Amazon Warriors

Thanks to the Internet, everyone’s a book critic

Internet critics
Thanks to the Internet, everyone's a book critic. Eric Palma

I once had a job writing jacket copy for children's books. All I had to do was summarize the plot and end with a question like "Can the triplets escape the Curse of the Dead Leopard?" The series was so popular that people would have bought the books if I'd just typed out the Cyrillic alphabet, but the job got me interested in jacket copy. Now I judge books as much by their jacket copy as their content. If there's a mention of a charlady detective, a dog in danger or the word "Texas," I put the book back on the shelf.

But you can't read book jackets on (Well, sometimes you can, but it's too technical to go into here.) Instead you have to rely on reader reviews, which are often richer—or at least crazier. Like a million times crazier. Take the following—which, like all the reviews quoted here, I swear I didn't make up:

"I have read four books on narcissism and this by far is the best. I enjoyed it so much, I bought my sister a copy and sent it to her in Seattle. I bought yet another copy and wrote a letter to my ex-boyfriend's mother and informed her that her son is a narcissist and asked her to read the book so she could understand him as I have done seven months after our breakup. My whole life makes perfect sense."

That's wonderful! And now I know enough about you to suspect I'll hate any book you like.

Amazon readers get mad when their favorite novelists betray them. "The author's decision to kill off a main character at the very end is unforgivable," wails one anguished, ellipses-loving soul. "If you want to write about social injustices, then don't be a serial detective writer...killing off people who matter to your readers and then justifying it by acting like your [sic] some Tolstoy does not work for me...and I am not alone...Get back to reality."

Even characters who survive death by plot twist can disappoint. "What can one expect from a teenager whose father is a pathological liar who is in jail for assault and whose mother has absolutely no respect for the laws against breaking and entering, forgery, concealing evidence (and that's just in this book—in previous books her lawbreaking would certainly have landed her in prison)."

And woe to any cookbook author whose instructions the reviewer decides to ignore. "I was disappointed because the baguettes beginning on page 335 failed to rise enough and when baked they were what you might call mini-baguettes. One possible source of my problem is that I used a Canadian high-gluten bread flour instead of the specific brands of unbleached all-purpose flour insisted upon on page 338."

Yes, that's one possible source of the problem. But then, readers who blindly follow a book's advice instead of using their own judgment can run into trouble, too. "I thought this book was great. I read all about the rabbit diseases, so when this book said that a certain symptom was normal I ignored [it]. Now my rabbit is dead." (We can only hope that this reader doesn't consult books on human diseases.)

I guess I should confess that my own books have received some disturbing Amazon reviews. (I try not to look, but once in a while—say, every 20 minutes—I give in.) One of my cookbooks elicited the comment, "Sorry to say, Ann, but many of these recipes just made me think 'yuck.'"

I promise, however, that the recipes are good. If you don't believe me, just read the book jacket.

Ann Hodgman has written three cookbooks and more than 40 children's books.

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.