In a previous column I discussed the practice of "sockpuppetry," where authors create fake online personas to pump up the ratings of their own books and trash those of their rivals. Recently, two additional stories have come to my attention that cast further doubt on the integrity of online customer reviews.
In one case, a horde of passionate Michael Jackson fans rallied via Facebook and Twitter to inundate the Amazon page of a newly released biography, "Untouchable: The Strange Life and Tragic Death of Michael Jackson," with one-star reviews labeling the author, Randall Sullivan, a "liar."
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.
Lest we think these are not the work of people who put the fanatic in fan, a fair sampling of the 148 one-star reviews (as of this writing) end with sentiments such as "LONG LIVE THE KING OF POP!"
The other case involves someone named Mark Driscoll, who is the pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle. Mars Hill is a megachurch, and Driscoll is something of a celebrity and controversial figure in contemporary evangelical circles. He has a new book out, "Who Do You Think You Are? Finding Your True Identity in Christ," and to generate buzz, he held a sweepstakes. For a week, he would give one winner a new iPad mini (pre-loaded with Driscoll's books). To enter, all you had to do was tweet a notice of the book (with a link to purchase) or post an Amazon review.
Driscoll didn't mandate that the review be positive because that would be a violation of Amazon's policies. His stunt seems to have worked. Three weeks after its release, it had 228 reviews, a majority of which are five stars, though there is also a significant minority of one-star reviews mentioning the iPad giveaway rather than the content of the book.
If Jesus had iPad minis instead of loaves and fishes to give away, maybe he wouldn't have needed all those apostles to help spread the word.
As a reader, I have little interest in Driscoll's book, so I cannot report whether five-star reviews that may or may not have been inspired by the desire for an iPad mini or the one-star review headlined "Mark Driscoll is to biblical wisdom as Richard Simmons is to cage fighting" is correct, which brings me around to this week's sermon … err … focus for the column.
Data is not a foolproof substitute for judgment.
Yes, we have recently experienced a presidential election where the number crunchers (as embodied by Nate Silver) were dead on, and the talking head political pundits were about as effective as Richard Simmons in a cage match. Those of us who are Cubs fans hope that Theo Epstein has a phalanx of M.I.T. number crunchers finding the next Stephen Strasburg currently in eighth grade somewhere in the Atlanta suburbs.
I don't wish to roll back the "Moneyball" revolution or to put my trust in George Will and Peggy Noonan, but the best test of whether or not a book is right for me is opening the cover and, wait for it, reading the words.
I understand and sympathize with the difficult decision of choosing what to read, and as long as the data is there for the sampling, what does it hurt?
What it hurts, I think, is our trust in ourselves. Someone else's worst book in the world could be our treasured classic. Denying ourselves the chance to find that out feels like an impoverished reading life.
Tweet that for me, and you may win an iPad mini. (Not really.)
Biblioracle John Warner is the author of "Funny Man." Follow him on Twitter @Biblioracle.
The Biblioracle offers his recommendations
1. "Generation on a Tightrope: A Portrait of Today's College Student" by Arthur Levine and Diane R. Dean
2. "Hoot" by Carl Hiaasen
3. "The Bookseller of Kabul" by Asne Seierstad
4. "The Black Pearl" by Scott O'Dell
5. "The Year of Ice" by Brian Malloy
— Alex di M., Chicago
More often than I'd care to admit (being a self-proclaimed expert), books I've never heard of show up in these lists, but I can usually chalk it up to not being able to cover all the available subject ground. In this case, though, since my day job is as a teacher of college, I feel genuine chagrin that I was not previously aware of "Generation on a Tightrope," which I will have purchased and read by the time these words appear in print. As thanks to Alex, I'm recommending "Suite Française" by Irene Nemirovsky.
1. "The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World" by A.J. Jacobs.
2. "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" by Stephen Chbosky
3. "Anne of Windy Poplars" by Lucy Maud Montgomery
4. "Wonder Boys" by Michael Chabon
5. "Little Women" by Louisa May Alcott
— Lisa S., Tampa, Fla.
For Lisa, I think the quietly powerful "Housekeeping" by Marilynne Robinson will fit in nicely with her recent reading.
1. "Telegraph Avenue" by Michael Chabon
2. "The Starboard Sea" by Amber Dermont
3. "The Last Time I Saw You" by Elizabeth Berg
4. "Gathering of Waters" by Bernice McFadden
5. "Blasphemy" by Sherman Alexie
— Gretl K., Elgin
Human drama with a backdrop of social issues and compelling characters mark Gretl's list. "The Tortilla Curtain" by T.C. Boyle.
Get a reading from the Biblioracle!
Send your last five books to printersrow@tribune. com. Write "Biblioracle" in the subject line.
Copyright © 2015, CT Now