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Harriet Klausner, Amazon reviewer #1
November 3, 2007 8:56 AM   Subscribe

Harriet Klausner, 55, is Amazon's #1 book reviewer, with almost 15,000 book reviews in the past 8 years or slightly over 5 per day. Her coveted position in the highly competitive world of Amazon review rankings has earned her accolades from Time Magazine, a write-up in Wired Magazine, and more than a little snarky skepticism from other reviewers. If you like her taste in books, she keeps an archive of reviews.
posted by stbalbach (47 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
It can't be too difficult to read the book summary on the back of the book and paraphrase.

Her reviews are worthless.
posted by i_am_a_Jedi at 8:58 AM on November 3, 2007


Reading five books a day? Doesn't that imply she lives in her books, and isn't grounded enough in reality to matter very much to the selective reader? When does it become a compulsive disorder?
posted by Brian B. at 9:06 AM on November 3, 2007 [1 favorite]


What Jedi sed.
Of course, I'm also jealous that she hasn't reviewed one of my books, sending me skyrocketing to fame and/or fortune.

There are better reviewers out there, as opposed to recappers.
posted by willmize at 9:10 AM on November 3, 2007


In her Amazon profile, she says that she is a speed reader, a gift she was born with, and that she reads 2 books a day. Yet, she reviews an average of 5 per day? Anyway, Harriet, I'm begging you to slow down and digest what you are reading. Your reviews are on par with elementary school book reports.
posted by found missing at 9:16 AM on November 3, 2007


One thing's for sure: she's no Henry Raddick.
posted by FelliniBlank at 9:17 AM on November 3, 2007


The "Wal Mart" of the internet has reviewers? Who cares?
posted by wfc123 at 9:17 AM on November 3, 2007


Where do you even find all those books to (supposedly) read? 35 books a week is pretty expensive, even if they're second hand.
posted by afx237vi at 9:17 AM on November 3, 2007


Inconceivable.
posted by jaronson at 9:19 AM on November 3, 2007


It can't be too difficult to read the book summary on the back of the book and paraphrase.


Reading five books a day? Doesn't that imply she lives in her books, and isn't grounded enough in reality to matter very much to the selective reader? When does it become a compulsive disorder?

Anyway, Harriet, I'm begging you to slow down and digest what you are reading. Your reviews are on par with elementary school book reports.


Who the fuck are you guys? The reading police? No, but seriously. Lady speed reads genre fiction and seems to greatly enjoy it. She writes simple recaps that people for whatever reason find useful. Seems fine to me.

Telling someone how to enjoy their hobby is just out of line.
posted by Alex404 at 9:35 AM on November 3, 2007 [2 favorites]


Amazon ranks reviewers based on a somewhat complicated formula (not on the raw number of reviews). Last I checked, points towards the rankings are awarded like this:

*When a review gets 5 helpful votes.. and then 10 helpful votes.. and so on up to 20, after which no additional points are awarded (max of 4).

If a review has 10 or more negative votes, over the total number of helpful votes, points are subtracted. So, a review with 10 helpful and 30 negative, there would be no points (or possible negative points).

The ranking system rewards reviewers most who keep writing new reviews - for example if you write a great review and it gets dozens of helpful votes, it won't help your standing as much as writing lots of reviews that get 5 or 10 helpful votes ie. quantity over quality matters most.

Thus, Klausner has, intentionally or not, hit on the perfect formula to maximize the point system - short summary style reviews in large quantity.
posted by stbalbach at 9:38 AM on November 3, 2007 [1 favorite]


Who the fuck are you guys? The reading police?

"quis custodiet ipsos custodes" -Juvenal
posted by Brian B. at 9:43 AM on November 3, 2007 [1 favorite]


In the world of book reviwers, critics, how many can you name that you truly admire and trust in judgement? Is she one of them?
posted by Postroad at 10:20 AM on November 3, 2007


Although her review style is not very useful to me, I'm pretty sure a lot of people into light reading genre fiction would find them helpful. At the very least they'll help pinpoint whether you've already read the book, which is incredibly useful when you read two or three books a day.

