First, let me admit something to you. Sometimes, when I post search challenges, I don’t necessarily know the answer. I like it that way—it makes the challenge a real challenge for me too!
That’s why I’m posting my answer to Wednesday’s challenge today, 2 days late—this was harder than I thought!
So.. here’s my answer to the challenge.
On finding book reviews…
I have good news and bad news.
First: good news—there are lots of collections of book reviews, written by scholars and organized into coherent clusters by topic. There’s one for the social sciences, there’s one for psychology, one for education, one for physics, etc etc.
Next, the bad news. Many of the great compendiums of book reviews that people use for scholarly purposes are locked-up behind paywalls where it costs a good deal of money to get to them. That is, there are many such databases—NOT indexed by web search engines such as Google or Bing—that you need access to if you want to use them. BUT, they all cost money—in many cases, it’s prohibitive for an individual to gain access.
And in some cases, the reviews are available only in print. Really.
In any case, IF you’re a university student, your institution probably pays for you to have access to databases like the “International Bibliography of Book Reviews” (a collection of scholarly reviews going way back), or “Book Review Digest” (a collection of reviews that’s assembled annually), or “Book Review Index” (reviews from 1965 to present, but is very comprehensive). Scholarly reviews of books can be found in other subscription databases such as "America: History and Life," JSTOR, and "Project Muse." And for medieval literature specifically, the database "Iter: Gateway to the Renaissance and Middle Ages" is particularly helpful.
And, the best summary of online AND print resources for book reviews is at the Cornell library’s site.
Caution, though—all of the links from this page send you to the Cornell login page. (Ahh, the value of an Ivy League education!)
Now for more good news: As it turns out, some public libraries also have access to some of these resources, so you can check them by logging in through your library. (And note a really big secret—you typically DO NOT have to live in a city to get a library card. It’s worth getting library cards from cities other than where you live in order to get access to their databases!)
But assuming you don’t have a good library card, some online resources worth checking:
New York Times Book Reviews http://www.nytimes.com/pages/books/index.html
One of best online review sites for the humanities is H-Net Reviews in the Humanities and Social Sciences:
Washington Post Book Reviews: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/artsandliving/books/ (free registration required).
Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the book reviews available through Google Books.
If you search for the book on Google Books, a set of reviews that can be found through web crawling are listed at the end of the entry. (See below)
If that’s true that Google auto-collects book reviews, why did I go to so much trouble to look up other ways to find book reviews?
Answer: Because the reviews listed in Google Books often come from fairly random sources. If you look at the reviews for “World Lit Only…” you’ll see that they ALL come from GoodReads.com, which is fine, except that the reviews are very short (100 – 300 words on average) and are typically either full of praise for the book or an excoriation. Critical analysis isn’t what GoodReads.com is good at—it’s really a list of book recommendations by other readers, and not necessarily scholars in the field.
Since I already have more book recommendations than I know what to do with, GoodReads reviews aren’t what I need.
And THAT’s why we need all the other book review sources. For completeness and scholarship.
FINALLY.. .the answer to my question: How credible is the book “World Lit Only…”?
I actually read about 30 reviews of the book from “regular readers” who generally loved it. (It IS an exciting read with lots of salacious details about the Middle Ages—everything from popes going to war, orgies and lots of titillating details.) But medievalists generally find it an egregious overstatement and hyperbolic without many references. And they’re both right. It’s a great read, but take the more outrageous statements (“peasants were sometimes reduced to selling their clothes and working in the fields completely nude..”) with a huge grain of salt.
But (bad news again) in order to get some of the more sophisticated reviews (from actual medievalists) I had to go ask my local librarian.
Sometimes research still takes going to the library. I went, talked with the reference librarians and learned a great deal.