Tag: reviews

Thoughts on When Brains Dream by Antonio Zadra and Robert Stickgold

Recently, I asked about good science-based books on dreaming. In my initial exploration, I’d come across two books, and picked one of them, When Brains Dream by Anthonio Zadra and Robert Stickgold to see if it fit the bill. It turns out I made a good choice. Zadra and Stickgold’s book is a survey of the history of dreams, dream research and what we know about why we dream. Part lit-review, part explanation of the science involved in sleep and dreams, I found the book to be a good introduction to something which I know very little about in scientific terms. People have all kinds of notions about dreams, but I was looking for a book that was grounded in science and this one fit the bill.

I was introduced to Freud’s theory of dreaming in high school. Even then, I found it to be something less than scientific and more like a fad diet. The scientific study of dreams is somewhat sparse before Freud, it seems, but Freud borrowed liberally from those who did study before him. I think my notion that Freud’s theories were mostly unscientific were confirmed in the review of the science of dreams up to and through Freud’s tenure.

That said, I fell into the camp of believing that dreams were mostly meaningless, a side-effect of memory processing. But as Zadra and Stickgold write:

Some believe that science has already shown that dreams are merely the meaningless reflections of the random firing of neurons in the sleeping brain. Nothing, we believe, could be further from the truth, and we argue almost the exact opposite of each of these claims.

Zadra and Stickgold’s research centers around a framework they’ve developed called NEXTUP: network exploration to understand possibilities. Briefly, NEXTUP,

proposes that dreaming is a unique form of sleep-dependent memory processing that extracts new knowledge from existing memories through the discovery and strengthening go previously unexplored weak associations.

If I understand what I read correctly, these weak associations account for why we dream of things that may be tangentially related to events of the day, but not directly related. These weak associations can also account, in part, for why dreams sometimes seem so bizarre.

The book details the standard set of dreams that people have, which is alway surprising, but their NEXTUP model explains this neatly. I’ve always thought it strange that we have common dreams like forgetting an exam, and I’ve often wondered what people six thousand years ago (before exams) dreamed about in their place. Possibly, they didn’t. When I read The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes, what I gleaned from it (it was a very challenging read) was that our idea of consciousness emerged only recently, with the birth of civilization, and that prior to civilization, humans awareness was not what we call consciousness today. Maybe they didn’t dream the same way we do?

Another one of these dreams is losing control of a vehicle. I’ve occasionally had a dream where I am backing up a car, and the brake doesn’t seem to work, or the car goes spinning out of my control. Apparently I am not alone.

The book goes into all aspects of dreaming, including nightmare (and how they differ from night terrors), and even lucid dreaming. The book is heavily footnoted, and frequently refers to the studies and experiments used to tease out what we know about dreams today.

I wanted to learn more about dreaming because I’ve been going through a spell of dreams that have me waking up feeling exhausted each morning, no matter how well I sleep otherwise. These dreams are vague, but busy, always busy, and when I wake up from one in the middle of the night and finally get back to sleep, another one starts up. I awake feeling wiped out. This has been going on for a while now, and part of my reason for reading about dreams was to learn if there was any way to tune down this noise so that I wake feeling refreshed, and not like I just ran marathon. So I was surprised and delighted when I discovered the following passage in a section describing types of dreams:

Imagine that every time you woke up, you felt exhausted, not because you slept poorly but because your nights were filled with long, tedious dreams of incessant physical activity such as repetitive housework or endlessly slogging through snow or mud. If this describes your nightly dreaming and ensuing daytime fatigue, you may suffer from epic dreaming.

Right there on the page was the perfect description of what I have been going through. Epic dreams. Even the name sounds cool. Or as my kids might say, “Epic.” How lucky was I to find just what I was looking for on my first try! I felt elated. And then I read on:

Not much is known about this pattern of excessive dreaming other than that it affects women more than men. Sleep lab assessments usually come up clinically normal; and though the seemingly relentless dreams are followed by feelings of fatigue or exhaustion upon awakening, emotions within epic dreams are usually described as neutral or entirely absent. Even when epic dreaming occurs alongside nightmares, it is the impression of dreaming all night long that pushes these people to seek help. Psychological, behavioral, and pharmacological treatments for epic dreaming have proven largely ineffective. (Bold text mine.)

Naturally, the one problem I came looking for, I found, and that one problem has no known solution.