Her ratings on the other hand... scanning her last 200 reviews reveals no books rated less than 4 stars.

As for the discrepancy between 5 reviews written and 2 books read per day, she could have a backlog of 'reviews' in a reading journal from her pre-Amazon days that she's transcribing.
posted by BrotherCaine at 10:23 AM on November 3, 2007


Telling someone how to enjoy their hobby is just out of line.

What if their hobby is being a douchenozzle about other people's hobbies?
posted by beaucoupkevin at 10:27 AM on November 3, 2007


Harriet Klausner is enjoying her life as the number one book reviewer on Amazon.com, when tragedy strikes. A Metafilter thread about her draws out sinister comments about her tendency to summarize rather than analyze. This metafilter thread will be enjoyed by skeptics and people who like the NYTBR, although a contrary opinion that people should be allowed to enjoy their hobbies does provide a little bit of spice.
posted by Divine_Wino at 10:32 AM on November 3, 2007 [10 favorites]


I concur. It looks as if she read the back page and compiled very rudimentary reviews. Not very in-depth... But whatever.

What I really wonder about is why the hell she doesn't review any Choose Your Own Adventure books. There's something not right about this woman.
posted by thewalrusispaul at 10:53 AM on November 3, 2007


"quis custodiet ipsos custodes" -Juvenal

Brian B., would you happen to be an Alan Moore fan? Because I always think of this when I see that quote.

she could have a backlog of 'reviews' in a reading journal from her pre-Amazon days that she's transcribing.

That would have been a weird hobby--'I'm going to write down my thoughts on every book I speed read, just in case there is some as-yet-uninvented forum that will allow me to share them.'

Occam's Razor says: she skims a book enough to dump a review, and derives some sad piece of her identity from being the #1 amateur reviewer on Amazon.com.
posted by LooseFilter at 11:02 AM on November 3, 2007


I know people who keep lists of books they've read, and if you're reading a lot it makes sense to take notes so you can remember which book was which. I don't think it's odd at all.
posted by The corpse in the library at 11:16 AM on November 3, 2007


She writes simple recaps that people for whatever reason find useful. Seems fine to me.


Recap != review.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 11:18 AM on November 3, 2007 [1 favorite]


Brian B., would you happen to be an Alan Moore fan? Because I always think of this when I see that quote.

Not yet, but thanks for the recommendation.
posted by Brian B. at 11:19 AM on November 3, 2007


Not yet, but thanks for the recommendation.

Ah, my pleasure--it's a fantastic read.
posted by LooseFilter at 11:24 AM on November 3, 2007


Occam's Razor says: she skims a book enough to dump a review, and derives some sad piece of her identity from being the #1 amateur reviewer on Amazon.com.

I'm so tired of people using Occam's Razor in reinforce what they assume to be painfully obvious. Guess what? It turns out that life is usually a little more complicated than that, for no good reason. That's not quite as catchy a cite, though.
posted by hermitosis at 11:33 AM on November 3, 2007


Where do you even find all those books to (supposedly) read? 35 books a week is pretty expensive, even if they're second hand.

"[Knopf publicity director Nicholas Latimer] sends Ms. Klausner every fiction title his house publishes....Daily, books come by the cartload to Ms. Klausner's Atlanta home, putting her at odds with the mailman, the UPS delivery guy and her husband, Stan..."*

I suspect she receives review copies from many publishers.
posted by ericb at 11:42 AM on November 3, 2007


What if their hobby is being a douchenozzle about other people's hobbies?

Otherwise known as "MetaFilter".
posted by psmealey at 11:45 AM on November 3, 2007 [3 favorites]


she skims a book enough to dump a review

Yet, she reviews an average of 5 per day?

