The illness [bad book reviews by bad reviewers] erupted in January when amateurs attacked Randall Sullivan’s biography of Michael Jackson with a campaign of negative 1-star reviews on amazon. It spread to the professional class last month with illiterate attacks on Sheryl Sanbderg’s book “Lean In” run in Forbes and the New Republic. Amid the epidemic, the Columbia Journalism Review’s Ryan Chittum now denigrates books after reading reviews written by non-readers.
Bad book reviews thus must be taken with a grain of salt these days. Especially for books addressing controversial topics, “reviewers” reflect what they believe about the topic. They do not engage with the substance of the book author’s argument or the content of her book.
It is easy to spot some such faux reviews, broadcast by inane headlines favored by the 1-star posters at amazon. But the more sophisticated versions are harder to detect. Writers make references to the book, giving a summary of its arc or stating the broad thesis. Yet they leave clues. Look for a snarky tone, particularly strident language, straw men, and hyperbole. Be especially skeptical of any review that cannot find one redeeming point to make about a book.
Helpful also are crowd-sourcing techniques. As one example, reviewers on amazon are rated by other customers. Seek out those having earned a great number of “helpful” votes. Amazon even has designations such as “hall of fame” and “top 1oo reviewer” for such people. Read those reviews and you will invariably find reliable information and analysis. (My own favorite is Robert Morris, a top reviewer who has reviewed two of my books in a constructive, and favorable, manner.)
In the old days, literati cocktail party-goers would joke about not having read a book but having read its reviews. It was a bit of a dodge but you could at least count on the reviewer having read the book. Pity those days are gone.