How to read an book review

We read for different reasons, but we often write reviews as if everyone in the world is just like us.

A review that says “I hated this book” suggests the book is bad, but if the reviewer is a Yankee fan and the book is about how awesome the Boston Red Sox are, it likely reflects their biases more than anything about the book. And of course a review that says “This is the best book ever” written by the mother of the author is cute, but has enough positive bias to be useless.

A good reviewer frames their opinion with context so you can see if your sensibilities and needs match theirs. Some readers like to be challenged, some don’t. Some readers want an introductory book, others want something very advanced. If you’re in one group and base your decisions on reviews written by the other, you’ll miss books that might be perfect for you.

Since most book reviews are narrowly written we’re responsible for asking the clarifying questions ourselves.

Before you let an amazon review influence you, consider:

  • Does the reviewer have a strong point of view? How does it match yours?
  • What level of expertise did they have compared to you?
  • Are they rating on how inspired they feel or what they learned?
  • Are they rating because they were entertained or because they got value?
  • Do they emphasize their response to the concept of the book, or it’s execution?
  • Did a single minor disappointment that you might not care about distort their perception of the book?
  • How is their star rating calibrated? Do they often give  5 stars or 1 star reviews? Or is a 4 star review exceptional for them?

What other questions do you ask to get the most out of reviews for a book?

7 Responses to “How to read an book review”

  1. Dan S

    Some reviews are of the purchase experience and don’t comment on the content of the book at all. Some are combined book review/purchase review. I just bought a book with only one review. It is two stars and only reviews the (poor) quality of the kindle formatting. The reviewer acknowledges the nature of the review.

    Read the reviews.

  2. Michael Nitabach

    I didn’t realize people actually read Amazon book reviews. I always figured it was all just loony raving.

    1. Scott

      Ha. I’m not sure they read them either. But they certainly do look at the average star ratings.

      I often skim reviews and dig in if I see one that seems thoughtfully written. Same is true for Yelp/TripAdvisor. But you have to filter through many worthless reviews to find them.

  3. Sean Crawford

    Here’s a review, one of the quality that we could all aspire to, being about the Joss (The Avengers, Much Ado About Nothing) Whedon TV series Firefly, by the late Blair Petterson.
    He is still getting “thank you’s” on Amazon for his review. I knew him well.

  4. Julie Austin

    You kind of have to read between the lines. True, Scott, if a book has been reviewed 80 times, you can usually tell something by the average star rating alone.

    In looking through the ratings for the movie “The Master” on Redbox, I noticed it was either 1 star or 4 or 5 stars, rarely anything in between. So I knew I would either really love it or really hate it. Really loved it. But also got a backup movie, just in case.


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