Still, the book was a success. It was an engaging read, and it gave me the scientific overview of dreaming that I had been looking for. I learned that what I am experiencing is called epic dreaming, and that there isn’t much I can do about it. That’s something. Anyone who is interesting in the science of dreams, should find this book informative and engaging.

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Thoughts on The Big Roads by Earl Swift

When I use something, I like to know about it. I’m interested in the history of things and how they came to be. I’ve used computers for decades, but only recently spent a month or so reading in earnest on the history of computing. I’ve used newspapers for nearly as long, and have always been fascinated by how they work. I’ve read book like Ben Bradlee’s A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures, or books like Doris Kearn Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit. Knowing about the things I use help me to see them in new and different lights, or simply better appreciate them for what they are.

Sometimes, however, the things we use are so ubiquitous that we don’t think about them in a conscious way. I’ve written, for instance, about the many road trips we’ve taken over the years, most recently to Niagara Falls. You can’t take a road trip with roads, and yet roads are so ingrained in our lives, that we almost don’t think about them. Or, as Earl Swift writes in his book The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways,

They’ve grown so central to life in a country utterly beholden to the car that they’re almost invisible to most of us, one of those features of the landscape that we take for granted even when we’re on them.

I discovered Swift’s book in the best possible way: by accident. I was roaming our local library branch with the girls when I spotted it on a shelf and it caught my attention. Having just returned from a road trip, I was curious about how our highway system had come about. I knew little, other than that Eisenhower was involved somehow. Swift’s book turned out to be the perfect thing to feed my curiosity.

In an engaging story, Swift covers the history of roads in America from their beginnings. He reviews the birth and growth of the automobile, and then the expansion of a road network across the country to support those vehicles. He details the birth of the concept of a national highway system from its earliest days, decades before Eisenhower, and the eventual evolution of the modern interstate system we have today. Swift tells the story in the best possible way for a book this: through the people involved in its creation.

The story is about more than just the design and need for a system. It covers the politics of its development, how it was financed, the struggles along the way. And it touches on many things related to the roads, like the chain restaurants and hotels that grew alongside the interstates. There was even 3 pages on South of the Border, which we’ve driven past two dozen times, but at which we’ve never stopped. Those 3 pages convinced me that next time, we should.

Perhaps most interesting to me was an observation Swift made about the original vision for the highway system and what it has become today:

Thomas MacDonald and Herbert Fairbank [visionaries involved in the creation of the system] didn’t see it coming, but the system of interregional highways they envisioned is today a place unto itself, divorced from the territory through which it passes. With rare exception, a sense of place, of uniqueness, is undetectable from the off ramp. In place of a local barbecue joint, an exist in the Carolinas is likely to offer an Arby’s or a Chik-fil A. Southern greasy spoons are miles off the main line, shouldered aside by Waffle House and Cracker Barrel. The loathed hot dog stated of the thirties has been replaced by McDonalds.

This resonated with me. Driving long distances on the interstates, as we do when we drive up to Maine or down to Florida, there is a ubiquitousness that separates the stretch of road from the rest of the world. Without road signs, pulling off at an exit ramp in South Carolina looks the same as in Hartford, Connecticut. The feeling I sometimes get is that it is almost as if the interstate is another dimension, a kind of parallel world, a thin place, as Stephen King might say, one from which we can see our world, but at a distance, as if looking at it on a television screen. If you could peel the interstates and their hotel and restaurant-populated exits away from the earth, it could be its own world. I’ve often felt this below the surface, the separation between the the road and the land, but Swift hit the nail on the head with his description of it.

I think perhaps this is why I deliberately avoided the interstates on our most recent road trip, driving west across New York state on blue highways. What a difference it made. We could see the land, the beautiful scenery, and at times we could drive thirty minutes or more without spotting another car on the road.

The interstates were invented for speed and safety, and they get us to our destinations quickly. As the kids have gotten older, what used to be a 3-day drive down to southern Florida now takes two days. And we’ve driven from Orland back to the Washington, D.C. area in one full day. But there is a trade off for the speed and safety. You lose the character of the places you pass through. They are blurs, names on a GPS screen. You lose the taste of the local food, and laughs of the local people.

The interstates were constructed to get us quickly over long distances, but like flying over the country, there is a lot of miss when you are on them.

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Thoughts on Theft By Finding: Diaries 1977-2002 by David Sedaris

Way back in 2005 or 2006, my brother-in-law1 introduced me to David Sedaris’s books. He did this one evening by describing to me some of the funny stories Sedaris recounts. They were indeed funny, and the events of that evening seemed to mimic the humor of what I was hearing. At the time my brother-in-law was in school and I was staying with him. The room had two single beds each of which was on rollers, one on one side of the room, the other on the opposite side. Apparently, the floors of the rooms were bowed in toward the center of the room and throughout the course of the night, the beds rolled toward the center of the room.

