Writing book reviews is neither particularly fashionable in academia nor rewarded by the current bureaucratic arbiters of research performance. Yet I believe it is still worthwhile.
These days we are rewarded much more for speaking and writing than for listening and careful reading. A certain amount of listening and reading is necessary for fruitful writing, but the value of listening and careful reading goes beyond that.
Good book reviews epitomise the process of careful reading, and there are several reasons why we should value them:
- Book reviews discipline us in the habit of careful reading, and in generous but critical engagement with the work of others.
- Book reviews honour good writing, and good writers.
- Book reviews help weed out bad writing.
- Book reviews sustain the culture of critical conversation in academia.
- Book reviews are actually read, often the most read parts of our academic journals.
However, book reviews do not always contribute to these values. Some common vices that can defeat these values include:
- Not actually reading the book. Despite the contention of the Frenchman Pierre Bayard (2007) that reading the book dampens his reviewing creativity, reviews are usually better if one has taken the time to actually read the book under review. Bayard is of course right that academic cannot possibly have read all the books they implicitly claim to have read through citing them.
- Conflicts of interest. Academia is incestuous, and a review by an acolyte of the author is seldom enlightening, nor is a review by an enemy who has an interest in denigrating the book. Though I admit that some of the most entertaining book reviews I have read have been unrelenting hatchet jobs.
- Failure to contextualise the book. A reviewer owes the reader a sense of where the book fits in the academic landscape and comparisons with other recent books in the field.
- Tedium. Plodding chapter by chapter summaries of a book may sometimes be useful to others who wish to comment on or cite a book without reading it, such reviews don’t serve the values above.
- Failure to offer a robust evaluation of the book. The reader deserves an answer to the question of whether they should bother read the book, or perhaps even buy it. This should not be mere opinion, but an assessment that follows from the body of the review.
- Using the review as a way of promoting ones own work.
Writing good reviews is a discipline that will bear fruit in our own writing, and even we are not writing in the area it will nourish the academic soul.
Bayard, Pierre (2007). How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read, Bloomsbury.
Kelsky, Karen (2014). “How to Write an Honest but Collegial Book Review” Chronicle of Higher Education August 11.
Obeng-Odoom, Franklin (2014. “Why Write Book Reviews?” Australian Universities Review 56(1): 78-82.