Nikki’s Rating System (and related thoughts)

It occurred to me that, if I’m going to be making reviews about books, it might be good to share my thoughts on rating them. I’m always surprised when I learn that someone else’s rating system is very different from mine because I always assume mine is the obvious, natural method. I mean, logically I know it’s not. But sometimes I forget. Then I’ll come across someone who considers 3 stars a low rating or someone else who practically never gives 5 stars. I am neither of those people.

So firstly, I try to stick to the Goodreads rating system as closely as possible.

★★★★★ It was amazing

★★★★☆ Really liked it

★★★☆☆ Liked it

★★☆☆☆ It was OK

★☆☆☆☆ Did not like it

An aside: Despite the fact that in my reviews I might specify a half star rating sometimes, I’m actually not in support of official GR half star ratings. I like that whole stars force me to decide which general category a book fits into. It’s simple and it (generally)* works for me.
*more on this later…

This system is inherently very subjective. However, I want my reviews to be useful to as many people as possible as well as a documentation of my own thoughts on the books I’ve read. So, which rating is more valuable, a subjective one or an objective one? Naturally, it will be subjective because I am human, I have a certain perspective, I am affected by my experiences, so complete objectivity is impossible. Not much can be done about that. But I would like to support my opinions with as much evidence and explanation as possible so people reading it can understand my rating, my praises and my complaints. I also want to be fair to the book. I try to give some leeway if I was expecting something different that the book never intended to do. The book shouldn’t have its ratings lowered just because I expected Harry Potter to be a civil rights memoir and it didn’t involve enough of that content. You see what I’m saying?

If I don’t immediately have a star rating in my head, having my thoughts unfolded before me sometimes helps me to decide. A while ago climbthestacks (Ashley Riordan) posted a video on booktube about reviewing books which I think is a great guide for constructing a really helpful and interesting review for someone who might want to read the book (or discuss it after reading) as well as for uncovering your thoughts on what you’ve just read for yourself. It also helps to compare the book with other similar(ish) books I’ve read: “Is HG Wells’ The Invisible Man really on the same level as his The Island of Dr Moreau??” (No. The answer is no. It isn’t.)

Obviously some 5 star ratings are different from others. John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and Jon Klassen’s I Want My Hat Back have both earned 5 star reviews from me, but they are very different books with very different 5 star ratings to suit their very different content and intentions. We can’t judge everything by the same bar. This is why kindergarteners don’t sit college exams. The books have different aims and should be judged by how successfully they’ve achieved what they intended.

It isn’t always so clear cut, though. Certain types of books always leave me conflicted about how to rate them. Those are books that I might think are good or even needed, but I wouldn’t say I “liked” them. Or disliked them! I’m just overall indifferent emotionally. I’m never sure what to rate these. This dilemma happens most often with non-fiction and with memoir in particular. It’s sort of like rating something that almost must necessarily be rated primarily subjectively. (I don’t know how true that is, but that’s how it feels.) Especially if I think a book is important and like it would benefit people to be aware of it, I want to rate it higher (like 4 stars)! But if I also didn’t feel personally moved by it or already was aware of much of what it was saying, I sometimes feel a mid rating (which, for me, is probably a 2 stars: “It was OK” or maybe a 3: “I liked it (but didn’t love it)”), is more true to how I felt about it.

OK. But do star ratings even matter anyway?

Yes, I think so.

Why?

Because people use them to determine whether a book is worth reading.* Because people use them to determine whether other people’s book opinions are in line with theirs and, therefore, to know how much to take on the reviewer’s recommendation (or opposition) for that book. Because people spend time thinking about how to wrap up the worth of a literary work in the most concise way possible for someone to understand at a glance. Because they are more easily averaged to get a general, wordless consensus about a book than reading (literally!) tens of thousands of reviews. Because star ratings often work as quick pre-review/overall opinions. Because it’s good when you’re navigating reviews to be able to immediately pick out the negative ones so you don’t have to trawl through loads of praise before uncovering the major criticisms. And for all sorts of other reasons!

*Mercy discusses in a recent booktube video how she tends not to read anything with less than a 3.6 rating. At first I thought “this seems kind of harsh” but then I went through my books and, by chance, my favourite (or even just well-liked) books don’t tend to have a rating lower than 3.6 even though I don’t intentionally take notice of specific average rating numbers on GR. In fact, only two books that I really enjoyed have ratings lower than 3.6 and, even then, they were only a little lower at 3.4 and 3.43.

