Amazon's Meta-Reviews

Amazon.com and the New Democracy of Opinion by Erik Ketzan : In this article, Eric Ketzan contends that Amazon.com book reviews "are invaluable documents in understanding what book reviews in periodicals could never show us: who is reading a book, why are they reading it, and how are they reading it."
The present study seeks to analyze the way these reader reviews function: what are their goals, who is their audience, and how do they differ from traditional book reviews?
Since a comprehensive study of all reviews available on Amazon.com would be absurd, he chooses to examine the 133 reviews available for Thomas Pynchon's novel, Gravity's Rainbow. The novel was chosen for the extremes of opinion which dominate people's reactions to the novel, and thus provides us with a good, if somewhat unique, subject for an analysis of the Amazon system.

Indeed, the reviews for Gravity's Rainbow are uncommonly descriptive and helpful, allowing insight into the type of person who enjoys (and doesn't enjoy) this sort of novel. Indeed, many even give advice on how the novel should be read, and what to expect. The lack of an editor allows the tone of the reviews to be somewhat informal and thus you find it easier to relate to them than to a stuffy book reviewer for the New York Times Book Review...

Obviously, many (maybe even most) reviews at Amazon don't quite live up to the standard that Gravity's Rainbow sets. Its an extraordinary novel, and thus the resulting reviews are ripe for analysis, providing much information about the nature of the novel. One of the challenges of the novel, and a theme that runs throughout many reviews (professional and Amazon), is that it is essentially futile to review it in any conventional manner. Because of this, much of the commentary about it has to do with the peripheral experiences; people explain how they read it, how long it took them to do so, what effects it had on their lives, and what type of people will get it or not get it - none of which actually has much to do with the book iteself. We are able to get an uncanny picture of who is reading Gravity's Rainbow, why are they reading it, and how are they reading it, but the book itself remains a mystery (which, basically, it is, even to someone who has read it). Other novels don't lend themselves so readily to this sort of meta-review, and thus Amazon's pages aren't quite so useful for the majority of books listed there. One has to wonder if Gravity's Rainbow actually was the best choice for this case study - sure, it provides a unique example of what Amazon reviews are capable of, but that doesn't necessarily apply to the rest of the catalog... then again, the informal tone, the passion and conviction of those who love the novel, the advice on how to read and what else to read - these are things that are generally absent from professional book reviews, so perhaps Ketzan is on to something here...