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BooK Review : are they still useful ?  RSS feed

 
xav zeman
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From my own experience, JavaRanch is a site that gathers very well all information about java. You can almost find anything. One big problem though is the book review topic.
The only good thing about it, is that it lists absolutely all the books on every topic. But each time I was looking for an opinion on a book, I felt completely lost. It seems the reviews are biased somehow or worse, too "politically correct".
The ratings with horseshoes has became meaningless. All books seems to be worth buying. When all the books have a rating of at least 6 or 7 out of 10 ( I am probably exagerating here but it is for drama purpose :-)). There are no strong, objective opinions.
I would propose you first of all to have different rating according to the reader's level. Basically a point of view from beginners, intermediate and experience professional.
Also, like real review, the critic should indicate his relation to the author or the publishing company. We certainly do not want the same kind hypocrisy the stock market analyst that happened during the burst of the Tech bubble. This would help to identify biased reviews.
Finally, it seems nowadays that having a strong opinion is subject to name-calling. If somebody happens to have a different opinion, it triggers resentment. I am not only talking about book reviews here but life in general. Thus, nobody dares to stand out and stand up. Being politically correct does not mean giving a undecisive opinion but to be respectful to others. So, to all the critics, please be more clear about what do you think of the book. At the end it should say: Yes or No I would buy it again :-)
That's all,
Sincerely
Xav
 
Jason Menard
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For a book to be rated less than a six, it would have to be very bad from a technical standpoint or have been unreadable due to extremely poor editing. For the most part, the publishing houses aren't going to let a book like that slip through. Additionally, each reviewer has a slightly different personal scale for how he or she rates books, so you will not see consistancy across all reviewers on ratings. You might also keep in mind that reviewers generally review books on subjects they are interested in and/or knowledgable about.
I would have to defend the objectivity of our reviewers. If you can point to an instance where you feel a review may have been influenced by a reviewer's supposed "relation to the author or the publishing company", then we can address those. And if we aren't writing "real reviews", what do you consider a "real review"?
Regarding "strong objective opinions", can you give an example of what you are talking about? Does a "strong objective opinion" always mean a "negative" opinion? I've done eight reviews to date, and given ratings from 6-10 horseshoes, along with recommendations on who should or shouldn't buy the book. It is not necessary to insult the publisher or author in order to get one's point across. We can say what we like and what we don't like about the book, and who might and might not benefit from it, without using strong wording which might offend. This isn't being politically correct, it's being professional.
Your feedback about tailoring the rating to the level of the reader (beginner, intermediate, or expert) is interesting. While I think we can make a guess at it in many circumstances, in others it wouldn't really lend much value. The reviewers aren't all experts in the subject matter of the book they are reviewing, so the best we can often do is approach it from our own level.
[ October 14, 2003: Message edited by: Jason Menard ]
 
Thomas Paul
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I have done 60 reviews and given the books ratings from 2 to 10. In general I try to point out the target audience for a book if it isn't obvious. I think many books are obvious who the target audience is. "Beginning Java 2" is obviously an intro book. "Core J2EE Patterns: Best Practices and Design Strategies" is a design pattern book for J2EE so it is obviously for the more advanced J2EE developer.
As far as too many good reviews, the fact is that most technical books are good. The publishers try not to release crap and most books have gone through several rounds of technical reviews. But if I don't like a book I am not afraid to say so.
 
xav zeman
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Thanks for your answer, here are mine to your valid comment and questions:

For a book to be rated less than a six, it would have to be very bad from a technical standpoint or have been unreadable due to extremely poor editing.
Then, why not simplify the ratings down to a simple 3 stars ratings. It would be even better to come up with a rating in different areas. For example:
Editing:
1 = Basic quality. Good english.
2 = Easy to read. Good flow.
3 = Excellent writing skills. As if you were in a teaching class.
Technical information:
1 = Technical information is correct. You can trust the content
2 = Information provided is above basic knowledge you can find anywhere else (book or internet)
3 = Information is complete and thorough on the subject at the time of writing.
Examples/Graphics/Tutorial
1 = Basic "Hello world!" examples
2 = Example detailed and explained provides clear explanation and insight on the topic.
3 = Examples based on real life industry problems, directly "as if" applicable to your work environment
Overall
1 = Covered all the basics
2 = Serious details information
3 = To consider as a bible

Access level
1 = Beginners
2 = Intermediate
3 = Experienced
You may laugh at me now, cause it may look like more cumbersome than originally but for me it is more useful. Also the rating legend and its meaning (even for the one in place now ) should be explained and accessible at all time.

I would have to defend the objectivity of our reviewers. If you can point to an instance where you feel a review may have been influenced by a reviewer's supposed "relation to the author or the publishing company", then we can address those. And if we aren't writing "real reviews", what do you consider a "real review"?
I meant by "real review" my concern to trust the author of the review. In no way I implied the reviewers were not already objective. I think by providing background on the reviewers, it will be a add-on value. If somebody is a friend of an author, it should be known. Again, the point is objectivity.
Regarding "strong objective opinions", can you give an example of what you are talking about? Does a "strong objective opinion" always mean a "negative" opinion?
Not at all, the idea is to try to change the way all the reviews seems to be always cautiously written. You will be amazed how many often the adjective "great" is being used!. It seems that when something bad is written about a book it has to be followed by something good about it. The critics should answer a question in their head : If I lose this book, do I want to buy it again ?
I agree there is no need to insult anybody in the process but there must be a decisive point of view.
Sincerely,
Xav.
 