And, for many of the same reasons as previously listed, if you don’t have any opinion about a book or you do have an opinion but have decided for whatever reason you don’t want to influence the book’s overall rating, you shouldn’t feel pressured to participate in the star rating system (either just for that book or in general – whichever you choose!). And, of course, that’s fine too.

I trust I’m not the only one who thinks this deeply into what/why I’m rating a book and the implications of that rating… (The implications, of course, being ridiculously trivial.) I’m not obsessive or anything…! I just have reasons for doing the things I do. There’s method to my madness!

How do you rate books? Is your system similar to mine?

Do you try to be objective or is it more about opinion?

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13 Responses to Nikki’s Rating System (and related thoughts)

  1. Pingback: Sunday Post (April 5) | Girl of 1000 Wonders

  2. Claire (BWB) says:

    I’m a bit odd in my rating in that I find my GR rating often clashes with my real blog rating. Must do my own post, but this was Brilliant Nikki!

    • Nicole says:

      Yeah! More posts! More posts! ;D
      To be fair, I’m constantly conflicted about things because I tend to rate things higher on Net Galley than on GR because I don’t want to give publishers the impression I didn’t like something when my GR 2 stars is probably more like a Net Galley 3 stars? I duno…

  3. writersideup says:

    You know, when I first got on Goodreads I considered rating books, but I have such an aversion to it : / I also wrote one negative review of a book, then decided if I didn’t like something, I would leave it unsaid. If I can have a positive impact, I’ll do it, but that’s about it. It’s not easy to judge, especially since opinions can be equally strong and contradictory. I don’t know. I just can’t do it : /

    • Nicole says:

      That’s interesting. I actually have no problem giving “negative” reviews…though I hope it’s not just negative and that it is just constructive criticism. Usually I try to really explain what it was that I thought was badly executed and be as reasonable as I can. Recently I read an eARC called Beijing, Beijing where the main character was really sexist – which is fine – but it didn’t feel like it was just the character. Although I give the benefit of the doubt that it is perhaps intentional, it felt overwhelmingly like it was the author expressing sexist views throughout the book and it just seemed a lot like overkill. I’ve since found that most Chinese speakers feel very differently towards the book that anyone who has read the English language translation of the book (I think it’s only in Chinese and English). This leads me to two possibilities: (1) The book is gratingly sexist and awkward or (2) the translation is bad. I feel like that is worth mentioning to people who would read it. I’m also glad other people posted their similar experiences so I knew I wasn’t the only one totally missing something. Sometimes it’s good to bond over books you don’t get on with as much as the ones that do.
      It seems unbalance, to me, to only leave good comments. It isn’t the full picture and it equates critique with negativity, which it isn’t. Sometimes a critical/’negative’ review is more about asking people who loved it to explain why they liked it by addressing some of the things you took issue with. I’ve done this before with Handmaid’s Tale. That review is more a ramble of issues I had with it (also talking about certain things I like about it) that invites conversation. In fact, I think all of the most interesting book conversations I’ve had have been about books that either I didn’t like or books that the person I was talking about didn’t like where the one who liked it would explain the merits and the one who didn’t would highlight the issues. Very interesting!
      …Aaaaaaand I guess sometimes it’s just fun to bitch about all the ridiculous problems some books have in the same way that we sometimes like to moan about the weather I guess?? haha It doesn’t often happen and it doesn’t go anywhere or last long. But sometimes you just want to moan about a crap day (read: book). hahah
      I think, for me, a particularly useful thing about rating books on Goodreads is that it allows me to “compare books” with people which I make use of a lot. Which, strangely (considering what I was saying earlier), means that I don’t really add people if we have a book taste match of less than about 70% because I just don’t think we’d have enough in common to not be constantly frustrated/hurt by each other’s reviews. Like, if someone who has similar tastes to me rates a book I quite enjoyed (and gave 4 stars to) gives that same book 2 stars, I know their reasons for why are probably going to be really interesting to me. (This actually happened recently and it was interesting because I agreed with everything she said, but just happened to be more generous with the book for various reasons which I explained.) If someone consistently rates books I love with 1 stars and trashes them all the time chances are we’re just on totally different wavelengths and those discussions tend to be more 2 dimensional..

