Reviewing Scholarly Books

I write a lot of book reviews. (In fact, I’m overdue for one now.) And I just finished copy-editing 23 reviews gathered for the Journal Which Shall Remain Nameless— let me in passing thank the book review editors who recruited the reviewers and kept after them to submit their copy. The two-day bulimic transit through 23 reviews, from 6 to 8 pages in length apiece, has prepared me to discourse to you on the state of the art, which is, on this showing, fairly dismal. What do I like and dislike in a book review? How can I persuade folks to write more intriguing and insightful reviews? It’s not that hard.

Cardinal rule no. 1: Ink is frightfully expensive. Don’t waste it. All right, you know that’s not true; ink is cheap and they’re practically giving away pixels at the moment, but for the person who wants to use either substance well, they’re best treated like gold dust or the finest cocaine. Your reader is probably, like most academics, a slave to duty, but that doesn’t give you a license to waste time. If the book review carries a header saying, for example,

Théodule-Mongin Pfeffernuss, A Comprehensive Catalogue of Gallo-Roman Fibulae Discovered in the Drain of the Caldarium at Aix-la-Chapelle. Leiden: Brill, 2013. Pp. xxi + 430. $1,375.00 (hardback).

then you don’t need to begin your review by saying, “A Comprehensive Catalogue of Gallo-Roman Fibulae Discovered in the Drain of the Caldarium at Aix-la-Chapelle by Théodule-Mongin Pfeffernuss, recently published by Brill, is one of the most interesting works recently published about Gallo-Roman fibulae.” I weep stony tears of disappointment as I line-out such idiocy. Either the reviewer thinks that no reader of the journal is intelligent enough to figure out that the review concerns a book called… (all right, you heard it) without being reminded, or the reviewer is worried that the review will be too short and is desperately cramming in filler. In either case, the motive is base and the reader feels the disrespect.

Cardinal rule no. 2: Write as if your job were to persuade, not to cajole. Don’t begin by telling me, “This brilliant, well-researched, visually striking book by the dashing coprolithologist So-and-So…” Rather, describe it a bit and help me figure out for myself if I will apply such broad adjectives of approval. “Containing more than 500 color pictures of coproliths of various periods from the rarely seen collections of the Dowager Duchess of Artesia and a seventy-page bibliography, this book, printed on fragrant stock with hand-cut Garamond type, offers wry insights into the collector’s obsession as well as personal narratives of hair’s-breadth air-balloon escapes from vengeful peasant mobs.” Front-loading flattery into the very mention of the book makes it sound as if you still owe the author twenty dollars from that time in Woonsocket.

C.R. no. 3: Remember that people who are even faintly interested in a book can call up an image of its table of contents from Amazon or the publisher in a matter of seconds. It is lazy and (once more) faintly injurious to inventory the chapter contents one after another. Fluff and stuffing, say I, and out it goes!

C.R. no. 4: You are the boss of the book review. You are allowed to have an opinion. I am allowed to think you are a jerk, but I’ll wait my turn for that. Meanwhile, you need to tell me what you think, including whether you think the author should have written a different sort of book. I’ve seen authors respond to my less than enthusiastic reviews with the charge that a reviewer’s task is to report on the book that was written, not the book that was not. I say that your task as reviewer is to describe the book that was written and hold it up to a model for the sake of contrast– this model being either an existing book that is better or worse, or a book that doesn’t yet exist, but which the present book, with all its failings, has led you to imagine. Of such contrasts is judgment made. And don’t worry that people won’t think you are nice. Sheer platitude that is inserted with the aim of sweetening up a review reeks of aspartame. “… makes a significant contribution to the field, and should be required reading for all specialists in…” In other words: it’s a book that is at least a little better than nothing, and if you want to know more, you should read it. Please, spare me such automatic “likes.”

