Poignant yet bold! Searing in its intensity! 100 critics agree, this is the most underrated work of the year!


A great era of guerrilla detournement is quietly coming to an end. Amazon has begun to require credit card authentication for users posting anonymous or pseudonymous reviews of its items. The Guardian's Andrew Clark says the online book giant is hoping to deter authors from posting anonymous raves of their own books and/or pans of rivals' work:

The problem of authenticating comments on Amazon's website was laid bare in February, when a technical fault caused the company's Canadian site to reveal the identity of dozens of anonymous reviewers. One commentator describing himself as "a reader from St Louis" was exposed as Dave Eggers, author of the acclaimed A Heart Breaking Work of Staggering Genius, who heaped praise on the work of his friend, Heidi Julavits, as "one of the best books of the year".

Clark cites some pretty amusing examples of blind hits (including an apt description of the King James Bible as "a rollicking, non-stop, action-adventure which ends with a thrilling conclusion and a hearty 'Amen'"). The weirdest one here is a review by the writer Jane Green, who anonymously writes of her own book Mr Maybe: "I doubted that Jane Green could pull it off once again, but thankfully my fears were unfounded. She manages to convey the dilemmas that so many of us go through at some point in our lives in terms far more honest and real than most other comparable authors."

Why would anybody go to the trouble to fake a review of her own book and then give herself such lukwarm praise?

While it's understandable that Amazon would want to put a stop to the more egregious reviewing practices, I hope this doesn't stop the march of prank reviews entirely. Amazon is one of my favorite content sites, specifically because it allows any wag off the street to poop on the product in creative and anarchic ways. Who wouldn't want to buy Reason contributor Tom Peyser's Utopia and Cosmopolis after reading the hilariously maniacal reviews various none-too-disinterested parties have posted?

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  1. My favorite all-time Amazon.com review:

    On Perry’s Chemical Engineer’s Handbook, 7th ed.:

    Perry has outdone himself once again. The seventh edition is even more of a show-stopper than the previous editions. I read this book from cover to cover in one sitting, unable to put it down for a moment, not even to relieve myself! The molecular weights were so accurate and the heats of reaction made my spine tingle. Once I reached the section discussing distillation and tray efficiencies I new I was hooked. I won’t give away the ending but it’s definitely a shocker. Bravo to Mr. Perry’s and I am counting the days to the release of your 9th edition!

  2. If Amazon really wants to improve the quality of reviews they should institute a moratorium on reviewing politically controversial books until at least a few days after the release date. A few months ago a book on a topic that I won’t name (to avoiding breaching the hull on the can of worms) got 15 reviews on its first day of publication, mostly just “This book is total crap and I know so even though I haven’t read it!” or “Hah! See, our side is right, even though I haven’t read this book yet!”

    If they want to engage in such uninformed commentary they should do what I do and post on this forum 🙂

  3. thoreau,

    You’ll find that selection bias is rampant regarding Amazon.com reviews.

  4. If you don’t remember the glory days of the Dysfunctional Family Circus, you should check out the Amazon reviews of Bil Keane’s canon, e.g.:

    “Bil Keane’s brilliant spiritual memoir — disguised as a deconstructionist parable of post-feminist suburbia — perfectly depicts not only his own moral impasse, but also that of the American middle class during the mid-1990s. ‘Daddy’ — desperately trying to cling to the archaic values of a bygone era, and totally unprepared for the unbridled optimism of the coming dot-com boom — finds himself at odds not only with his family, but also with his society, and even himself. His steadfast refusal to conform to the social order, by wearing his cap back ‘backwards’, is a not-to-thinly-veiled representation of his increasing love for Evangelical Christianity in terms of marital infidelity.”

  5. If you haven’t read them, you simply have to read the brilliant reviews from Henry Raddick.


    From Teach Your Dog to Eliminate on Command:

    Smith and Stybbard have written a gem in this book. It’s certainly helped me to take control of my dog’s idiosyncratic toilet habits. My pug Grendel now dances to my tune, be it on walks, in the garden or merely impressing friends and family. A word of caution – take care when choosing your “command words” and “smart phrases” to avoid words your dog is likely to hear on the television. It took 4 episodes of Ali McBeal before I realised that my “full evacuation” command was in the theme song.

    or from The Art of Flamenco:

    I bought this book for my wife. Flamenco is the dust of the bull-ring, the flounce of the gypsy’s skirt and the crazy clatter of castanets. Flamenco swaggers. Flamenco pleads. Flamenco is the beating heart of Andalusia. Flamenco is NOT a tanked-up Englishwoman embarrassing her husband in a hotel bar in Seville.

