Thanks for your question. As someone who reads voraciously and who
also gets to do selection of books as part of my job, this was a
pleasure to answer. Thanks also to Omnivorous-ga for some suggestions
he made to me.
There are a number of sources I can recommend if you are looking for
older reviews of books. These are print sources (the older the
material, the more likely it's only in print).
1. Book Review Digest
2. Book Review Index
3. Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature
These sources will provide citations only (the data you need to locate
reviews) and unfortunately, it's something of a crapshoot to determine
if the reviews are going to be helpful or not. When I've used these
sources in the past, I generally look at the title of the publication
(e.g. NY Times or something like the New Yorker is probably going to
have a more solid and/or longer review) and if provided the number of
pages. Once you have your citation, depending on the library youre
using and age of the review, you would then need to go to microfilm or
bound copies of the periodical.
Another possibility would be to see if reviews or criticism have been
compiled in one of the Gale publications (e.g. Literature Resource
Center (online subscription database), Dictionary of Literary
Biography, or What Do I Read Next? There are many, many others, too
many to list here). Most large libraries or public library systems
have/subscribe to the print books or the database.
There is another publication used by many libraries (mostly academic)
as a selection tool that might be of interest. The name of this
periodical is "Choice" and it's quite useful. The books reviewed are
usually scholarly and the reviews are generally objective and are
usually by people qualified in the subjects of the books. This one
goes back to 1964. Again, a print source (well, it's online too, but
by subscription only). Most large libraries will probably subscribe to
this. Ive found Choice an invaluable as a source for selection.
Certain other publications geared solely or primarily toward providing
reviews do exist. Some of these are Booklist, Publishers Weekly,
and Kirkus Reviews. All have their merit, but one has to be careful.
Publishers Weekly in particular is geared toward moving books
rather than providing objective reviews. Booklist is published by
the American Library Association and might be useful to you.
Although the site Ive linked below is primarily about selecting and
evaluating reference materials, many of the criteria and sources
listed in the guide can be easily used for selecting other books.
Selection and Evaluation of Reference Materials
Another site that may be useful is:
Reviews and Reviewing
When youre in a site like Amazon or Barnes and Noble, see if theyve
provided excerpts of editorial reviews. Both frequently include
reviews from publications like Library Journal or Kirkus Reviews.
Again, youll find some of these may have a bias and you need to keep
in mind that these types of sites have a goal: to sell product so they
wont go out of their way to post poor reviews, but if you exercise
reasonable judgment, you can get a pretty decent idea of a books
quality. If theyve provided it excerpts of the book, Id explore
these. Look for: authors background/credentials, the indexis it well
organized?, if theyve given you the back covers imagewhos written
the blurbs? Scholars you know of and can respect? You sound like a
person who knows something about the subjects youre readinglook
carefully at the bibliography if its provided.
For newer books, the best way to approach this all may be to begin by
searching some article databases. If youre affiliated with a college
or university, you will probably have access to these, but even if
youre not, most public libraries these days provide their patrons
with some of the basic ones. Most of the publications Ive listed are
included in these kinds of databases, usually full-text. You would
probably also pull up references to reviews from more subject specific
periodicals, e.g. history journals. You can also do searches on the
authors. Chances are that if the author is a noted expert on a topic,
youll find corroboration of this.
Something to keep in mindwhat is or was the best book on any given
topic can be, and often is supplanted by successive books or as new
information comes to light. However, a credible author will generally
adress or at least acknowledge the theories of a previous expert.
A well-constructed Internet search is another option. There are now
thousands of very good resource guides on any number of topics. Many
of these include bibliographies (some annotated) of books as well as
web sites. If the site itself seems to be of good quality (well-chosen
links, updated, well-organized, from a reliable source, etc.), the
inclusion of a particular book is something to take into account.
Terms to include might be resource guide, subject guide, or
bibliography. It might also be advisable to limit the search to a .edu
domain (easily done by an advanced search in Google).
Some other resources for you:
Book Review Sources
Looking for Mr. Goodbook
book review sources
book review online sources
finding best books
I hope this answers your question. If you require additional
information or if the links do not work for you, please ask for
clarification before rating my answer and Ill do my best to assist