She is "'a freaky kind of speed-reader.' In elementary school, her teacher was shocked when Klausner handed in a 31⁄2-hour reading-comprehension test in less than an hour. Now she goes through four to six books a day. 'It's incomprehensible to me that most people read only one book a week,' she says. 'I don't understand how anyone can read that slow.'"*
posted by ericb at 11:47 AM on November 3, 2007


I'm so tired of people using Occam's Razor in reinforce what they assume to be painfully obvious.

And I'm tired of people projecting assumptions onto comments. Ockham literally wrote "one should not multiply entities unnecessarily." In the context of this thread, assuming that Ms. Klausner has been keeping a journal of her impressions of books for years prior to the existence of Amazon.com is doing exactly that, and is almost always erroneous.

To me, the simplest explanation is that Ms. Klausner speed reads enough to form an impression of a book, and writes a review that is mostly synopsis. Given the quality of the reviews I read via this post, I'm inclined to believe that's true.

Guess what? It turns out that life is usually a little more complicated than that, for no good reason. That's not quite as catchy a cite, though.

Give me a break--is there a reason to be patronizingly insulting? Have I offended you personally in some way?
posted by LooseFilter at 11:56 AM on November 3, 2007


Also, from ericb's cite above: 'It's incomprehensible to me that most people read only one book a week,' she says. 'I don't understand how anyone can read that slow.'

Because some of us like to, you know, savor what we're reading, and think about and live with it for a bit. Reading a book isn't a goal, it's an experience, and a worthwhile book is a worthwhile experience I prefer not to rush through. But the superficiality of her reviews indicate that she and I seek different experiences from reading.
posted by LooseFilter at 12:00 PM on November 3, 2007


When you read books that are of the calibre of most of the books she seems to be reading, I'd read them as fast as I fucking could too.

Here's another polemic on this topic.
posted by psmealey at 12:02 PM on November 3, 2007


When you read books that are of the calibre of most of the books she seems to be reading, I'd read them as fast as I fucking could too.

Excellent point.
posted by LooseFilter at 12:13 PM on November 3, 2007


I wish I could speed read like that, assuming I could retain any of it.

Oddly enough, I almost always ignore the individual Amazon reviews and just look at the aggregate rating.
posted by Talanvor at 12:39 PM on November 3, 2007


To me, the simplest explanation is that Ms. Klausner speed reads enough to form an impression of a book, and writes a review that is mostly synopsis.

I'd mostly agree, except it is an added assumption she does not read the entire book. Is there factual evidence she does not read the entire book? It's a lot more simple to assume she is a speed reader who "reads two books a day", which is what she said. Also she says in one of the articles she stops reading after 50 pages if she doesn't like the book, which is why all her reviews are highly scored, she only reviews the books she reads.

BTW Occam's Razor works best for explaining natural phenomenon, not the variances of human politics, when people lie and the truth can be difficult to know. Even then, conclusions reached with Occam's Razor are only as good as the available evidence, it doesn't mean it is right, just the best explanation given what we know.
posted by stbalbach at 12:44 PM on November 3, 2007


Oh, Occam, is there nothing your toiletries can't do?
posted by found missing at 12:53 PM on November 3, 2007


tl;dr
posted by mosk at 1:40 PM on November 3, 2007


I checked her archive for a review of a book I'd know and found this on Consider The Lobster:

"Though this reviewer rarely reads essay collections, this form of literature is both my favorite and my most detested format (corollary to the 50 page rule of why keep reading if it so bad, for essays a 20 page rule). When satirically amusing and filled with irony on “postmodern” life, nothing beats an essay such as classics like the “postmodern” “How to Cook Roast Pig” or “A Modest Proposal”.