      • writersideup says:

        Wow, Nikki, thank you for the explanation 😀 For me it’s not just about my reading experience, but how the ratings can affect the writer and his/her standing, etc. on Goodreads. I also don’t have time to do reviews, really, so the few I do are the ones I feel really good about and want other people to read 🙂

        • Nicole says:

          Hahah, I get really chatty when the topic is books and discussion surrounding them. I can’t help myself! :’)
          Hmm..I don’t know if I would ever worry about the author’s standing. I think a review tends to help the author understand a low rating though and that’s invaluable information. A low rating on its own is usually pretty useless and I’d probably just ignore it if I were an author unless it came backed up with an explanation which I’d try to take on board if anything were relevant. I’d rather not allow writers to inadvertently make accidentally racist remarks (like in a certain funny feminist book that’s gained a lot of acclaim recently). I think the author should be made aware for her own good. Not to say “Ah she’s a racist!” But to say “I don’t think you intended this, but that sounds awfully ignorant. Maybe be aware of that for next time.” Because what’s written is written. But constructive critique is definitely a positive much needed thing to help authors and the publishing industry as a whole get better, be more inclusive and help readers benefit more too.
          I can relate to the not having the time/effort thing though…AND, obviously it’s your own choice whether you want to rate or review! Your Goodreads is for you to run how you want! 🙂

  4. moosha23 says:

    Love this post because it raises a lot of questions in me and what I think about ratings especially now that I’m currently reading The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing, which says quite a something about reviewers and book critics.

    I think that even ratings that are averaged-out are pretty subjective and that I can’t (won’t) use them to help me decide if a book is worth reading or not. Like you said a 5-star rating of one book is not the same as a 5-star rating of another – last year I was all about rating books three-stars but some three-star reads were way better than others.

    Also on the “subjective” thing – it’s a matter of personal opinion but also of external factors: from menial things like how stressed/exhausted we were while reading the book to how we view the ideas and issues raised in the book in our current day society to book hype. There’s a lot of factors that influence our attitude towards the book.

    However it’s obvious that in the book reviewer world we need ratings – like you said we read books and we issue out verdicts on them. Judging “objectively” we see if a book has reached its aims, and Lessing writes something beautiful about that:

    These children who have spent years inside the training system become critics and reviewers, and cannot give what the author, the artist, so foolishly looks for – imaginative and original judgement. What they can do, and what they do very well, is to tell the writer how the book or play accords with current patterns of feeling and thinking – the climate of opinion.

    She goes on to say a lot more about literature and the system of studying literature and of the relationship between writers and critics. It’s a brilliant preface to a thought-provoking book and pretty influential considering what I’ve spewed out.

    • Nicole says:

