Whither the Book Review

The first volume of Preternature just arrived in my mailbox. And while I am looking forward to reading the articles, I started as I always do by first turning to the book reviews.

Many years ago a mentor convinced me that one of the most important reason to look at journals in the field was to read the book reviews. When a new journal arrives, I survey the books reviewed and mark up the table of contents indicating which reviews I want to read, which I’ve read, and whether or not I should read the book. I find well written and thoughtful reviews helpful. Cursory, celebratory, or vindictive reviews are not too useful.

I like book reviews and think they can and should serve a real function in a broader scholarly conversation. At a minimum, they can introduce scholars to the breadth of work in their own and closely related fields. They can indicate broader trends in research. When done well, a book review, usually an essay review, can be insightful, suggestive, and generative.

But the scholarly book review seems to be losing traction. Whereas websites that post book reviews seem to be proliferating, think Goodreads or the customer reviews at Amazon, scholarly journals are apparently less inclined to commit the resources and space to publishing book reviews. Scholars are often reluctant to take on the burden of reviewing a book, which is always time consuming and can be difficult.

In “The Book Review Strikes Back,” Notorious Ph.D. makes a good case for not reviewing books, or at least not until a certain point in your career. In her case, that point seems to have come when she was confident in her own expertise and when she had finished her own book. Even at that point, she finds “it’s a lot easier to write a review of a really excellent book” than a less than excellent book. Notorious Ph.D. points out the challenge when reviewing a book, good or bad: how to balance the “professional mandate to write a review that [is] honest about the book’s strengths and weaknesses with a personal desire to be … nice.” Nice here, I think, means professional and respectful. You have to confront that challenge when reviewing any book, good or bad, but I think it is particularly acute when reviewing a book you don’t find compelling and well constructed.

It is that challenge that most people seem to address by summarizing the book rather than reviewing the book. In her recent post, “The Endangered Scholarly Book Review,” Lynn Worsham refers to fellow editors who have become increasingly “frustrated hat too many reviews were simple summaries with little actual “reviewing”—that is, thoughtful engagement with, and critical evaluation of, the book’s project.” Further, because writing a book review accrues little academic capital, it is difficult to find people who are willing to expend the time and energy.

Heinrich Kuhn reflects on the uselessness of contemporary book reviews.

These concerns echo something Heinrich Kuhn mentioned recently on Twitter. Like some of Worsham’s colleagues, Kuhn thinks the scholarly review is dying. He laments that today specialists don’t actually review books and non-specialists aren’t qualified to review many of the books they are asked to review. Consequently, he says, a TOC and bibliography are more useful than a superficial and poorly written review.

A good book review takes time, effort, careful reading and analysis, and thought. It also takes a level of intellectual courtesy that can be difficult to muster or balance with criticism. I have reflected elsewhere on what makes a good book review—see Musing on Book Reviews. And the work is rarely compensated in any way, either by the journals asking scholars to review books or scholars’ home institutions that don’t recognize a review as a scholarly production.

All this leads me to wonder if the book review is worth saving or if we should just let it die a quiet death, to be replaced by “customer reviews” at Amazon. Do scholars still read book reviews? Can book reviews be revived so that the once again place a role in scholarly conversations?