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I've recently started following ozarque's LiveJournal. ozarque, AKA Suzette Haden Elgin, authored a book I've had on my to-be-read-eventually list for a least a decade, viz The Gentle Art of Verbal Self Defense. She has also written sci fi. I like sci fi. I was looking at Amazon.com customer reviews for The Ozark Trilogy when I found the following review:

1 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Ozark Trilogy, September 9, 2002
I didn't find this readable, but not for the reason one would think. The author does an excellent job of keeping her worldbuilding from being hokey, and she clearly has some knowledge of and respect for Appalachian culture. Readers worried about whether they'll be able to handle flying mules shouldn't.

The bad news for me was the lack of action and challenge in the books. I simply got bored by the insignificance of most of what happened. I don't utterly unrecommend this omnibus; readers who like sort of chatty, slightly humorous, light fiction may well enjoy it. I like dark, gritty stuff, and it didn't work for me.

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Notice that, at the time, only 1 out of 4 responders found this review "helpful." I found it very helpful. Based on this review, I have decided that I would probably enjoy reading the Ozark Trilogy. The author, without taking a gratuitously self-obsessed approach, told me enough about his own tastes and temperment to allow me to place his comments about the book into a useful context. With this review, the anonymous critic has crafted a tight little capsule review that communicates a heaping helping of useful information.

Unfortunately, most of the people who read the review and who took the time to click a button in response to it reported that they failed to extract anything helpful from this offerring.

I don't take these anonymous critics at their word. I suspect that they interpretted the question "Was this review helpful to you?" to mean "Do you agree with the views expressed in this review?"

Now, have a look at this review of Stupid White Men ...and Other Sorry Excuses for the State of the Nation! by Michael Moore.

15 of 33 people found the following review helpful:
What a bunch of junk!, August 13, 2005
Reviewer: Larry Scantlebury (Ypsilanti, MI United States) - See all my reviews
I do not find the liberal left to be offensive or even repugnant. I'm not crazy about some of their ideas but my suspician is, that's what makes it America. That's why we can burn the flag. That's why we can dance naked in expression of our right to free speech. But if your spiritual leader is Ted Kennedy, and your toastmaster is Michael Moore, Good God Man, can you even wonder why people don't take you seriously?

This guy is a comedian. I mean, that's all he is. He's George Carlin. OK. He's two George Carlins. Buy this book . . . to line your daughter's parakeet cage. What country does he live in?

You know, I just thought of it. This will change my mind. The next movie he makes on how terrible the country is, something even more critical than F911, something so offensive as to make normal, church going Dems cringe, if he takes all the profits, HIS and all of his "FRIENDS" and turns all the money over to the Democratic National Party, then I'll admit he's got some moxie.

But until he does that, let's face it, he's just another capitalist making a buck. 1 star. Larry Scantlebury

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I did not find this review helpful, at least not helpful in making a decision about investing my money, time, and attention in Michael Moore's book.

Mr. Scantlebury, the author of this review, gives no indication whatsoever that he's even held a copy of the book in his hands, much less that he has read any portion of it. While he does a respectable job of expressing his distaste for Michael Moore, Moore's political affiliations, and his lack of integrity, Mr. Scantlebury provides no information at all about the book he purports to reveiw. How then did nearly half the people who provided feedback to the author on his review find something "helpful" in it?

The answer, I think, involves my own (possibly flawed) assumption that the folks at Amazon.com, when they posed their question, meant to ask something along the lines of "Did this review help you make an imformed purchasing decision?" Or more simply, "Did this review help you decide whether or not you'd like to read this book?"

If my own assumption holds, then voters have no business casting a vote either for or against a customer review of an item which they have already purchased and/or read.

I suspect that the people who claimed to have found Mr. Scantlebury's review of Stupid White Men helpful found it helpful in the same way that they find listening to Rush Limbaugh helpful, i.e. they find in it an articulation of views they themselves hold but lack the linguistic facility or the gumption to formulate themselves.

Let's look at part of Stephen A. Haines' longish review of Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution by Michael Behe:

231 of 453 people found the following review helpful:
Fear only those who are afraid, February 25, 2001
Reviewer: Stephen A. Haines (Ottawa, Ontario Canada) - See all my reviews

Nothing in this book refutes, challenges or even modifies Darwin's concept of evolution by natural selection. We are given Behe's personal snapshots of some of the complexities of life. He labels these snapshots with his frustrations, unable to understand how they developed. He wants the rest of science to give him some quick, simple answers. Since, according to him they aren't forthcoming, he offers the least credible solution yet proposed by an American anti-Darwinist.

Behe's focus is on features of life he calls items of "irreducible complexity". This vague term applies to old arrows in the anti-Darwin arsenal: the eye [please note "the"], blood clotting, cilia, cell structure and other wonders. To Behe, such things cannot exist in a partially completed state, but can only be finished and fully functional. Since he hasn't the biology to understand how evolution operates over vast stretches of time, it's not surprising he finds these wonders inexplicable. His focus on "the" eye, to take one example, is restricted to human eyes. He's totally unaware [although the literature is full of reports he claims are missing] that "the" eye has independently evolved more than forty times [yes, 40!] using nine different structures. He's never read Nilsson and Pelger, although they published eight years prior to Behe's book, who showed how the eye could evolve within half a million years. Using the human eye as a prime example is risky, since its structure is backwards! If there's a "designer" behind that lot, it should go back to engineering school, or more appropriately, take up divinity studies.