      Thanks so much for this comment! I wish we could have a proper realtime conversation about it!! Lessing’s comments on critique are really interesting. I feel I should have put a disclaimer on my post impressing that when I say “objective” I don’t think that it’s possible to make a truly objective review…but I think it’s possible to be less emotionally biased in your assessment.
      The idea of a “climate of opinion” is interesting. It’s true external things can change the way a book is viewed (and reviewed) though it’s hard to know just how much it affects one’s opinion of a book. There’s a suggestion in the design world that even the typeface that is used in a message helps to influence the reader’s interpretation of the message. Well…perhaps slightly…but is it significant enough to matter? I’m not sure. Not saying that an openminded reread won’t sometimes have a markedly different result. When I first read “The Cockroach Hat: A Literary Love Story” I thought it was balls. When I read it again later I realised it wasn’t terrible, it just wasn’t for me. I could appreciate it. So opinions can change depending on when you read a thing. (I may read it again some other time to see if maybe I learn to like it. Then love it. I’m skeptical, though it’s possible.) And I think your opinions can change on reflection. Although I haven’t come around to liking The Handmaid’s Tale or Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, But I can appreciate them and confirm that it is not buttkiss. Conversely, I wonder if I would be able to see through the intense wave of nostalgic love of a book read and adored in childhood and see its flaws or if I’d be blinded by the fond memories. And I imagine that reading something at 15 will be different if you read it again at 55. This is something for me to ponder as someone who doesn’t tend to reread books. I’ve actually been wondering about certain ones of my DNF’d books and whether I should pick them up again. I think, oftentimes, (post-high school/university) unless you’re a professional reviewer or editor, you choose your reading and are probably choosing to pick up books at an opportune time for you – when you’re in the mood for it. That unintentionally gives the book the best chance to impress you. You’re unlikely to pick up a non-fiction book when you feel like reading a novel if your reading is self-directed and the time and pace, etc that you read is up to you. It happens occasionally when we’re not sure what we feel like reading, but I imagine most people acknowledge that and stop and re-tackle the book at a better time.
      Reading reviews, however subjective, is still useful for helping me decide whether I read a book though. I mean, if I think the story sounds lame or just uninteresting, I’m unlikely to bother anyway even if it’s got rave reviews. BUT even subjective reviews help highlight things in the book that wouldn’t be mentioned in the blurb. ‘Controversial’ things to keep in mind, things that might actually make the book more appealing that aren’t explicit in the description, etc. I’m pretty good at determining what criticisms are useful to me. And I think ratings help to give an overall sense of how a person feels too. I think the most revealing/useful ratings are often 2 star ratings. You are unlikely to give a book you loved a 2. You probably have some criticisms, but you probably didn’t hate it and think it was worthless…I’d want to investigate why because there are probably interesting comments behind that rating. However you give a book you really liked a 3. Or you might give a book that was OK a 3. That doesn’t tell me as much unless I know your tastes fairly well or am comparing our ratings of a book.
      Anyway, there’s so much to say about the perception/interpretation and assessment of books! I hope I didn’t ramble off topic too much… :/

      • moosha23 says:

        Yes same here! Okay: these days I get really concerned with how much influence other things have on our “openmindedness”. I mean an unpronouncible name puts people off, certain colours make you hungry/less hungry – I feel like we have very little agency (one word: consumerism) and I think that spills on reviews too.
        I agree with you – I put more weight on the actual content of the review rather than the rating simply because it’s easier to pick out criticisms that way. It’s the sort of go-to answer I give if people ask me whether bad ratings affect if I read a book or not – for the most part unless it’s a ‘one’ then no, because if I’m interested in the story I’ll read why a reviewer disliked a book.
        I think, by objectively, we mean to say that the book has an aim, needs to tick certain criteria: good writing, good pace, good character development, and I think that for the amateurs (cough me cough) who aren’t proffessional critics with MAs in English Lit and whatnot we can’t judge on that basis. I mean, we can, and we do, but it’s not the go-to for a review, as readers we focus more on our experience with a story rather than its literary merit. People who’ve studied how books pull together are possibly better at saying if your book is pulled together or not than I am.
        But at the same time although I believe we can’t give objective reviews (thus rendering ratings useless) we bring something fresh to the table. Lessing talks about how reviewers are taught that being a critic means identifying flaws for the most part (good writing, pace, character development? no? you don’t cut it. if yes? good for you) instead of celebrating what the book has put forward – and I think that’s where we tend to rock with our subjective, biased feels-based reviews…we look for great reads, and I probably sound like a naive git right now, but we’re less likely to judge based on our perception of what makes a great book based on studying the “greats” (Western greats, and some ‘exotic’ ones to spice it up) for years.

        (I so rambled in this one). 🙂

        • Nicole says:

