How to read Amazon customer reviews

Related to the previous tale of Tunguska, and my impulse to go and search for a good book about the subject — how to read the Amazon customer reviews.

  1. Pay no heed to the average grade. Some reasons for this follow below; another reason is the tendency of some people to write one-star reviews to the tune of “I buyed this book and Amazon nevar send it”, which says nothing whatsoever about the book, and shouldn’t be among the reviews upsetting the average. Then there are screeds along the lines of “I thought this book was a romance. Turns out it’s a big dull text on statistical mechanics. What a scam!” — that is, people unwilling to investigate what kind of a book they are about to buy, who then have the temerity to complain about that afterwards! Stupidity of this magnitude yields no useful information whatsoever.
  2. Read what the people who gave it the highest grade (five stars) said, and what they seem to be like. If the five-stars seem to be Christian Dominionites that say “this book reminds us the Founding Fathers were, as a matter of fact, all devout baptists”, Oprahites (“I bought the book and the next day I got a raise!”), utter and total idiots (“This book is an even bigger snorefest than the Silmarillion, and that’s something!”) or just gushing about the absolute originality of a plot where this, you know, this fellow has this evil magic thing he has to carry to a land of shadow and, you know, throw it into a volcano, and he has a sword of light and the big bad guy’s really (gasp) his father — er, those are signs that the book might not be so good. And — please note — I’m not saying “idiots like the book, hence a bad book” — I’m rather saying that if odious people seem to be liking the book for various wrong, ill-considered, invalid and dumb reasons, if the book seems to be just fan service for the dumb, it just might really be that, and better directed at them, not you.
  3. Read what the one-star reviews claim is wrong with the book, and what kind of people seem to be writing those reviews. This is the reverse of the five-star rule. Usually if a one-star review uses words like “scientific conformity” or “science is just like a religion”, that means the book has (gasp) dared to take a stand against woo-whackaloons; and while that reviewer doesn’t find that so nice, you should. Again it’s not the grade; it’s the kind of person that’s giving the grade, and the reasons she or he reveals for giving it, and what you can infer about her or his real motivations, that you should pay attention to. “Bad book boring” doesn’t tell you much; “As a devout Christian I find this book offensive; but actually you shouldn’t buy the book because it has the following printer’s errors in it —” tells you lots.
  4. Read what the people in between complain about. Both ends tend to be more valuable for their nature as the kind of people attracted or repulsed by the book; those in between are usually collected enough to have something valuable to say: something along the lines of “I really liked this book, except —“; but then again there’s a particular brand of reviewer that thinks it somewhat laudable to take a fine book and list all kinds of trivial, wrong and irrelevant nit-picks until he’s down to three stars.
  5. Now and then the mere volume of spittle is enough to tell you all you need to know about a reviewer; but just because she or he can write coherent sentences, you shouldn’t get fooled. After all, the very necessity of weighing which book to buy means there are many dunderheads that are well capable of turning out seemingly sensible and grammatically error-free blocks of text. (If I were a mean-spirited person, I would say that’s the reason there are religious publishers… but I’m not.) Some reviewers seem, either because of pure malice or for other reasons, willing to dig up a few minor errors, and then expound on them most lengthily. Others have some philosophical hang-up or theological dislike that makes them write well-disguised silly stuff. There’s no way to protect yourself from these except a well-trained internal BS detector.
  6. To go a bit beyond the customer reviews, or rather above them — does Amazon quote a Publishers Weekly review? Was the book “big enough” to actually get one? What does that review say? (And remember that those are written by people too; especially with subjects like religion this means even that review can be the work of an ungraceful snob or someone with a weird set of blinkers. And of course about 78% of those reviewing fiction are either snobs or too easily excited.) Then, are there quotes from paper reviews; if so, don’t care about what they say (they’re all carefully picked and pickled adulation anyway), but look what kind of papers praised the book. There’s a difference between, say, the Times and the All-Seeing Eye of Set Lancashire Monitor. (For example, a “rave review” in the latter might be… well, surprisingly aptly named.)
  7. The last and first rule: You can’t overestimate the dumbness, pettiness and biased nature of a vast majority of the reviewers — but you can learn to read it.

Oh, and the result of my search — which only started with scanning the customer reviews; looking at the authors and at hamster entrails also played a part — I found two books: the Mystery of the Tunguska Fireball by Surendra Verma seems good, but I’m intrigued by a book (originally found on Amazon) that’s coming in September from Springer (!) and still reasonably priced (!!). It’s called the Tunguska Mystery, by Vladimir Rubtsov (whose associations make me a bit doubtful), and mostly I’m intrigued by it because I want to think they’re not shitting me when they say the book is “[d]evoid of the pseudoscientific arguments that are rather typical for the ‘UFO-oriented’ Tunguska books published in the West”.

4 Responses to “How to read Amazon customer reviews”

  1. Gabor Says:

    Hi there,

    Did you read “The Tunguska Mystery”? If yes, what is your opinion about the book? I am going to order it at Amazon, but am still hesitating if it is worth buying.

    Best,

    Gabor

  2. masksoferis Says:

    Hey.

    Haven’t gotten around to ordering it yet; but am carefully positive about it.

  3. Gabor Says:

    Hi,

    I’ve ordered “The Tunguska Mystery”; soon as it arrives and I read it I will let you know my opinion. By the way, I have found on the Internet a website created by the book’s author (http://www.TunguskaMystery.info) – not devoid of interest (informational, not only promotional).

    Best,

    Gabor

  4. Gabor Says:

    Hi,

    I have just finished “The Tunguska Mystery” and am rather surprised – but definitely not disappointed. A rare combination: the book is both an easy reading and full of very interesting facts and thoughts. Frankly speaking, I never could imagine that “Tunguskalogy” ;-) in Russia was such a serious field of research. Pity that their findings remained unknown in the “outer world” for so many years. It does appear that the “Tunguska space body” (as the Tunguska meteorite is designated in the book) was neither a meteorite, nor a comet.

    Will be rereading the book in a few days – at a slower pace… :-)

    Best,

    Gabor

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