  6. …reviews from Henry Raddick.

    I’m choking here.

  7. Any child can get around that credit-card authentication to post pseudonymous reviews on Amazon. I do it all the time.

  8. No one writes funnier reviews on Amazon than Charles Henry Higgensworth III.

  9. Who’s the wiseguy who reformatted the comments page so that you need a two-foot-wide monitor to read it?

    I realize that text that requires horizontal use of the scroll bar, animated graphics, and Javascript which isn’t cross-platform compatible are all necessary to a trendy website … but still, what’s next? A Flash page that we’ll have to go through to get to the content?

  10. garym: I was very annoyed by the massive page width like you were, and found out that it’s the massive Amazon URL from db that’s forcing your browser to make the table cell extra-long… All the other Hit & Run pages display fine and this page actually looks OK under Internet Explorer, but not Mozilla Firefox.

    As for the blog post, I’m glad to see that other people value Amazon.com’s user reviews; because of them, Amazon is actually my second most-used content search engine, next to Google.

  11. Smith and Stybbard have written a gem in this book. It’s certainly helped me to take control of my dog’s idiosyncratic toilet habits. My pug Grendel now dances to my tune, be it on walks, in the garden or merely impressing friends and family … blah blah blah blah blah blah blah

    You actually find this — what? — “brilliant”? Do you find it to be even mildly amusing?

    When did the esoteric literary dweebs take over around here? Phrases such as “guerrilla detournement” are big, glaring signals to readers: THIS IS GOING TO BE CONFUSING, NOT INTERESTING AND NOT WORTH MY TIME.

    It’s too bad the initial poster (Cavanaugh) writes in such an obtuse way, because the topic of Amazon reader reviews is actually pretty interesting for a Sunday afternoon.

    Contrast that kind of prose with the straightforward writing in posts today by Jeff Taylor, Michael Young and Jesse Walker. Their goal is to communicate, not to masturbate with words. It’s gotten where you can immediately identify a Tim Cavanaugh post long before getting to the tagline with his name.

    It makes me sad, because I suspect I agree with Cavanaugh on most issues. I can only “suspect,” of course, because it’s so difficult to make heads or tails of his posts. The arcane references, the impress-the-lit-prof language, the run-on sentences… God knows what it’s ever supposed to mean.

    I hope he doesn’t take this personally, because I hear he’s a good guy. But put yourself out in a public forum, and you’re a fair target for criticism. More clear writing, please, and less obtuseness!

  12. Yes, I found it funny. Not as good as some of his other stuff, I’ll admit. Did you bother reading them?

    Or perhaps you just don’t have a sense of humor, or this style of humor doesn’t suit you. To each their own.

  13. Well, Cavanaugh is scabralous all right, but then – compared to the Libertarian Party’s screwball nominee for P. of USA, oh Gawd! Jeebus, after the (secretly) 5 times married, “I want to take my new girlfriend on the campaign trail and on the parties tab guy”. Holy Shi’ite, will the Lib party ever GROW UP???
    I don’t bother with them anymore. 32 years and they haven’t gotten organized. They don’t even pretend!

  14. You heard I was a good guy? What the fuck are you talking about?

  15. this action came after the CORES of reviews of ‘My Pet Goat’ were posted and deleted.

    see http://darwin.fiu.edu/goat_reviews.html

  16. this action came after the SCORES of reviews of ‘My Pet Goat’ were posted and deleted.

    see http://darwin.fiu.edu/goat_reviews.html

  17. Can’t believe nobody has mentioned this classic review of The Story About Ping:

    The book describes networking in terms even a child could understand, choosing to anthropomorphize the underlying packet structure. The ping packet is described as a duck, who, with other packets (more ducks), spends a certain period of time on the host machine (the wise-eyed boat). At the same time each day (I suspect this is scheduled under cron), the little packets (ducks) exit the host (boat) by way of a bridge (a bridge). From the bridge, the packets travel onto the internet (here embodied by the Yangtze River).

    Most easily found as the last review on John Fracisco’s reviews page.

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