Friday, 10 August 2001

Book reviews on Amazon (esp. SICP)

Listening to:

Shostakovich, piano sonata no. 2, op. 61.

One place I didn’t mention as a source of book reviews on Wednesday was Amazon. Here you can get reviews of very many books, by a whole slew of people (those readers interested enough to write reviews). Initially, it can be a bit off-putting to have some many different opinions to contend with all at once. A very dichotomised example is the case of Structure and interpretation of computer programs, by Abelson et al. Most reviewers give this book either one or five stars. One reviewer seems to hit the nail on the head when they say

The phrase ‘two cultures’ is usually used to describe the gap of understanding between the arts and sciences but reading the previous reviews it seems we have two cultures in the programming community.

It’s certainly something of an indictment of computer science education that someone could write this

Well, considering that I’m a computer science major, i figure that I know a great deal about programming and the such. However, I found this book to be simply incomprehensible. I’ve never wasted more time than I did trying to read this book. Worse than its failed attempts at instruction are its failed attempts at humor to “liven up” its instruction. After taking my class, i burnt this book.

It’s harder to know how to judge fiction reviews. Things like Pride and Prejudice are given five stars by almost everyone, and I’m quite ready to believe that this really is a classic (I knew that already, but hey). On the other hand, reviews are not often very nuanced; probably because of the self-selection involved in the reviewers. Most reviews I’ve sampled tend to be enthusiastic (maybe I just read good books), with occasional unhelpful one-liners like “This book was really boring; I hated it”.

Finally, you’d better be aware that the author of the book might be submitting some of the reviews! (Though this is not such a danger with P&P.)