For some reason, I never ended up reading a David Sedaris book. That happens sometimes. There are always more books to read. Recently, however, I decided to change that. A few years back, Sedaris came out with a book called Theft By Finding: Diaries 1977-2002. This was a collection of diary entries that Sedaris culled from journals he’s kept most of his life. I was mainly attracted by the word “diaries.” I have a fascination with diaries, having kept my own for a quarter century now. I enjoy dipping into John Quincy Adams’s diaries now and then, or the Journals of Henry David Thoreau. I have a theory that there is an entire history of civilization waiting to be told in unread diaries, journals, manuscripts. Sometimes, these come to light, and add real, practical color historic events. I also happened to note that Sedaris has a second volume of his diaries, A Carnival of Snackery: Diaries 2003-2020, coming out in October. So why not give them a try.

Try them I did, and I flew through the book, laughing more often than not. But there were several striking similarities between Sedaris’s methods for keeping his diary and my own. In the introduction, for instance, he writes,

I was never one to write about my feelings, in part because they weren’t that interesting (even to me) but mainly because they were so likely to change.

When I started my own diary in 1996, it was with the express idea to record events, rather than feeling. I took Isaac Asimov as an example. This is how he wrote his diary. Over the years however, my feelings changed (ironically) and eventually, I began to record my feelings about things as well.

In 1979, Sedaris says, “I began numbering my entries.” I began doing this in 2017. My idea was that if I wanted to index my diary, I could key the index to the numbered entry, which I maintain from one volume to the next, so that I didn’t have to worry about page number. I’ve kept this up ever since, writing entry #1 back on October 13, 2017, and writing entry #1933 this morning.

One final similarity I noted:

Another old-fashioned practice I maintain is carrying a notebook, a small one I keep in my shirt pocket and never leave the house without. In it I register all the little things that strike me, not in great detail but just quickly.

I’ve written often about how I always have a Field Notes notebook in my pocket. Originally, it was a shirt pocket, but now it’s just my back pocket.

Reading Sedaris’s diaries was both fun and interesting. He is funny even in his diaries. But it was also interesting to see the progression of someone who went from scraping for various manual labor jobs to someone who eventually lived in Paris and London, toured for his books, and became a successfully writer. I think this kind of thing is heartening to many writers who start out feeling like they will never amount to much.

Diaries are a tricky thing to consider from a literary perspective. People writing for themselves are writing for an audience of one. The writing is not designed to be the polished prose presented to the public. Stephen King calls this “writing with the door closed.” I think anyone who writes a diary understands this, although there are some diaries that read like prose: John Quincy Adams and Henry David Thoreau are two that come to mind.

I thought some of the funniest things that appeared in the diary were imagined retorts Sedaris had to people or events taking place. In particular, his description of some of the writing he did for his French teacher while learning French are absolutely hilarious.

There is a certain vulnerability about sharing one’s diary with the world–at least while one is still walking the earth. I’ve often wondered if John Quincy Adams considered posterity when writing his own diary. Did he know that people would be reading it more than 200 years later? Could Leonardo Da Vinci have imagined people would be reading his notebooks half a millennia after they were written? Sedaris has made some of his diary available and I was thoroughly entertained by it. I am already looking forward to October when the next volume comes out.

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  1. He has written here for the blog. Check out his hilarious tribute to Tommy Lasorda.

Thoughts on Billy Summers by Stephen King

Note: I never know what is a spoiler and what isn’t. I think it varies by person. With that said, it is possible there are spoilers in what I have written below, but I don’t think I give anything significant away. Still, that is my own judgement so if you haven’t yet read the novel, be warned, here may be spoilers.

Before I ever read a Stephen King novel, I was convinced he was overrated. This was back in my teens and twenties, when I thought I knew everything, and most of my reading was limited to science fiction novels. The first King novel I read was Salem’s Lot and I wasn’t sure how I liked it that first time. Looking back, I see it wasn’t because of any flaw in King as a writer, but in me as a reader. It has since become one of my favorite King novels.

Since then, Stephen King has become one of my favorite fiction writers, precisely because he does the unexpected with his stories while the momentum of publicity still carries him as a horror writer. I look forward to each new release, and I was fortunate enough to be on vacation when King’s latest novel, Billy Summers, came out.