David Foster Wallace provides ten delightful articles on a variety of topics ranging from the relativity of pornography to generalizing the insipidness of sports autobiographies extracting from Tracy Austin’s perfect tennis adventure (Bill and Ted for a set anyone). In Mr. Wallace’s delightful way, if one wants to know whether a lobster feels pain while undergoing scalding water treatment, don’t ask the cook, the lobsterman, or the zoologist; go to the source (not sauce): ask the lobster who obviously is not dancing their life away. Same goes to McCain's presidential bid lost during a failed debate with a fundamentalist demanding the senator turn no cheek insisting Christ condemned homosexuality. Though the asides can be difficult to follow with abbrev, they are fun to follow up on with their deeper explanations and Americanization of the English language through ibid. Readers will appreciate the deep look at “postmodern” American life as a fabulous INFINITE JEST."

Almost entirely incoherent. It reads like she wrote it on day fifteen of a serious meth bender - which, come to think of it, may be her secret.
posted by nicolas léonard sadi carnot at 1:52 PM on November 3, 2007


Ms. Klausner speed reads enough to form an impression of a book, and writes a review that is mostly synopsis.

Hey, Harriet Clausner reviewed one of my books on Amazon, and her synopsis and objective opinion took up about equal space. (By the way, she loved it to pieces, unlike some of the other customer reviewers,who gave it the raspberry). If I ever meet that gal, I'll give her a big, wet kiss.
posted by Faze at 2:06 PM on November 3, 2007 [1 favorite]


Where do you even find all those books to (supposedly) read? 35 books a week is pretty expensive, even if they're second hand.

I really am the last adult human to actually check books out of the library, aren't I?
posted by enn at 2:28 PM on November 3, 2007


enn, I think the idea of driving to the library to check out a book that may or may not be in stock covered in ink, stamp and greasy spots, with a potential late fee, has earned public libraries the same stigma as public transportation - it's something poor people, geriatrics and kids do. Real adults, assuming they even read, have private libraries stocked with books purchased online and delivered to your doorstep, or at the local Border's. It's kind of like what NetFlix has done to the local movie rental store. Of course these are all stereotypes, but IMO the libraries have helped foster it by trying to become "digital" and not just a "stack of books". Libraries are trying to move away from the image of a book repository and become aggregations of digital databases - some libraries don't even allow patrons into the book stacks at all.
posted by stbalbach at 2:44 PM on November 3, 2007


stbalbach your library sounds grim! Our district has it's catalog on-line where you can see if they have the book, where it is, reserve it and, once you have it, renew to avoid late fees. There is also a lamentable absence of ink, stamps and greasy spots.
In addition to poor people, geriatrics and kids the library is patronized by rich adults - just one of the many ways we stay rich whilst others impoverish themselves by draining their trust funds into Amazon and Borders.
Back on topic - I manage to crank out about five reviews per month - the thought of 30x that many is staggering.
posted by speug at 3:07 PM on November 3, 2007


I think I've read, over the course of my adult life, an average of about two books a week. It'll jump up to about one a day for may a few months at a time, and then occasionally down to one a month, other times. Anyway, I read a lot of books. Don't know how it relates to the average of the population here—MetaFilter is clearly a reading population. But my experience is that I somewhat more than other readers I've known, less that the rare outliers.

Anyway, I don't understand the people who need to keep notes or otherwise can't remember what books they've read or what they were about. My dad has to keep a computerized list the he consults before he buys new novels so that he doesn't buy something he's always read. That seems strange to me, although, to be fair, he didn't need to do that 25 years ago. So maybe when I'm in my early 60s, I will have the same problem. I dunno.

A good portion of my college friends, who are all readers as we went to an unusual reading-centric school, are slow readers. But the school highly values very careful readings and I know a lot of people who read a sentence or a paragraph at a time and then spend a moment to think about it. My best friend is an example of such a careful reader. He reads fiction that way, and he's naturally generally read only high quality literature. I'd loan him a genre book once in a while, and he'd usually enjoy some things about it but have trouble with the less-than-stellar writing. One time, though, after I had gone through a couple weeks of reading a book a day (or so), he decided to try reading a couple of books the same way as I normally read them. Fast, just going with the story, reading them as pure entertainment and not something where you consider each sentence. And he had a lot of fun and told me that he understands, now, what a lot of my reading means to me.

