Sunday, February 06, 2005

The occasional madness of reader reviews

I like's reader reviews. I really do. They are frequently more helpful and more insightful than the professional reviews posted on the same page. But sometimes they are just plain weird.

Case in point: Currently I'm reading the history book The Last Apocalypse by James Reston, Jr., an entertaining recreation of Europe circa AD 1000. At that time, Europe was under attack from three directions. The Vikings were pillaging and conquering England and France; the Magyars of Hungary were invading Germany and Italy; and the Moors, having conquered Spain, were threatening to make further inroads into Europe. Reston combines colorful myth and legend with dry archeological facts to present a highly readable account of an underreported era.

It's possible to quibble intelligently with Reston's approach, by criticizing his reliance on oral traditions that may not be accurate. When I checked Amazon's Last Apocalypse page, I found several reviewers who took this tack. I disagree with them, because without the oral tradition there is little to say about this period, which has few written records to guide us (most people were illiterate). Still, it's an arguable point.

But then I found this bizarre opinion, reproduced in its entirety:

Unless you're interested in what Reston had for breakfast on a given day rather than history look elsewhere.

Now, what is this guy talking about? The only thing I can figure is that this "reviewer" read the first page of the book, which begins, "I parked my Vauxall Roadster beside a hedgerow ...", and assumed that the whole book focused on Reston's travels through Europe.

Which it does not.

Having read no further than the opening sentence, the "reviewer" then crafted his unhelpful message. And because Amazon is a democracy, his two-star review counts as much as anyone else's, helping to bring down poor Mr. Reston's average rating.

Another thing I've noticed is that whenever any book on Amazon gets more than a handful of reviews, at least one of those reviews will be sharply and mean-spiritedly negative.

Some folks, it would seem, are so overflowing with hostility that they can't help but release some of it on the Web.

Kind of sad, don't you think?


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