Thomas Paul
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It's not a bad idea but you must remember that JavaRanch reviews are not intended to be one stop shopping for books. The basic idea is that each reviewer is supposed to give their impression of the book in 250 words or less. No one is paying us to do reviews. The whole issue of reviews is completely subjective. I think in general JavaRanch reviews do give a pretty good, if incomplete, picture of a book. But to get the complete picture you would have to look at several other sources as well.
 
Ilja Preuss
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Originally posted by xav zeman:
I think by providing background on the reviewers, it will be a add-on value.

If a review is from a bartender or sherrif, you can find more infos about him/her at http://www.javaranch.com/contact.jsp
If somebody is a friend of an author, it should be known.

How do you get the idea that we do have books reviewed by a friend of the author???
It seems that when something bad is written about a book it has to be followed by something good about it.

I'd like to seriously suggest that there are very few books which should never be read by anybody. Almost any book has *something* valuable to say to someone, and I think it's only fair to state so.

The critics should answer a question in their head : If I lose this book, do I want to buy it again ?
I agree there is no need to insult anybody in the process but there must be a decisive point of view.

I respectfully disagree - I don't think it is my job as a reviewer to make a decision for you. I'd rather think that I should give you information so that you are in a better position to decide for yourself.
 
Gregg Bolinger
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I have purchased books based on reviews I have read and I hated the book. I have also purchased books that got horrible reviews and I can't live without these books.
One mans trash is another mans treasure.
 
Jim Yingst
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I generally regard teh numerical part of a review as essentially meaningless, unless I have a good baseline of knowledge about what sort of scale that particular reviewer uses. For comparing reviews by different reviewers, it's useless, IMO. What does interest me is: what strengths does the book have, and what weaknesses, and who's the intended target audience, and what types of people are likely to enjoy the book, and which are likely to find fault? This sort of thing can't be easily represented numerically anyway. So I just read the text of a review and ignore the number.
[ October 14, 2003: Message edited by: Jim Yingst ]
 
Matthew Phillips
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It seems that when something bad is written about a book it has to be followed by something good about it.

I will look very hard to try and find something good and bad to mention about any book. I think it's important to share what I liked about the book and what I hated. I personally find it helpful to see that in other reviews because what someone hated (or liked) about a book might be what I love (or hate) to see in a book. As Gregg pointed out, one man's trash is another man's treasure. Stating explicitly what I like and hate might help someone else determine if it will be trash or treasure to them.
 
xav zeman
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The discussion is getting away from the subject a little bit. When I first wrote my comment, I had in mind 2 things:
1. Find a better grade review system (because even though I do use comments to make up my mind, I also like to quickly judge the value of a book in a glance with all the grades given by the critics.)
2. Be sure that all reviewers are objective on this site. Apparently this question has been answered so case closed.
Don't you think a more detailed score technique, like the one I suggested, is needed ?
 
Pankaj Kr
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As others have pointed out, it would be unfair to potential readers and the author/publisher to state what is good and what is bad about the book, for the simple reason that different people are looking for different things. Otherwise, how can I explain many complimentary personal notes and good reviews that my book has received, along with some really terrible ones (stating that the book is useless because it doesn't cover X or Y or Z).
When I buy a book, I rely on table of contents, a number of reviews and my own personal impression (by actually visiting the book-store). And now that I reflect back, most of the time, a review to me is simply a means of informing the existence of a book on a particular topic.
 
Jim Yingst
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As others have pointed out, it would be unfair to potential readers and the author/publisher to state what is good and what is bad about the book, for the simple reason that different people are looking for different things.
Ummm, in that case it's difficult for me to imagine how it would be possible to write a truly "fair" review that's anything other than a list of the table of contents. Any review worth reading (or writing) is going to incorporate subjective personal judgements. In order for these to be useful to others, the reviewer should also provide some context and justification as to why a particular feature is good or bad. Or more usefully, which types of readers might find it good, or which might find it bad. As an example:
stating that the book is useless because it doesn't cover X or Y or Z
Such a statement is not entirely without value, assuming that indeed the book does not cover X, Y, or Z. The statement still conveys useful information to the reader. The "useless" part is unfair in a general context. Some statments that could be fair though:
----
This book does not cover X, Y, or Z, so if you were expecting that you'll need to look elsewhere.
The book is marketed at intermediate users of technology T, but to understand T properly, you really need to discuss X, Y, and Z to some extent, and this book fails to do that.
This book claims to cover X, Y, and Z, but the coverage of these topics is extremely superficial, and no better than what can be learned for the freely available documentation.
----
In my opinion, all these could legitimately be part of a good review. I want the reviewer's opinion. I'm not going to blindly trust everything they say, and I'll look at other reviews too (if available) to get a more balanced picture. And hopefully a good reviewer will be able to provide some perspective on what other types of readers might think, not just their own impressions. But reviews will always be subject to the personal opinions of the reviewer, who can't possibly represent all possible readers. Good reviewers will try to identify and explain why a feature is good or bad, and to whom. And numerical summaries of reviews are next to useless in this respect, IMO. But reviewers certainly can and should list what's good or bad about a book, as well as they reasonably can.
 
Thomas Paul
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I think if a book claims to cover a topic and then doesn't cover it, it is fair game to be given a poor review. For example, I reviewed a book that claimed to be a complete coverage of J2EE but covered it superficially except for one part. If the book had claimed to cover just that one part of J2EE then it may have gotten a good review. But since it made a claim and didn't live up to it then it got a poor review.
 
Frank Carver
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Likewise I've given poor reviews to books where the Publisher has given the book a completely inappropriate title (or subtitle).
Many of the books we review are ones intended to be used for technical reference. To be a competent reference book you have to be able to easily choose the right book to look in, and to find the right information as quickly as possible. If the title of the book is inaccurate or ambiguous it might as well not be on the shelf; a reader will never think to look in it (or likely be disappointed if he does).
 
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