By JOE QUEENAN (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204683204574356541209342218.html)
One superb innovation of recent times is the readers’ review section on Amazon.com. Here ordinary people get to voice their opinions, acting as cultural watchdogs to shield their fellow book lovers from duds. Certain individuals have built quite a reputation for themselves online, their aperçus vying with the phoned-in ruminations of the snooty, burned-out hacks who masquerade as professionals at our top magazines and papers.
Of course, some reviewers can get a bit coarse and personal in the rough-and-tumble world of Internet interfacials, but for the most part these gifted amateurs inject a much-needed breath of fresh air into the reviewing process. Most appealing is their absolute fearlessness when it comes to trashing high-profile authors that mainstream reviewers would hesitate to mix it up with.
Beholden to no man, cloaked in anonymity, they do not hesitate to take even the brightest stars —Joyce Carol Oates, Paul Auster, Dan Brown—to task. This is what makes citizen reviewers such a welcome addition to the body politic: Their courageous sniping from behind the bushes, emulating Ethan Allen and the Swamp Fox back in 1776, reaffirms that democracy functions best when you fire your musket and then run away.
It is always fun to go back in time and speculate on what might have happened had Anne Boleyn been on Facebook, or had Pharaoh’s army included amphibious equipment. This is why I cannot help wondering what a typical Amazon.com review might have looked like had the Internet existed centuries ago:
• ”King Lear”—Average reader rating: Two stars. The author tells us: “As like flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport.” Oh, right, like I didn’t know that? Like I didn’t know that to be or not to be is the question? Like I didn’t know that the fault lies not in us but in the stars? Tell me something I don’t know, Mr. Bard of Whatever.
• ”The 120 Days of Sodom”—Average Reader’s Rating: Five stars. OK, so I like totally pre-ordered this book based on the author’s name, which just happens to be the same as my maiden name—Marquis de. Yeah, a sketchy reason to buy a book, but I was pumped. But when it got here I didn’t understand it at all. It just didn’t go anywhere. It just kept repeating itself. I went through it a few times more, searching for some deeper, awesome meaning, but just ended up totally bummed. Actually, some parts of it were kind of gross.
• ”Oedipus Rex”—Average reader rating: Four stars. Sophocles is a satisfying author who writes in clear, snappy prose. Youngsters in particular could learn a lot by imitating Mr. Rex, until he goes a bit off the rails toward the end. Nothing earth-shattering here, but zippy stuff. Have to admit I’m still puzzled by the weird subplot involving Mr. Rex’s mother.
• ”The Aeneid”—Average reader’s rating: Two stars. Whine, whine, whine! Okay, so your hometown burnt to the ground and your family got wiped out, but do you have to keep bellyaching about it? Where’s that gonna get you, Mr. Grumpy? Basically, Virgil is a poor man’s Tacitus. He goes on and on about Priam and Dido and Zeus, when all the reader wants is to get to the good part when the Trojans defile the Vestal Virgins. And talk about a rip-off: He doesn’t even include the story about the one-eyed giant who can turn pigs into Greeks!
• ”On the Revolution of the Celestial Spheres”—Average Reader Rating: Three stars. Those who have read my countless reviews elsewhere know that I am a mathematician, astronomer, polyglot and philosopher in my own right, and therefore uniquely qualified to discuss everything from Zeno’s Paradox to Gordian’s Knot. Mostly, I think my fellow polymath Copernicus has done a pretty solid job here. The thing most laymen don’t realize—unlike mathematicians/ philosophers/astronomers/polymaths like me (as those familiar with my numerous other reviews can tell you)—is that people like Copernicus are really good with numbers. Just as I am. Really, really good. (Me, that is.) Readers seeking more of my unique insights can reach me at Igor@mymommysbasement.com.
• ”Deuteronomy”—Average Reader’s Rating: Three stars. I don’t get it. I’ve read most of the books in this series, and they totally kick butt, but this one leaves me scratching my head. Is there a story here? Am I missing something? Why so much talk about clean and unclean beasts? The author really got on a roll with Genesis and Exodus, and I was on the edge of my seat when I read The Book of Numbers. But this one runs out of gas early. Now I’m glad I skipped Leviticus!
• ”Mein Kampf”—Average reader’s rating: One star. Lively writing, but just too, too depressing. Why does he keep using big words that normal people can’t understand, like lebensraum and oberkommandant? Hey! I own a thesaurus, too! And what’s up with the Jewish thing?