Critical Reviews: Trustworthy or Trolls?

What a reader considers a good book is both very personal and very public. One person's favorite book very well could be another person's nightmare. What is a reader to do if she wants to find out if a book is worth her time?

Of course you reach out to your reading friends, ones you can trust regarding the author or genre in question. (If you don't, find some now — your life will be richer, and reading will get even more fun.)

You may have a professional critic or two whom you trust and (mostly) agree with, which is a nice way to add to your towering TBR pile.

You can accost the occasional stranger or two reading the book of interest — but if they snarl, back away slowly and don't take your eyes off them until their eyes have returned to the page.

Online? Think twice, and proceed with extreme caution if you dare venture in.

Back in the day, many readers believed online reviews were reliable, and a community of readers discussing books — in part because they themselves participated. Now, however, even honest readers and booksellers on the most "reliable" sites find themselves torpedoed by murky trolls salting the soil, making it harder for good reviewers to thrive.

I am discovering this as I peruse online reviews and comments about a book from time to time, looking for a general sense of reader response.

If I am not quite sold on a book that sounds interesting, I'll read one-star reviews to see if other readers identify problems I want to avoid, and possibly take them into consideration. Sometimes the bad review is more precise and detailed than the glowing ones. Sometimes, but not usually.

How do you differentiate an honest comment from a smear campaign? Check out the commenter's the time stamp, user name, and language dexterity (when present). If most reviewers don't leave comments, take that into consideration, too — lazy or troll? And are the reviews even for that book?

These are also good clues for identifying five-star trolls boosting a book or product: a book with 5,000 five-star reviews dropped in a few days doesn't always pass the smell test.

And that's for books you haven't read yet. If you seek an online community of supportive readers who want to share ideas, remember: the Internet can be a bad and dangerous place if you have an opinion. Do not go there. 

Literally: do not go to book reader or bookseller websites and read reviews that rate the book lower than you did, no matter how many people consider the reviews "helpful" or "relevant" — especially when you're in the Flush Of Book Enjoyment Upon Completion™.

After I read Educated, I rated it on Goodreads. (I wasn't ready to review it, but I wanted to mark it as "read" for my book list-keeping.) I found the book shocking, amazing, exhilarating, exhausting, draining, and well-written — and when rating it, I made the mistake of reading a lower-starred rating ranked as very "helpful."

The literate, smartly critical review questioned many of the elements I found so remarkable. (spoiler alert) The reviewer questioned Tara Westover's bravery that took her from the junkyard and gaslighting family to Cambridge and Harvard, and friends who wanted to help protect her from this abuse. The only thing trickier than writing an honest memoir is navigating the criticism questioning the memoir's honesty. This criticism is particularly insidious because of Westover's family causing what may be memory distrust syndrome. (spoiler alert ended)

I am a critical reader, and a natural skeptic. I investigate remarkable claims, especially those that stand to benefit someone financially and critically. The three-star review didn't provide any evidence, just skepticism. One person's opinion, indeed — and not at all helpful to me. Lesson learned: don't look for online arguments I don't want to launch.

I will always read skeptically and critically. I will review wide-ranging information from reliable resources, whether they are in my comfort zone or not. But I will judge critics and skeptics by equitable criteria, and use my best judgment on who is a trusted source.