I think it's really interesting that there can be such diversity in how people read and approach books. Since there's relatively so few of us—and because we readers, as a group, are pretty different from non-readers—we may forget how diverse we are within our own ranks, too.

Personally, I'm reluctant to tell other people how they should read. However, it seems to me that lower-quality stuff, like genre novels, really should only be read casually and quickly, like watching a Hollywood action film. It's entertainment. There may be some things worth thinking about later, after you've finished the book—science fiction has a lot of provocative ideas and they are worth considering. But the writing just isn't good enough to spend a lot of time and effort reading it with excruciating attention to its detail. It's not rewarding. Really good literature, on the other hand, invites such readings. My problem, though, is that I don't particularly enjoy such readings and so I'm impatient with good literature that isn't enjoyable when read casually and quickly. I believe that the best art works both on the deep analytical levels and the entertainment levels. That's why I think that, say, Eco's The Name of the Rose is a very good contemporary novel—it's erudite, deep, many-layered, with good writing. But it also reads like an enjoyable genre mystery novel. That's a virtue, not a vice. Shakespeare's plays are all successful as pure entertainment, too, if you approach them that way.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 5:24 PM on November 3, 2007 [2 favorites]


EB, I recognize myself in quite a bit of your comment, in fact I think I had the exact same notions of The Name of the Rose.

I'd say that I'm at about two books a week over my adult life as well, as an average. One way that I make up for the speed that I read is by re-reading, not everything of course, especially not the light stuff. I come back to the stuff that I enjoy or learn from at regular intervals. It also helps me afford my reading habit, although I get a lot of free books working in publishing. If I ever semi-retire I might take up a crazy level of Amazon reviewing if I can get truckloads of free books out of it.
posted by Divine_Wino at 5:48 PM on November 3, 2007


I, too, could probably read 2-3 books a day, had I the time and unlimited enjoyable material.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 6:12 PM on November 3, 2007 [1 favorite]


EB, nice post. Two books a week is what an average speed reader could do if they didn't watch TV - somewhere between 1.5 to 3 hours a day, a typical evening. I only wish I gave up TV and started reading more seriously earlier in life, it's like Marco Polo discovering China, a huge advanced civilization that makes "home" (Europe for Marco, TV for the analogy) seem small and barbaric by comparison.

Some of the "best" writing is usually considered the most creative, genuinely new works that moved the state of the art forward, and creativity is by its nature different from the norm and thus it may seem weird or hard to read, in particular when reading it for the first time, so a lot of literary classics are challenging.

speug, yeah I was being a little facetious in response to enn's comment but I think there is some truth to the stereotype, at least in the sense, it is how many people see it. Libraries are good places.
posted by stbalbach at 6:33 PM on November 3, 2007


I'm more annoyed that Amazon won't let people write reviews without having purchased something. I bought something, I'm sure, from Amazon ages ago but apparently under a different e-mail address, so I can't write a review. Bastards!
posted by etaoin at 9:25 PM on November 3, 2007


I'm not impressed by her reviews, but as a very fast, yet retentive and "savoring" reader, I do have to speak up a bit in response to snarking about "not really reading" and "not savoring" and "not retaining." I sometimes can't remember what I've read, but I've been keeping a book list for the last two years (my PerlGeek lover made me a script that automatically downloads lists of books I've checked out from the library, where I get nearly all my reading material, and I can just pop them into an Excel spreadsheet), and in 2006 I read 294 books, most of them fairly heavy non-fiction, and this year, which I thought was being a slow reading year because I watched all of The West Wing, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Angel, I've read 260 so far. I don't know how much time I spend reading in a day, because it tends to be in bits and pieces--I have three small children and am busy with other things as well.

Since I was a little kid, I've been told I hadn't really read something, or that, if I did, I didn't understand it, or, if I did understand it, that I wouldn't retain it, or that, even if I did retain it, I wasn't "savoring" the experience. All bullshit.

