It was my first week in an academic position and a colleague decided we should head to the bar for a celebratory drink. As we entered, he made an offhand remark about the scholarship of another new hire. I surprised myself by answering: “I’m tired of people slagging other people’s scholarship just because it doesn’t conform to their theoretical preoccupations.” We ordered drinks, and as my new acquaintance’s attention was claimed by undergraduates, I pondered my need to better self-edit—but also my complete lack of regret for what I had said.
Until that moment I’d never put that simmering frustration into words. But, as a principle, “don’t dismiss the work of others because it doesn’t reflect your interests” is something I’ve come to realize is fundamental to academics. It’s not just that we work in departments with those whose scholarship might be radically different from ours. Rather, as academics, we are rooted in the practices of constructively reading and reviewing the work of others, whether as supervisors, members of writing groups, peer reviewers for a journal or academic press, or book reviewers for academic journals.
After years as book review editor of an academic journal, I can attest that finding reviewers who will read books generously, thoughtfully, and with an understanding of the field can be challenging. Several editors I know have commented on the problem of the (disproportionately junior) reviewer who eviscerates a book as a means of showcasing their own critical acumen. Most often such a reviewer takes issue less with the work on its terms, than with how it doesn’t reproduce their own scholarly orientation. In the end, such a review tells you more about the reviewer than the book. In part, this is the failing of academics: we don’t always do a great job talking about producing academic book reviews. In that vein, if I had one piece of advice for new reviewers it would be: don’t dismiss the work of others because it doesn’t reflect your interests.
For those who are embarking on reviewing, think about what makes book reviews useful. At a basic level, we all want to know: what will I get from reading this book? What is it about? Following that, what is the argument, how is it constructed, what are its implications? Before picking apart a book for its weaknesses, first consider: what are the book’s strengths? I have bought books I suspected weren’t as solid, because they addressed matters or events I wanted to know more about. When you do contemplate a discussion of potential weaknesses, reflect: are they substantive or minor, and will devoting a significant portion of the review to them make you look petty?
Perversely, some people presume you have to say something explicitly negative in order for the positive things you say to be judged objective. I have a former colleague who believes this about letters of reference for undergraduate students as well as PhDs on the job market. Let me be clear: this is bad advice for writers of letters of reference and it is bad advice for writers of academic book reviews. If you think there is a glaring weakness that deserves to be addressed, do not go for the jugular or release your inner snark: depending on the concern, either state it clearly, or find a way to signal it to your reader. For instance, the statement “the author is less concerned with the scholarly revelations of the last twenty years, instead focusing on the close reading of variations between the first and second editions” can convey volumes in the right context.
For those embarking on their first academic book review—or even those squeezing in a review and needing to organize their ideas—here are a list of questions to consider. A good book review need not address all of these or even the majority; but the attentive reading required to produce a decent review does mean that the reviewer should have a handle on them. Remember: in the end, a good academic review in a scholarly journal doesn’t summarize, it considers; it doesn’t eviscerate, it responds. If you have doubts about your approach—even if you don’t—consult a few issues of the journal you are writing for, and ensure you are matching their goals.
- What is the book about? Does it cover an area that has been neglected?
- What is the author’s theoretical and/or methodological framework?
- Does the author introduce a new framework or perspective?
- How does the author engage previous scholarship? Is the book indebted to particular authors, works, or trends?
- Is the research and approach suitable given the subject?
- Does the author mine neglected or underutilized sources?
- Is scholarship or insight produced by other disciplines utilized? If so, how, and is it successful?
- Is the research current?
- What does the book add to the existing scholarly conversation?
- Is it successful? Does it do what it sets out to do?
- Are there potentially controversial moves? Is it provocative?
- Is this work timely in relation to the field and/or current events?
- Does it lay the groundwork for future scholarship? How?
- Is there something in the book that brought you joy? Or that you wanted to emulate in your own scholarship? Or made you see something differently?
- Is the structure logical? Stylistically, does it flow? Is the language appropriate?
- Are there useful appendices, images, or visual aids?
- Who would be interested in the scholarship or find it useful? Disciplinary specialists? Armchair scholars? Local history societies? Literary groups? Fan communities?
- Is it teachable? Are there portions that would be useful readings in courses? Would graduate students benefit from reading it?
- Does it feel as if it will stand up?
- Can you think of one thing that might have substantially strengthened the work?
Image credit: Ten Academic Books that Changed the World