The review continues in this vein for several more paraghraphs mixing specifics about the book's content with thoughtfully critical responses to Behe's arguments. Agree or disagree with Mr. Haines on topics of religion or politics, he does provide some very specific information about the content of the book in question. Mr. Haines obviously put some careful thought into writing his review. Strange that nearly half the people voicing an opinion claimed that they found nothing helpful in this review. I feel tempted to conclude that these people have no use for further information on the topic of evolution and so regard sources of additional information as unhelpful to them. They've made up their minds.

They might, on the other hand, regard as helpful a paragraph or two articulating why they require no additional information on the topic of evolution.

At this point, an imaginary interlocutor protests, "You sure are taking sides in the culture debates here, though you haven't acknowldeged your own affiliation. Without admitting to it, you've presented social conservatives as dunderheads who mis-use the opportunity to share helpful information with other readers about a specific book by turning that forum into a soapbox from atop which to shout their sermons at a crowd of passers by in the marketplace of ideas." To which I say back to the imaginary interlocutor, "Dude, yer high!"

Take a look at this review of The Way Things Ought to Be by Rush Limbaugh:

4 of 13 people found the following review helpful:
Fact-free Ranting, November 20, 2005
Reviewer: Marvin Hitt (Cleveland, OH) - See all my reviews
This is perfect right-wing propaganda - fatuous and vacuous. It is full of hot air and devoid of fact.

If you enjoy Limbaugh's monolouges, then you might like this book. I think it has only one footnote, concerning Clarence Thomas, and the rest is all opinion. Only Rush Limbaugh can get away with putting out something that this, and still have people buy it.

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Mr. Hitt first clearly discloses his bias, thus informing us of how his comments will likely comport with our existing worldviews. He then tells us that Mr. Lingaugh remains consistent across media, voicing his opinions on the printed page in a way that will gratify those people who enjoy his audio presentations. That certainly seems "helpful" to me, and yet eleven thirtheenths of the people expressing an opinion on the quality of this review said they found it unhelpful.

I ask myself, "What transpires here?" I find it easy to imagine the more e-savvy of Limbaugh's legions of knuckle-dragging ditto-heads trolling the customer reviews of their master's voice in book form, using what power Amazon.com has given them with the click of a mouse to shout down disenting voices and give mega-dittos to the star pupils who find novel ways to regurgitate El Rushbo's pablum.

"Knuckle-dragging ditto-heads?" The imaginary interlocutor slaps his forehead, heaves a disgusted sigh, and chooses the only honorable alternative left open to him. He leaves the feild of imaginary interlocution.

As I watch him walk away, I think that maybe I should ask myself whether it makes sense to imagine that a reasonable person could find a review both helpful and disrespectful. It seems clear that Mr. Hitt meant to insult the millions of people who like Rush Limbaugh and who agree with his ideas. Should we really acknowledge and offer encouragement to a behavior so obviously motivated by partisan malice?

Yes. I think we should.

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( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 8th, 2006 10:48 pm (UTC)
No. ;)
Jan. 8th, 2006 11:36 pm (UTC)
Was this helpful?
Do you have any reviews posted to Amazon.com?
Jan. 8th, 2006 11:39 pm (UTC)
Re: Was this helpful?
I don't think so. Maybe one or two.
(Deleted comment)
Jan. 10th, 2006 01:53 pm (UTC)
Re: Was this helpful?
I sometimes have trouble with Amazon.com links, but this should get you to my reviews:


I use my real name ( on Amazon.com

Jan. 8th, 2006 11:13 pm (UTC)
Funny, I was just thinking about this earlier today, as I clicked "Yes" to "Was this review helpful to you?" on two completely contradictory reviews about the same book. They both let me know something about the book, or at least how some readers had taken the book. I say "No" only when the reviewer has not told me anything useful about the book's content or presentation, merely stated their own opinion or ranted on about something else.

I expect a lot of people just mark "Yes" if they agree and "No" if they disagree, as you suspect.

Unfortunately, the only way for me to make a properly informed opinion about the usefulness of a review is to read the reviews, then read the book, then go back and rate the reviews according to whether they accurately and usefully reflected the book's content and quality in some way. This is cumbersome, so I don't do it. I do sometimes rate reviews of books I've already read, on this basis, and not on whether I agree with the reviewer or author's biases.
Jan. 8th, 2006 11:26 pm (UTC)
I say "No" only when the reviewer has not told me anything useful about the book's content or presentation, merely stated their own opinion or ranted on about something else.

Jan. 9th, 2006 04:23 pm (UTC)
I have several reviews on Amazon, and last week or so an acquaintance from my distant past emailed me because of them. The world is funny.
Jan. 10th, 2006 05:23 pm (UTC)
I looked thru your reviews
I think Wild Seed remains my favorite Octavia Butler novel. I think I've read all of her sci fi novels other than Kindred.

I enjoyed your review of World of Warcraft. I look forward to playing games like that with Logan when he's older. At this time, such a passtime would not go over well at home.

Your review of The Dancers at the End of Time prompted me to check the on-line catalog of the Fayetteville public library for it. No dice.
Jan. 11th, 2006 01:47 am (UTC)
Re: I looked thru your reviews
Glad they were helpful for you. :)
( 9 comments — Leave a comment )

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