Death has closed the book on the controversial life of Harriet Klausner.
The prolific book reviewer had a unique talent that brought her online fame: She could speed-read through up to six books a day. Harnessing this skill, Klausner became a cultural phenomenon.
For much of the ‘oughts, she was the #1 ranked reviewer on Amazon.com. As her influence in the book industry grew, publishers began sending her review copies of upcoming novels, sometimes as many as 50 a week. In 2006, Time Magazine even named Klausner a person who had significant impact on the information age.
That impact was lessened, somewhat, when Amazon instituted a new ranking system. Although Klausner’s “top reviewer” rating dropped to #2,410, the site continued to honor her contributions by naming her the #1 Hall of Fame Reviewer — a recognition she earned in 11 different years.
“During the 2000s, Klausner was a well-known name in online book circles, and it was rare to see any popular title on Amazon without a Klausner customer review at the top of the list. She was an important part of the history of Amazon, and deserves to be remembered as such,” TeleRead editor Chris Meadows said.
Born and raised in the Bronx, Klausner was always surrounded by literature. Her father worked at the McGraw-Hill publishing house, which meant her childhood home was filled to the brim with books. As an adult, she earned a master’s degree in library science, did a stint as an advance reader for the Doubleday Book Club, labored at several book stores and worked as an acquisition librarian.
Klausner’s desire to become a critiquing machine was sparked while writing a monthly review column of recommended reads. Once her son Eric was born, she launched a freelance writing career and began building her brand as a popular reviewer of genre fiction.
“I enjoy a heated romance, especially written by the Sandras — Chastain and Brown. I love science fiction and fantasy when the realm feels real. Horror is entertaining to me when the vampires seem as if they are another living (dead?) species. [Dean] Koontz remains my king. However, I particularly take pleasure from almost all the sub-genres of mystery to include comic books starring Batman and Ms. Tree,” Klausner once said.
Yet there were books that simply didn’t hold the Georgia resident’s interest.
“I do not enjoy nonfiction,” she said, “especially biographies (boring) or most westerns.”
Illness and insomnia helped to turn Klausner into a homebound, book-reading, review-writing machine. Over the course of 15 years, she posted 31,014 reviews on Amazon, including a positive critique of John Benedict’s medical thriller “Adrenaline,” and a rave review for “Onward, Drake!” by Larry Correia, both of which appeared just days before her death.
Thousands of readers revered her efforts, buying novels based on her generally glowing reviews. Authors also considered the act of getting “Klausnered” a rite of passage since her reviews often helped to boost the average ranking of new tomes. One author, John Birmingham, even named a character in his novel “Designated Targets” after her, though Klausner failed to disclose this fact when she reviewed the book.
Romance novelist Elizabeth Delisi, whose books received blurbable accolades from Klausner, praised her critiques.
“Harriet was a wonderful reviewer, whose support of new authors gave many of them the hope to keep on writing. She will be sorely missed,” Delisi said in an online condolence book.
Sara Nelson, the editorial director of Amazon.com and a contributor to the blog Omnivoracious, described Klausner as the “best kind of reader.”
“It’s no surprise that she had major credibility with Amazon readers and book lovers; her reviews garnered more than 119,000 ‘helpful’ votes over the years,” Nelson noted. “In other words, people counted on her thoughts.”
Klausner also had countless vocal detractors. Many people posted complaints on her reviews claiming she was a fraud; they simply didn’t believe she could possibly read so many books. Others accused her of being a collective of reviewers all writing under the same moniker in order to achieve fame and receive free copies of books.
Some readers disliked the style of her reviews, which frequently just summarized the story with a bit of positive opinion at the end. Some took issue with the fact that she gave so many four- or five-star ratings. And then there were those who groused that Klausner didn’t disclose the fact that she received thousands of books, including not-for-sale advanced review copies, from publishers.
In profiles and interviews, Klausner addressed a few of these issues. On Books ‘N’ Bytes, she scoffed at the fraud claims, describing herself as a “hyper-speed-reader.” She told The New York Times that she was able to get through so many novels because many weren’t very long.
“You ever read a Harlequin romance?” she asked. “You can finish it in one hour.”
Klausner also defended her decision to avoid writing negative reviews by declaring herself a member of the “if you don’t have anything nice to write, don’t write anything at all” school of literary criticism. If, after 50 pages, a book didn’t capture her interest, she’d just cast it aside and move on to another.
“I have one basic criterion: A book should entertain me and take me away from the rest of the world,” she told the Wall Street Journal.
To the rest of her detractors, Klausner’s response was simple and pointed: “Get a life. Read a book.”
Klausner died on Oct. 15. Cause of death was not released. She was 63. When describing how she’d like to be remembered, Klausner said her husband Stan had already devised the perfect epitaph: “Give me literature or give me death.”