It’s a bit like being a geologist pulling a core sample from the ground when reading the Amazon page dedicated to All In: The Education of General David Petraeus by Paula Broadwell, the retired general’s one-time paramour (with help from former Washington Post Pentagon reporter Vernon Loeb, whose take on the whole thing is here). The 80-odd reviews give the book a middling three-out-of-five stars. But it’s interesting to see how they change over time.
They break down into four categories, starting with the oldest:
— Prepublication reviews – blurbs — from some big names in the worlds of history and journalism. They’re, ahem, uniformly glowing, of course; otherwise they wouldn’t be posted as part of the book’s PR campaign. Some, no doubt, were legitimate, perhaps buffed to a high gloss by folks seeking to gain favor with the book’s subject. A couple of them probably even read pre-publication galleys. “This book,” former White House aide and TV talking head David Gergen says, “helps us understand how Petraeus has become the living legend he is.”
— The initial flurry of outside reviews is glowing, too. The first four gave the book five stars, Amazon’s highest rating. This is when the author’s pals weigh in, in hope of generating some early positive buzz. “The superb portrait of the soldier-scholar, General David Petraeus is truly riveting,” opines one 5-star reviewer the day after the book went on sale. There’s even a couple of former Army officers offering their over-the-top assessments. “Ms Broadwell’s definitive biography shows exactly why many of my contemporaries regard David Petraeus as the best soldier of our generation – and possibly the greatest American general since George C. Marshall,” a retired Army officer says a week after publication.
— Then comes the real thing. After a couple of months, the reviews from late March to when the scandal broke last Friday are decidedly mixed. These most likely are the ones written and submitted by real readers, who actually bought the book – perhaps persuaded by those two groups of critics cited above — and read it.
“I purchased this book with the desire to understand the insides of the man Gen. Petraeus,” a reader posted in mid-March. “Unfortunately this book reads like a news magazine. [Editor’s note: Watch it, Buster!] This is little insight into the man. It is a bland history of the sequence of events in his life.”
Added another: “This book lacks vision and really doesn’t tell the reader anything earth shattering or more depth than one could find by reading Time,” [Editor’s Note: Battle Stations!].
And a third: “I love military history and learning about military leaders, and this book looked like it would give me a view of one of the greatest military minds of our generation,” an August poster said. “I was disappointed in how much the education of Gen. Petraeus was left out of a book whose subtitle is `The Education of General David Petraeus.’”
— Finally, about half of the reviews have been posted since the scandal broke last week. They’re cruel, unkind…and some are quite funny.
So there you have it: Battleland’s summary of Amazon’s reviews of Broadwell’s book. Three of the four groups are either trying to curry favor with the author or subject — or both — or believe they’re the latest Woody Allen from South Park.
Bottom line: you can trust only one of the four to give you an honest appraisal. Just about like life.