          Objectivity is a tricky one when trying to determine whether a story has done what it set out to do because that can be skewed by interpretation too. Still, I think it’s a mistake to believe that amateurs are necessarily less well equipped to evaluate the worth of a piece of literature than an English major. Yes, the latter will have better context for understanding where the work is coming from perhaps, but there are certain invaluable nuggets in your experience as a human being that grants you a unique perspective. There are things that you might realise as a woman that male scholars might not be able to see because their perspective simply doesn’t allow them to unless shown.
          I would certainly not say that ratings are rendered useless by their subjectivity though! I have come to realise that the film reviewer Christopher Orr and I have very similar film tastes and very similar opinions on films. I know that if he reviews a film negatively, I will probably feel similarly about it even if other professional film critics are raving about it. Likewise, if a film does poorly but he thinks it’s worth seeing, I might go check it. Despite rave reviews from other professional critics, I’ll probably hold his opinion in higher esteem because it is closer to my own and of more value to me. It’s just about finding out whose opinions you most relate to that makes their reviews more or less useful. I do find it helpful, however, when someone writing a bad review can identify things other people might like about the book, or when they can identify places where the book fell down a little even though they loved it. That’s, I guess, the kind of “objectivity” I mean: the ability to try to look past your positive or negative biases to make your review helpful to people reading it beyond just saying “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it”.
          Also, I don’t think scholarly knowledge of a subject absolves people from subjectivity. You have a wider scope to see the picture more clearly (assuming you’re a critical thinker!) but you’re not necessarily any more objective.
          I’m not sure I understand the last part of what you were saying exactly. Do you mean to say we’re less likely to be critical of the canon because its worth has been well-established? I think that’s actually where literary scholars sometimes fall down because they seem less willing to say something in the canon was pants or doesn’t live up to its acclaim. I think you’re more likely to get a more useful subjective review from someone outside of the ‘club’ who speaks frankly about the book outside of its hype…Although it can go the other way too where, away from the analysis, someone might simply be missing all of the book’s significance and be rating it unfairly less than it deserves….
          But WHY are things in the canon? HOW can you objectively decide if something is worthy? A council of “well-read” (what does that mean?) people get together and agree? I don’t know… I guess I can be skeptical of ‘scholarly’ opinion because I know a lot of people with degrees who are not as qualified to speak on the subject they studied as some other people I know who never got degrees in that subject. But then I know a lot of people with degrees who are dedicated to their field and really do know what they’re on about and other people without degrees who think they know everything just because they’ve decided it based on nothing…
          siiiigh. I guess there’s a lot in it all really.
          But bottom line, I don’t think subjective reviews are useless. And I do think critical, curious amateurs have a lot to offer the general discussion and possibly just as much as scholars.

          • moosha23 says:

            I think the whole amateur vs English major thing stands on how we define objectivity. When I described objectivity I said that we judge books based on a list of criteria. But where do these criteria come from? Why do English majors study aspects to do with those certain criteria instead of anything else that can be used, and is used, by said amateurs to assess the book?
            This is where my problem with a review being objective/subjective lies. How can we judge objectively when the criteria we match books against has already been decided for us?
            I didn’t mean to make it about English majors or amateurs but about the reviewers who read a book and ignore the aspects of the book the writer has tried to convey to the reader in order to pick at the “objective” criteria of a book. Instead of looking for the successes of a novel critics look to see how the writer could have improved the book, how it went wrong.
            In this way it’s kind of ridiculous. Imagine there was an ideal book – by definition it has no criticisms, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be reviewed. But then, if there aren’t any faults in it, how can the book be reviewed?
            Hmm. I have to agree with you on this one: when you find a reviewer whose ratings you trust then the ratings aren’t useless – even if I’ll still be sceptical about it regardless of whether the review was by an amateur or a scholar.
            The last point that I was trying to make was about how reviewers are taught that they have to look for the flaws in a story in order to write a good review. Of course it’s an important part of the reviewing process but I think we put too much weight on that.
            Also I wanted to say how amateurs bring a fresh perspective to the table because those with English majors having spent a good portion of their time studying the successes of classics, would most probably have a very different idea about what makes a good book than an amateur. But that also depends on what the “scholar” was taught. Books are written differently all across the world and what makes a book is probably different for different countries…and I think that’s where the wider scope of subjectivity lies – what really does make a book? Say if a scholar spent years studying Western classics to have been given an Indian classic. She reads it, and judges it based on everything she’s learnt studying Western classics – surely it doesn’t match up. In this way amateurs bring the fresh perspective in that they aren’t consumed by all the things that they were taught made the “ideal” book – instead they can assess books according to their own personal criteria – it’s more subjective yeah, but it also rings true for most people.
            Have you read Reading Around the World? It’s come out this year, and the beginning was about a man who advises that before diving into a book – especially a book from an “exotic” background – then you have to do a lot of research on the book and its background. But the ordinary reader and the amateur doesn’t have time for this, and they don’t have the backlog of information and research professionals may have and this is where the subjective reader rocks.
            All in all: everyone is subjective and objectivity will never be gained in a review. Thus ratings are, although useful in some aspects, not the best way to get a good solid opinion on a book because solid opinions? They do not exist (unless you’re the writer…and even then you’re biased).

