I recently finished reading 12 Rules for Life by Jordan Petersen. If you’re not familiar with the man, his book does provide a little history of his rise to recent prominence. I only found out about him in the last 6 months, from seeing some YouTube lectures on the nature of humanity, psychology, and various other subjects. Millions of others are like me in that they didn’t know about this former Harvard professor and clinical psychologist until he garnered quite a bit of attention for a political position about compelled speech, for the fact that the alt-right has commandeered some of his arguments to bolster their position, and for the fact that he’s quite solidly against some of the feel-good trends of the day.
Not getting into those here.
Instead, I’m going to write a little rant about book reviews.
It’s weird. Many book reviews are often not reviews, but summaries. I blame 11th Grade English teachers.
In their insistence that we answer exactly the question they’ve asked, with exactly the facts they wish to hear, but written “in your own words”, they’ve trained us less to think critically and more to paraphrase. This comes out when you look at the multitude of reviews on Amazon.com (or any other review platform). Most of the time, these are simply restatements of fact about the book, rather than their own impressions of the book’s content, how it made them feel, or what they take away from it.
And let’s not confuse a “rating” (1 star, 2 stars, etc.) with a “review”. A rating is an objective ranking. This is better than that. Those over there are worse than these here. A review is a subjective evaluation. This spoke to me. I appreciated parts here and there. Generally they’re correlated, but not equal. That is, most of the time you have a positive rating you also have a positive review. But sometimes not. I think it is entirely possible to have a 1-star rating with a “positive” review. That is, someone could find the format absolutely terrible (1-star) and disagree with the conclusions, yet still respect the arguments laid out within(“positive” review).
Which is why we need to have more critical reviews out in the public sector. But, ironically, not too many. Currently, Amazon.com has 4,878 reviews of 12 Rules for Life. I imagine B&N.com has thousands more, not to mention Goodreads and an uncountable number of independent opinions hosted on blogs or other smaller sites. If I read even a small fraction of all of those, I would easily spend longer on that task than the 15 or 16 hours I spent reading the text. Would that be worth my time? Probably not. I’d do much better to read a few and make a decision based on that information and spend the majority of my time with the actual book.
But where to start?
I’m sure that’s why Amazon introduce the [HELPFUL] button. This allows me to see whether other readers of this review have found value from the review. A meta-review, as it were. But doesn’t this also contribute to the problem of social conditioning and trending and social signaling? As more people find a particular review “helpful”, Amazon drives that review upward in the feed, creating a feedback loop in which I as a user don’t get the chance to experience the whole range of reviews, only the lucky leaders which came in to the process early, and have been promoted not necessarily because of quality, but simply because of quantity (of “helpful” ratings earlier than those which came later and are, unfortunately, buried too far back in the queue to ever get a chance at visibility).
Back to the review vs. summary discussion, what ends up happening is that many of those summaries are not helpful. They are not rated as such by readers. Good reviews, though, as actual reviews which provide insights, now take prominence because we, as readers, don’t want to waste our time reading unhelpful summaries. So we want to read the most helpful reviews, often of the value which we believe we’ll end up holding after we read the text! That is, if I think I’ll like it, I’m mostly going to spend time reading 5-star reviews. If I think I’ll hate it, I’m probably going to be waist-deep in 1-stars.
Ironically, and unfortunately, this confirmation bias problem drives a narrowing of the perspectives we are likely to see when considering a book. How many people read the 5 “most helpful” of each of the 5-star reviews, 4-star reviews, 3-star reviews, 2-star reviews, and 1-star reviews? Not many. We often read a couple of 5-stars, and validate our own internal prejudiced decisions we’ve already emotionally made with reference to these “independent” observers.
I think that’s a bad way to go about it. I don’t think this gives us a broad base of knowledge on which to base a conclusion. Instead, it feeds the brain’s energy-saving decision shortcuts
So. I there a way to fix this? I don’t know. Limit the # of reviews? Create an algorithm within Amazon’s display that forces a random review to be shown, rather than the “most helpful”? Cycle through on a first-written-first-shown basis so that each has a chance to be seen in equal measure? I don’t know the right answer.
Right now we’re getting the same sort of ineffective (destructive?) virtue-signaling and trend-whoring that we all complain about in social media. For the information industry (book publishing, lectures, blogging, etc.), which is so critical to the healthy function of a society, we may be running dangerously low on healthy debate, dissent, and critical thinking. Because we all want “the best” (again for a multitude of reasons), yet we’re not willing to go through the difficult process of evaluating for ourselves what the best might be.
Perhaps having a conversation around what it is we seek to accomplish through reviews, ratings, and the entire feedback process is warranted. I’ll leave that to someone else to organize.
P.S. I realize this essay doesn’t make much sense. Probably because I’m thinking as I write. I reserve the right to review and revise later.
P.P.S. I guess the least I could do is give you my review. Link here:
See below for text. You’re welcome.
P.P.P.S. I gave the book a 5-star rating and a positive review. It’s unlikely anyone will ever see that review and make a decision because of it, because now this review is buried a hundred pages back.
I don’t write many reviews on Amazon. They’re often overwhelmed by the sheer volume of everything else, so it feels as if I’m simply shouting into the void. Because…
This book needs no additional 5-star review. There are plenty of them already. This book needs no additional commentary – there is plenty of that already. This book, this author, needs no additional puffing up of his reputation – there’s plenty of that done by the Patreon subscribers and the purchasers of his other books. And yet…
In keeping with the rules that say “Tell the truth – or at least, don’t lie” and “Be precise in your speech,” I offer this rating and review in order to be consistent with the pull in my innermost Being, to respond to what I have just read and to share my thoughts, regardless of their receipt.
Thank you, Mr. Peterson. Thank you for saying, eloquently, what many of us have felt within our own spirit for years now. That this life is not easy. That there are hard things to do, and hard ways of doing them. That we’re not all badasses, that we’re not all going to win. That we must work, because of reasons outside our control, but despite that work and those obstacles we can still create within ourselves a life that is meaningful, that reaches for higher values. A life that represents better, a better Being, and strives agains the Chaos around us.
All should read this book. Not all will. And even of those who do, some shall be put off by the many references to God and Christianity and the Bible as authoritative. That’s a disappointment. For, even if one does not hold that same philosophy (as I do not), one should admit that, in accord with one of the rules, that this other person, this author (who has striven to bring your life additional Order) has something to say. Not just something for the sake of saying something, just to be heard and followed mindlessly in order to inflate an ego out of selfish desires, but something important and, ultimately, valuable as you strive to create a life you can be proud to leave behind.