I've been working on a critical review of the book St. Augustine: A Life. When I first saw the assignment, and saw the adjective "critical," I knew Dr. Haykin was not looking for something I might put on my blog. The fact that it has to be 2,500 words was a sure indication of that.
Part of the assignment involves interacting with other critical reviews. Yesterday, I spent some time reading some. The reviews came from Christianity Today, The Calvin Theological Journal, Christian Century, and one in First Things, so there is a measure of comfort that responsible people were reviewing this book.
What I noticed in all of these reviews was the lack of a concluding phrase that said the reviewer either recommended or did not recommend the book. Certainly, someone can read between the lines and discern if the reviewer likes the book. However, in the review from First Things, the author actually has a few indictments for Gary Wills. These criticisms are written alongside him calling the book "delightful." Yet, he did not conclude the review with a recommendation.
I was left wondering how much the presence of Amazon book reviews has affected what I perceive to be the components of a book review. I don't always look at the reviews on Amazon, but when I do I notice that the majority are not very long, and are usually five star ratings combined with some one or two star ratings. It's hard to get a feel for the book when the reviews fall into such poles.
We want recommendations so that we know we're making a good purchase. But I wonder if the prevalence of Amazon as a marketing engine has changed our expectations of what a book review ought to contain. Of the reviews I read, the one from First Things was the best because the reviewer interacted not only with what he liked, but what he disliked, and that was helpful. I've read (and written) some reviews where the glowing endorsement is far too good to be true. I would rather have more information about what the book actually contains. I was once given a book to review and was very honest about what I saw as problematic content. I have never been asked to review anything by this publisher again.
In future, when I read book reviews, I think I'll be less concerned about a recommendation and more about whether the reviewer gives me enough information to make my own decision one way or another. And if I end up hating the book, that's not a big deal. No one ever died from reading a bad book.