            • Nicole says:

              You raise so many interesting points! 😀

              As far as a review’s usefulness though, if I’m reading a review for a particular book, I might not (and don’t) care about every analyse-able aspect of the book. I don’t always care about the social relevance or each metaphor. A review doesn’t have to be an analysis in this way. When I read a review I’m not looking for how technically great it is; how successful the symbolism is, etc. A review is not going to convince me that a book I think is terrible is actually great.
              Instead of looking for the successes of a novel critics look to see how the writer could have improved the book, how it went wrong.
              I disagree with you here. Critics do give praise too. Amateurs and professionals alike.
              It’s just someone’s assessment based on things that matter or stood out to them. And you’ll be aware of more things and more things will stand out to you the more you know about the context in which the novel was written or have an idea of what it was trying to do. A book with no faults can definitely be reviewed! I would explain WHY it’s good. I would compare it to other similar but inferior stories and explain what that perfect book got right that the others didn’t. I would explain what I had expected and where I thought it might go; whether I was right or wrong. But, alas, there is no perfect book. We as people are too varied in our opinions for one to exist. But you can absolutely wholeheartedly believe a book has no flaws and successfully review it.
              And, when I wholeheartedly love a book I can speak ‘objectively’ enough to say what I think might be an issue for other people while still acknowledging that I think that thing was done well even if I’m aware others might disagree. That’s not me looking for flaws so much as thinking about different types of perspectives coming to the work might view it and letting those hypothetical readers of my review know that they might not have the same reaction to it as me….but I still think it’s a perfect work and I think that aspect that they dislike is perfect because of whatever reasons.

              I think you possibly give to little credit to the fact that scholars are people with differing opinions too. They don’t all just do a course and suddenly everyone agrees on the canon or who should/n’t be in it or who’s great and who’s terrible. I have a degree in Illustration in which I did several art history courses. I came to that course with opinions of my own and while that course might teach me to appreciate certain things I previously disliked or add new context to things that make me see them with fresh eyes, I won’t necessarily abandon all my original opinions purely because somebody with more degrees than me told me they’re right about Artist X being the best artist in the world, for example. I might decide “(s)he is skilled, yes. But her/his subject matter is monotonous, boring”. That is my opinion, but if I can back it up, it is just as valid in the academic world. I think that is weightier than blindly agreeing with popular academic opinion. And it all is opinion open for criticism. It’s just that you need to be able to convincingly explain what you’re proposing.

              “Books are written differently all across the world and what makes a book is probably different for different countries” I had an experience with this recently when I read Beijing, Beijing. I thought (and still do think) it was awful. However, I’m willing to give the benefit of the doubt that there is a cultural schism to cross and/OR that the translation did not accurately capture the spirit of the book. I think this is possibly the most important (if not at least one of the main) reasons a book flops when you put it in front of a different culture. There are so many ways to make a translation. It could be word for word, it could be meaning for meaning, it could be feeling for feeling, it could be rhythm for rhythm, it could be using contemporary language, it could be using language from the time it was written, it could be using ‘equivalent’ social dialects to get a social structure across. SO many different ways and they could all be accurate, BUT each one will give the reader a different understanding of the text. If Beijing, Beijing was translated differently perhaps it wouldn’t come across so painfully misogynistic. OR perhaps it was intended to come across that way but it doesn’t bother Chinese readers (who have responded largely positively to it) because their culture doesn’t recognise this as an issue (I am not convinced of this). It’s hard for me to say because I am not from that culture, but when I’ve read people backing up their different opinions, it seems like something has certainly been missed in the translation. BUT if the book has been translated, it is a new book. And the translated book can be reviewed as a translated work that has no bearing on the original.

              Again, though, when I talk about objectivity, I don’t mean actual objectivity. I mean simply the ability to step back a little and give credit where it’s due even if the book wasn’t amazing for you by thinking about how another person might look upon it more favourable, or not allowing your overwhelming love for a book get in the way of mentioning things where there might be room for improvement. Just trying to look at it from a different perspective to make the review more balanced. A truly objective review is probably just a description of what happened and a list of definitions which would be very boring and largely unhelpful to read indeed.

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