Concerning Book Reviews and the World Wide Web

by Nick Christenson

Written April 30, 2001

For most of the last century, reviews of books, movies, plays, or whatever items that human beings constructed, have been written with some implicit notion of time. For example, when Roger Ebert reviews a movie, for example Home Alone, he's doing so in an implicit context. His review not only rates his perceived impressions of that film, but he does so having not seen movies that came after its release (in 1990), or perhaps films that were released earlier that he had not yet had an opportunity to view. Further, we know that his review takes place in a cultural context. We know that he's an American citizen living in Chicago, that the Chernobyl accident has already occurred, that the Berlin Wall has recently fallen, and that the outrage over Tiananmen Square was fading. We also know that the Gulf War had not yet occurred, Bill Clinton had not yet become President, and O.J. Simpson was just an ex-football star and grade B actor. Of course, none of these events, one way or another, is likely to weigh in on a review of Home Alone, but that's not the point. Ten years later, if one were to pick up and read the copy of the Chicago Sun-Times that contained Ebert's review of, say, Capricorn One, we wouldn't expect him to make references to bloody gloves or a white Ford Bronco.

This is less true on the World Wide Web. If someone did a web search and finds my review of Raj Jain's FDDI Handbook in the year 2000, it would be much less relevant than when it was written, and readers would likely have to make a conscious effort to shift themselves out of the mind set of considering the immediacy of the Web, to wit, the review doesn't make a great deal of sense in a world where Gigabit Ethernet is ubiquitous. This isn't intended to be a critique of people perusing the Web, but it does present a challenge a reviewer has to contend with.

A reviewer's opinion of a book might change. That is, at one point in time I might consider Lee Jones' Winning Low Limit Hold'em to be the best introductory text on playing Texas Hold'em in public card rooms, and if so, I'm likely to say so in my review. If at a later date, I find a book that solves this need better what should I do? Nobody expects the New York Times to recall all it's Book Review inserts as books become more or less relevant.

This is even a bigger problem when it comes to factual information. I might review a book, which after a few years passes out of print. At this time parts of my review may have become technically incorrect. Then, another publishing house may bring the book back into print. Again, because the New York Times' reviews take place in the context of time, they wouldn't be expected to do anything about this, but on the Web, it's a different manner. On the other hand, if I change a review to fit present circumstances or my whims, then someone might come back to that same review later only to find that it has been updated, perhaps by erasing the key bit of information they were seeking, such as, "Who was the original publisher of Blackjack for Blood?" This leads to disillusionment on another incompatible expectation of data on the Web, permanence. There can be no completely satisfactory reconciliation of these issues.

In any case, this situation presents a dilemma for the on-line reviewer. What I have elected to do is to write reviews at a moment in time, as if they were for a periodical. If some information regarding the book, such as the publisher, becomes factually incorrect, I'll amend the review using footnotes to indicate the updated data. If I change my mind about a book, that's too bad, the original review will stay as it is. At some point, I may feel that a review no longer substantially represents my opinion on a book, in which case I'll write a second review and will indicate this change of heart on both the index page and as a footnote in the original review. I don't find this ultimately satisfying, but I can't think of a better way to maintain the permanence of what I've already written yet still meet expected levels of currency. Oh well.

However, I reserve the right to periodically amend this essay until I feel I've gotten it right.