commentary

Does alligator meat go with red wine or white wine?

On whining about Amazon's book reviews and lowbrow culture.
by T. J. Nelson


Commentary

B ack in 2015 a guy by the name of Rhymer Rigby wrote an article in the Daily Telegraph (behind a paywall for us Yanks) titled “Call me a snob but Amazon's idiotic reviews are useless”:

“Once you start conflating popular with good, you inevitably embark upon a road to all sorts of fun conclusions like McDonald's being finest restaurant in the world, Dan Brown being one of our great authors and Benidorm being the very best holiday destination there is."

Benidorm, in case you're a barbarian, is a fishing village on the eastern coast of Spain, which is looked down upon by the European elites because of its popularity with middle-class tourists.

The solution of Mr Rigby the snob: hire professional critics, like him.

Amazon has those already. They're called the Publishers Weekly reviews, and most people skip right over them because their criterion for a good book is whether the author's opinions coincide with their political views, which are predictably dull and predictably left-wing.

When they're not trying to scrunch their politics into our tiny little minds, professional critics write from the point of view of an accomplished expert in the field. But I suspect there are some people who read a book to learn something; for that, an accomplished expert in the field is the least qualified to express an opinion.

Since pros, who know this stuff already, have little incentive to read it on their own, you have to pay them. So are they praising it to get more commissions, or are they criticizing it to prop up their professional reputation? At least on the Internet you know the reason: they liked the book because they genuinely got something out of it, even if it's just confirmation that someone else shares their beliefs.

Another type of book review is from literary folks, as you find in London Review of Books, where reviews consist of many pages of flowery, syntactically correct prose. They are quite skilfully written, but in my view if you can't summarize a book in 30,000 words or less, something is wrong: it would be quicker just to read the book.

But what's worse is that LRB never reviews really great books like Springer's Nuclear Energy - Landolt-Börnstein: Numerical Data and Functional Relationships in Science and Technology - New Series / Advanced Materials and Technologies Group VIII, Vol. 3: Energy Technologies Subvolume B, which I am still salivating over.

This 604-page book has already climbed to number 15,136,583 on Amazon's best-seller list. You can get it new for US $7,790. That's cheap compared to the 2013 edition of Medical Radiological Physics Group VIII, Volume 7 Subvolume A: Fundamentals and Data in Radiobiology, Radiation Biophysics, Dosimetry and Medical Radiological Protection, which goes for $54,009.00 plus tax.

(I should mention that Barnes and Noble has a better deal: the whole 2014 set for only $46,700.00, but they don't say whether you get free shipping.)

But that's the kind of book I read, and Amazon has over 100 reviews of it while LRB has none. Here, for example, is Joshuawulf's review:

“I almost didn't buy this, but then I saw ‘this item ships for FREE with Super Saver Shipping’. I'm taking advantage of this offer while I can.”

Succinct, informative, and even grammatical. What more do you want?

Here's an Amazon review of the movie Ice Twisters (DVD):

“I and the movie and I lost it so I buy it for you and because it my favorite movie that I like thank for have it so I can get it and”

Gertrude Stein lives again!

Dissing book reviews by people who sought out the book and read it is elitism. Brick-and-mortar stores are no better when they complain bitterly about online vendors like Amazon taking away their business. Customers, they say, come into the store, look at the merchandise, then go home and buy it online at a lower price. Those fools.

In fact, I often go to Amazon to find out what real people think about the product, then hop in the car and go to an old-fashioned brick and mortar store to buy it—if I can find it.

Before Amazon, it often took an entire day driving into the city, trying to find some small bookstore, getting a parking space, avoiding the beggars, drug pushers, and muggers, only to discover that the store had been bought by a chain and only carried three different books: The Beverly Hills Diet, Richard Simmons Never Say Diet Book, and Jane Fonda's My Picture is Not Photoshopped Really and No I Am Not a Goddamned Commie Traitor Workout Book.

Used bookstores had classics like Lady Chatterly's Liver and The Diarrhea of Ellen Rimbauer. For science books, you had to piss off the college kids by going to university bookstores and buying their textbooks. That meant stepping around the pools of vomit and empty beer bottles that filled the parking lot every weekend.

It's even worse now that they're all Tabasco-Free Campuses. Instead of cigarette butts we're seeing a lot more chewing gum stuck to the sidewalk, on the stair handrails, under the book shelves, everywhere. We've traded cigarette butts for green sticky goo. I for one think this is not progress.

The wisdom of crowds, such as it is, is the basis of democracy. And democracy is what the average person, not a snobby critic or a Yale-educated graduate in political science, wants. If the people want a culture of hamburgers and Fifty Shades of Grey, that's what they should get, and their punishment should be that they're forced to live in it. That is the essence of our great experiment in anti-aristocratic populism.

The elites gave us books like Finnegans Wake, which consists of hundreds of pages of more or less obscure puns in a variety of languages. Unlike Amazon, London Review will never bother to tell you to make sure to get the third edition, which has all the misspelled words fixed. But how can you tell? Here's part of one sentence:

“...the truly catholic assemblage gathered together in that king's treat house of satin alustrelike above floats and footlights from their assbawlveldts and oxgangs unanimously to clappaud (the inspiration of his liftime and the hits of their careers) Mr. Wallenstein Washington Semperkelly's immergreen tourers in a command performance by special request with the courteous permission for pious purposes the homedromed and enliventh performance of problem passion play of the millentury ...”

Interesting, perhaps, and indisputably unusual, but a populist cynic might say that if they really removed the misspelled words, the Third Edition would have been a pamphlet. (Yes, I steal all my jokes from Mark Twain.)

Fact is, we're conducting a colossal 300-year experiment to determine whether there really is such a thing as the wisdom of crowds. Our descendants, if we have any, will know the answer. My opinion is that a cultural desert is the least of our problems.

As for the original question, I have it on authority that alligator meat does not go with either red or white wine—it can only be drunk with beer. That's how many Americans spend much of their lives. But you already knew that.


Name and address
oct 24, 2015; revised july 10, 2016

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