readers perceive, and how a text is read and taught, is hotly debated. I tend to lean toward giving more credence to the author’s personal beliefs (insofar as they may be known), the historical context, the social and political context in which a book is written, in order to call an Important Work of Literature “good” or “bad.”
But when it comes down to everyday, ordinary, read-in-bed-with-the-covers-pulled-up-to-my-chin, satisfying novels, I go with my gut every time.
Maybe it’s not terrifically helpful for the stranger perusing reviews on Goodreads. I’m sorry for that. I really do want to be helpful to other readers.
Yet in the end, our perception of books really is just as subjective as our perception of broccoli cheese casserole. It’s personal. Easily influenced. Can change as we grow up (positively, in my case — at least for broccoli and cheese). What I think good you may think rubbish — one’s trash is another’s treasure, after all. My life experience that informs the reading choices I make and the opinions I form of that reading will never be the same as yours.
But if we do share some common anxieties — some common joys or sorrows or a shared love of chocolate, too — then I hope you’ll see my five stars and think “that sounds like something, I, too, would enjoy” and take up a book I loved and read.
“That’s the power of literature, you know, it can act like little love letters between two people who can only explain their feelings by pointing at other people’s.”
— Fredrik Backman, Anxious People