On its surface, this latest novel is a thriller of the Jack Reacher genre: a loner assassin-for-hire takes one last job before calling it quits. But that’s the thing about King. There are layers and layers to his stories, or as Jake Chambers might describe them, “there are other worlds than these.” The “surface” story is for those readers who want to put in the work to see what is underneath. For me, as a reader, putting in the work is what reading is all about. If I don’t want to have to do any work, I’ll watch a TV show.

What, then, are these other worlds?

Billy Summer’s story is told in first person, and at the beginning, Billy seems very simple, almost slow. He is clearly regarded as a world class shot, and he has a reputation that proceeds him. He comes across as a slightly more intelligent Charlie Gordon at the opening of Flowers for Algernon. But this is a ruse. Billy is much smarter than he appears (there are layers and layers to Billy, other worlds beyond these). Billy chooses to show only his “dumb self” to his clients. Billy is well aware of this.

Billy’s cover story for his current job is as a writer who has to buckle down because he’s been partying too much. His “agent” finds him a quiet place to live somewhere bordering the South in the U.S., a small town called Midwood. There, Billy waits for his prey, and in the meantime, pretends to live the life of a writer, one in which is writes his own story as cover. He even recognizes his relationship to Charlie Gordon:

Can he really write a fictionalized dump self version of his own life story? Risky, but he thinks maybe he can. Faulkner wrote dumb in The Sound and the Fury. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes, is another example.

I’ve read that King dislikes the term “meta-fiction” but that is what much of his fiction is, and at least part of what makes it great. He did it as early as Carrie, where the story itself is made up, in part of newspaper articles, diary entries, etc. It became almost a signature of some of his best work, Misery being one example. How many of King’s great characters are writers? How often do references to King’s own work show up in other King books? He took this to an extreme in the Dark Tower series, where Salem’s Lot, the novel, plays a pivotal role, and where Stephen King himself shows up as a character.

In Billy Summers, it is the novel that Billy writes that becomes the work-within-the-work. That novel serves to provide us with Billy’s background, and how he became an assassin. King is aware that the “one last job” story is almost cliche, and he tackles it head on when Billy considers the job:

Billy doesn’t mind. He’s thinking of all the movies he’s seen about robbers who are planning one last job. If noir is a genre, then “one last job” is a sub-genre. In those movies, the last job always goes badly. Billy isn’t a robber and doesn’t work with a gang and he’s not superstitious, bu this last job thing nags at him just the same.

And what does King do? The unexpected. The job itself goes off without a hitch. Pretty early in the overall story, too. Indeed, I was surprised when Billy carried out the job successfully as early as he did, and wondered what would possibly carry the remaining two-thirds of the novel. Then, after the job is done and things are beginning to settle down, Billy meets Alice Maxwell, and the novel really takes off.

King fans will not be disappointed by some of the references in the novel. The small town in which Billy first stays, Midwood, seems remarkably close to Mid-world. Perhaps it is one of those “thin” places that King often writes about. Later, a pivotal scene takes place on a dirt road in Hemingford Home, Nebraska, a town that fans of The Stand and a few other King stories will recognize. Sidewinder also makes an appearance in the novel.

Billy Summers embodies what I like about most Stephen King stories: it is a fun read, and if all you’re looking for is edge-of-your-seat entertainment, it delivers. But it also delivers so much more, if you are willing to work for it.

Billy Summers by Stephen King, Scribner, August 3, 2021

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Ticking Clock: Behind the Scenes at 60 Minutes: A Fascinating Read–And a Struggle

It is rare that I don’t know what to make of a book. If I zip through a book with ease, it is usually a sign that I enjoyed it. If I struggle through it but finish, it was okay, but not necessarily something I’d write home about. But what about a book that I zip through with ease, and struggle with along the way? That doesn’t happen often, but it happened while reading Ira Rosen’s new book, Ticking Clock: Behind the Scenes at 60 Minutes.

Rosen was a long-time producer at 60 Minutes working with many of the correspondents, especially Mike Wallace and his book was about his time as a producer in television. (He also worked for ABC for a time before returning to 60 Minutes.) Hollywood memoirs are a kind of guilty pleasure of mine, and I particularly enjoy memoirs and biographies about journalists: My War by Andy Rooney, A Reporter’s Life by Walter Cronkite, A Life on the Road by Charles Kuralt to name just a few. But I struggled with Rosen’s book in ways that I did not with these other books.