I'm also a fast writer (which is going to get me through NaNoWriMo this year), was always a fast test-taker ("Go sit back down and go over it again. You can't possibly have checked your answers."), and am a fast thinker. It's not a virtue; it's just a fact about me. But it's been a lifelong irritant that people seem to need to explain it away, as if the fact that they're not as fast needs defending or propping up, as if they need to make some argument that being a slower reader is somehow better or more virtuous in order to feel OK about themselves.
posted by not that girl at 9:37 PM on November 3, 2007


I really am the last adult human to actually check books out of the library, aren't I?

I lived a mile away from a seven story library in downtown San Jose, and I have library cards in three counties in California (and the library of Congress for no good reason). Even with all of that, I'd have a difficult time coming up with 35 books a week that I'd want to read. If I supplement with the 5 or 6 used book stores in the area, and the friends of the public library book stores I could come up with 35 books a week for a few months, but it would still be expensive.
posted by BrotherCaine at 3:54 AM on November 4, 2007


“Since I was a little kid, I've been told I hadn't really read something, or that, if I did, I didn't understand it, or, if I did understand it, that I wouldn't retain it, or that, even if I did retain it, I wasn't ‘savoring’ the experience. All bullshit.”

Maybe so. But all we have is your assertion.

My experience with people who generally read non-fiction is that they seem to retain little of what they read and generally don't understand it very well. My impression is that they are more like collectors of small facts, than they are practitioners of serious comprehension.

Now, I'm not saying that this applies to you. I have no evidence to decide one way or another. I'd have to discuss with you some of the ideas you've encountered in the books you've read.

But my experience with the above non-fiction readers I've mentioned has been that they are generally poor judges of their own level of comprehension of the material. As collectors of small facts, they come to believe that such is what is expected and understood by everyone as “knowing something” about a subject.

Nevertheless, that's a generalization. Generalizations are perilous because there are always a number of people about which they are flatly untrue, and a greater number of people about which they are egregiously misleading. I could be wrong about my generalization, or you could be an outlier, or both.

So, no offense intended, but your claim is, in fact, an extraordinary claim and you simply oughtn't be that offended by skepticism. Because it's an extraordinary claim. When people refuse to change their minds when confronted by evidence that their judgment is wrong, however, you have every right to be offended and to conclude that their beliefs come from unexamined bias and perhaps a bit of envy.

“so a lot of literary classics are challenging.”

Yes, though I found that I really had no trouble reading them at St. John's. In fact, I found that I enjoyed a lot—perhaps not the majority, though—of the books we read just as I enjoy my pleasure reading. I certainly felt that way about, for example, Tolstoy.

However, unlike most of my fellow students, I continued to pleasure read while I was there. Our reading workload averages to about a couple hundred pages of extremely difficult reading a day. But I found that my high level of retention allowed me to read pretty quickly (not taking pains to concentrate on individual sections, as others did), and I also have a talent for seeing the so-called “big picture” which is, really, the direction in which SJC is very strongly biased (and I'm emphatically not claiming that this is better than other approaches), so reading these works in that context was pretty easy for me. So I still had time to pleasure read, which I did. I was kind of obstinate about it—pleasure reading has been my primary recreational activity my entire life. I wasn't going to go without it for four years. Thus I also have a low tolerance for those people who, when talking about novels or such, slightly smugly say, “oh, well, I have no time to read these days”, which I heard from most grad students, particularly in the sciences.

An SO of mine said that while she was a grad student in physics. But she had time to watch at least one or two TV shows a night. Or such people engage in other recreational activities, like casual sports, or whatnot. All of which is perfectly fine, but it means they can't claim that they don't read because they have no time to do so—they don't read because they choose to spend their rare recreational free time doing other things.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 8:55 AM on November 4, 2007


Coincidentally, I've taken up speed reading to make it through EB's comments on this site. (smiley)
posted by found missing at 10:01 AM on November 4, 2007


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