The Web has democratized the reviewing process, of everything from washing machines to widgets to, of course, books, where Amazon started the trend. Alas, the reviewing landscape has gotten a bit wild and woolly, what with fake reviews, both positive and negative, meant to drive up or down reputations. Leaving those problems aside, reading reviews of one's books yields a fascinating range of experiences, from inspirational pleasure to exasperated hair-pulling. Some blithe souls review not the book but the delivery service. "Received in good condition, thanks!" Then, too, what am I to make of this comment on Amazon, about my college-level text in history? "It's pretty small and compact unit. The instructions are quite informative and easy to read and understand. The projector casing feels like it's made from a strong durable aluminum. The unit seams very sturdy and robust."
Then there are those reviews that are not particularly favorable, yet bring a smile to the author's face nonetheless. In an earlier blog entry I noted the student who gave five stars to my college text (oooh, five stars, great!) only to discover the air being let out of my balloon in his comments. "Man, I love college! Passing class with A and haven't read a page!" Then there was the review, on Goodreads, of They Say, my book about Ida B. Wells and her campaign against lynching. "I probably wouldn't have read this if it wasn't for school," the reviewer noted, "but for a non-fiction historical book, it didn't make me want to put a hole in my head, and I feel that's always a plus."
Wow! That would grab your attention as a blurb on the dust-jacket. "Didn't make me want to put a hole in my head!"--Dolores, from Goodreads.
Contrasting reviews demonstrate the wide range of human tastes and desires. For some readers, A Little History of the United States hits the sweet spot in terms of length and coverage: "...good at being able to talk about the various things/people/ideas that have made America what it is today. And all without getting bogged down in side stories, tangents, or extraneous details." For others, the book seemed almost painfully short: "It flows at breakneck speed and because it is a potted history of a long period and of a diverse and huge country there are things left out, alluded too and not quite covered..." (True enough, although actually, he still liked the book.)
Similarly, Great Heart (co-authored with my paddling partner John Rugge) tells the story of three expeditions across Labrador. The first, launched in 1903, ends in starvation and death. The follow-up, in 1905, involves two rival expeditions, each seeking to complete the work of the original trek. In addition, a love story becomes part of the tale, as one of the main characters, a Scottish-Cree Indian guide, falls for the widow leading one of the trips. Some reviewers resist that aspect:: "I really liked the first half of the book. The second half started out strong but there was a romance that was intimated and it was too much of a focus and took away from the story." Other readers feel that the romance adds to the interest: "One of the best books I've read in a while. A true adventure... with a great love story at the center. Very touching. If you like expeditions, this is the book for you."
For me, though, the reviews that most satisfy are not measured by praise or blame but reveal readers' life experiences. People engage with their books intensely, for better or worse. Great Heart was emphatically not the ticket one reader was seeking, as the review below reveals—though it's a bit hard to say whether the reviewer's dissatisfaction arose from the book itself or from her own life experiences. Who is this Brandon and where did he go?
More positively, I've found that the first book John Rugge and I wrote over forty years ago, The Complete Wilderness Paddler, has become an intimate part of many readers lives:
And finally, a Goodreads review by a woman named Sally, which touched me greatly—not so much for the praise as for her own pungent story-telling and the help the book provided for her own adventures:
Wonderful recollections, wonderful writing—evocative, imaginative, poignant!
James West Davidson
Occasional thoughts on history, teaching, paddling and the outdoors