While I wouldn’t characterize Rosen’s precisely as mean-spirited, it certainly came across as someone who decided to air all of his grievances and show the worst sides of those people he worked with. I think this would be understandable if Rosen had been treated poorly and that poor treatment affected him in a negative way. Rosen recounts many times when people like Mike Wallace, Diane Sawyer, and Morley Safer treated him or other people rudely. But what made Rosen’s account interesting was that he never seemed to mind this treatment. He was sort of immune to it, and focused on doing the best job as he could as a producer. So why complain about it now, in a book? I just couldn’t understand that.

Perhaps the reason is perspective: Rosen writes from the point of view of a producer, while other books I’ve read are from the points of view of the reporters themselves. Andy Rooney was grumpy at times, as everyone knows–that’s part of what people loved about him. He had complaints about CBS, but he generally didn’t single out people, but the organization as a whole. Cronkite and Kuralt, in their books, seemed to handle this by omissions: they wrote about people they admired, or who helped them out, and didn’t mention those who created problems or roadblocks.

Still, despite Rosen’s dramatic characterizations of those correspondents he worked with, the book was endlessly fascinating. Reading it, I felt like a fly on the wall at some interesting conversations. It made some of the more outlandish stories Rosen had to tell about people all the more out of place in the book, and made me wonder: was the book written as a memoir, or as memoir disguised a vehicle for Rosen to vent about his treatment as a producer? Maybe it was both, and maybe that’s what made it both a fascinating read and a struggle.

I Review The Human Division by John Scalzi at InterGalactic Medicine Show

My latest book review column is now online at InterGalactic Medicine Show. In this month’s column, I review John Scalzi‘s wonderful new novel, The Human Division. I also review a new piece of nonfiction about a science fiction pioneer. The Man from Mars by Fred Nadis is a fascinating biography of Ray Palmer.

You can read both reviews over at the InterGalactic Medicine Show website.

My Latest Book Review Column Is Online at InterGalactic Medicine Show

If you head over to InterGalactic Medicine Show, you’ll find the latest entry in my science fiction book review column, “The Science of Wonder.” In March I review Robert J. Sawyer’s latest novel, Red Planet Blues and Stephen King’s time-travel novel, 11/22/63. Both books are excellent, but if you want to find out more details, head on over to IGMS and read the review.

My Review of IMPULSE by Steven Gould Is Online at InterGalactic Medicine Show

In my February “Science of Wonder” book review column for InterGalactic Medicine Show, I review Impulse by Steven Gould. I remember reading–and loving–Jumper twenty years ago, when the book came out and when I was half my present age. It was delightful to return to that Universe. Head on over to IGMS to check out my entire review.

Impulse by Steven Gould

A Review of “Lost and Found” on Diabolical Plots

I just discovered this review of  my story “Lost and Found” over at Diabolical Plots. The story appeared in October in Daily Science Fiction. It is always nice to see a good review and this is what Frank Dutkiewicz of DP had to say about my story:

This was very well written.  It took a while to get into it, required an investment from me, but the payoff was well worth it.  The author did a good job of pulling me into the life of the main character and showing me a bit of his life.  As the story moves to its inevitable end, I came to know the man and feel what he felt.  Well done.

Read the full review of the story and of all the October stories over at Diabolical Plots.

On the usefulness of reviews to a fan and a writer

Some recent online discussions about reviews had me thinking about my own feelings on reviews last night. I have two perspectives on them: as a fan and as a writer. And since I think of myself as a fan first and a writer second, I’ll start with my perspective as a fan.

I don’t go see a lot of movies (I think I saw one movie in 2011) and I don’t read movie reviews at all. I do read a lot of science fiction and I do read reviews of science fiction, but I am somewhat selective about it. I almost always skim the short fiction review columns in Locus. And I usually read the book reviews columns in Analog, Asimov’s and F&SF. I read many of the book reviews posted on SF Signal as well. I generally don’t read book reviews that appear in major newspapers like the New York Times or the Washington Post, but that is because I don’t generally read newspapers. I will read a review in one of those outlets if someone calls it out specifically.

As a fan, my greatest joy in reviews is reading a good review for book or story that I liked, especially if it is for a book or story by someone I know. I love seeing my friends and fellow writers winning praise from reviewers because I know how much hard work goes into writing the stories and it’s nice to get some recognition for that.

Of course, I occasionally come across a review that I don’t agree with, but even that is useful because it often gives me a different perspective on how a book or story is perceived.

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Is it cheating to pay for a book review?