Having enunciated the cardinal rules, the Shalt-Nots, now let me tell you the kind of thing I positively like. Millions will disagree, and it may be inviting disaster to say so, but I’ve always felt that the book reviews of Paul de Man were exemplary. They’re exemplary because they’re weird. (The disaster I fear would be that of people with less talent trying to be weird when they would do better just to be banal, but briefer at it.) De Man was always pushing his own stuff– “pushing” in the sense of trying to sell his views of what mattered in literature and interpretation, but also “pushing” in the sense of trying to go forward. I think de Man learned this trick from Walter Benjamin. A review was a chance to explore a problem that had been bothering him and that he saw reflected somehow in the work under review. It wasn’t an answer to the question, “So should I buy it or not?” Often this problem was negligible as a fraction of the expressed or intentional content of the book, and de Man’s attention to it was therefore a distortion, but because he had an interesting mind, it was worth following him as long as you didn’t think you were getting a reduced model of the work under review. Consider the reviews of Riffaterre, Jauss, or Barthes (reprinted in de Man’s posthumous collections). The review would start out pleasantly enough, with some general remarks and a statement of what the book was about, but usually by the bottom of the third paragraph an example would start to run away with the show. Some incidental remark made by the author, seized on by de Man, would be exploited in a Paul-knows-best style as the unacknowledged founding proposition of the whole work and open a new topic, which would lead on to a second one, and so on. This resulted in reviews that were not usually “reliable” in the sense that they could substitute for actual reading of the book. But they showed you what had happened when that book came into contact with a certain kind of mind. And the evasion of the tasks of enumeration, bibliography, summary, evaluation was done with style, indeed as style.

Style! That’s what I ask for in a book review. Be critical of yourself as you perform your acts of style, don’t deliver something conformist or unobjectionable, or if you find yourself doing so, abbreviate, abbreviate radically.

And what about the reviews I copy-edited this week? Comme ci, comme ça. But now that I’ve laid down the law, at least nobody will have any excuse.

3 thoughts on “Reviewing Scholarly Books

  1. I always appreciate book reviews that starts with an assessment on the book’s contribution to the field followed by a critique of the materials, evidence, and methodology (the bulk of the review) and ends with what could have been done differently (max length 1 paragraph).
    Your way of writing reviews is more like writing critical essays or weekly responses written for a course on a book that everybody has read, NOT for the newly published ones.
    But now that you’ve laid out the ground rules, I can see why some book reviews totally lost me.

  2. Word to the wise: “Remember that people who are even faintly interested in a book can call up an image of its table of contents from Amazon or the publisher in a matter of seconds.”

  3. I also write a lot of book reviews, even, if I’m not mistaken, for the “Journal Which Shall Remain Nameless.” My take on the academic book review is that it’s like a form poem, which is to say that its success or failure depends on the writer’s engagement with or rejection of the ideals of the form (and in a form poem, rejection is a form of engagement). My guess is that if everyone broke from the formal requirements like Paul de Man, even Paul de Man’s reviews would end up being less compelling (I can think of some reviews I’ve read that wandered off so much it made me wonder if the reviewer had read the book, or wasn’t afraid of saying what she or he really thought of the book in question).

    It’s certainly true that anyone can call up the table of contents of a given book, but the table of contents doesn’t necessarily offer any details of the thread of the argument–and that’s what, as a reader, I’m interested in most. I don’t read academic reviews to see if I’m going to buy a book, but rather to look for insight into the argument of a book I either will read or have read in whole or in part, to see how the reviewer’s ideas on the book and the topic in question triangulate with those of the book’s authors and my own. Academic books often offer intricate, complicated arguments, and often offer a lot of disjointed nonsense; while it may be “injurious to inventory the chapter contents one after another” without offering any context or evaluation, it may also be injurious not to inventory the contents of the argument, explaining or critiquing in the process the way it works or doesn’t.

    I’m not sure if this is what you meant or not by “inventory[ing] the chapter contents,” but at any rate, I see this as one of the benefits of the form of the academic book review.


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