A few days ago, I arrived home from work to find a package from Amazon. I didn’t recall ordering anything, and when I opened the package, I discovered it was book I’d never heard of by an author I’d never heard of. Included was a gift receipt and a note from the author. The note indicated the author was a member of SFWA and then asked for me to read the book and give it a Nebula nomination. It noted further that the book received high praise from a prestigious review outlet. As I’d never heard of the author, I checked the SFWA directory and found the listing.

I don’t know about you, but it doesn’t sit right with me, being sent a book and being explicitly asked to consider it for Nebula nomination. Everything I’ve ever been told about this business is that an award season post, letting people know what you are eligible for is acceptable. You do not ask people for a nomination. Certainly you don’t send them a book unsolicited. If I give the author in question the benefit of the doubt, the book was sent to me as a gift with no obligation whatsoever. But the note clearly had a purpose and whether or not it was intended, it made me feel really uncomfortable. And why send it to me? Simple research would show that I am not a book reviewer. Was it because I am a SFWA member? Does that mean a book was sent to every SFWA member? I imagine that if a Nebula nomination was being sought, SFWA members would be the people to go to.

I’d pretty much forgotten about it until today when I was reading a newsletter from a prestigious review outlet and discovered the book I’d been sent featured rather prominently in the newsletter. Curious, I read the review and clearly the reviewer liked the book. But I also discovered that the program under which the book was reviewed was geared toward independent authors. An author can pay nearly $600 to have their book reviewed and then use that review for whatever purposes they like.

I suppose there is money to be made in the business of reviewing books, but to me, it seems kind of like cheating to pay for your own book review. Maybe it’s just me. Maybe paying for reviews is the new way of doing things, but if I get recognized, I want it to be because of the buzz my stories generate, not because I paid someone to review them.

I have not read the book I was sent. It may well be as good as the review indicates. But if it was really that good, why did it need a paid review in the first place? Wouldn’t I be hearing other people talking about it? And yet, I haven’t seen any buzz anywhere, not on Twitter, Facebook, not in the usual SF news and review outlets.

I come away from this whole thing feeling dirty for reasons I can’t quite explain. Both practices–asking for Nebula nominations and paying for book reviews–seem like cheating to me. If you want to be a writer, be a writer, work at it, earn your nominations and reviews, don’t pay for them. I would think you’d be more satisfied in the end.

Am I totally off base here?

Amazon reviews

I was glancing at the reviews of various books that I’d posted on Amazon, looking to see whether they are particularly helpful or not based on on the feedback that people can give. The results seem mixed and I decided to take a look at reviews by others for a book I’d recently reviewed to see why some are rated very helpful and others not very helpful. In doing so, I looked at reviews that rated the book itself very highly and very lowly. And I made a discovery which surprised me:

People rate books low (e.g. 1-star) because of the price of the book.

Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised, but I was. This is probably old news at this point, but there were dozens of people who, for instance, gave 1-star to Stephen King’s 11/22/63 for the sole reason that they felt the Kindle version of the book was overpriced. People are free to express their opinions as they see fit and I have no problem with that, but it did bother me that a rating system was being used as a kind of protest mechanism against the publisher and not to rate the book on its actual literary merits.

I gave this a bit of thought. People should be able to express whatever opinion they have about a book (or any product) for whatever reason they choose. But a rating system should also be designed to be helpful to those interested in the quality of a product above and beyond just the price. Giving a book a 1-star rating because of price alone games the system in a way that makes it difficult for people looking for opinions on quality to easily find them. I wondered if there was a possible solution and thought of at least one:

Why not two scales for ratings: 1-5 stars for quality and 1-5 stars for value. The quality rating would be used (in theory) to rate the book on its merits, completely separate from how it is priced. The value rating provides a mechanism for someone to rate the overall value (including price) of the book. In this way, a person could say that they thought a book was phenomenal (5-stars for quality), but thought it was outrageously overpriced (1-star for value). This seems like a perfect compromise but I suspect it has two fatal flaws:

  1. People would still protest overpriced books by hijacking the quality rating. That’s just human nature.
  2. Publishers might balk at such a rating system (although its hard to imagine what they could do about it) because it would expose too much about their pricing practices.

In the end, it is easy enough to simply filter out the noise of 1-star reviews based solely on price. And I’ve been marking these reviews as “Not helpful” as I find them, because for me, they aren’t helpful at all. They tell me nothing about quality. I just wish there was a better mechanism for separating out quality from value in these reviews.