Academic book reviews are tricky things. Authors – or this author, at least – are nervous about how their work will be reviewed. For those writing the reviews: it’s hard work, and reviews aren’t especially valued by the profession. Young scholars are advised, correctly I think, to avoid writing reviews for precisely these reasons. People can also be sensitive – a friend of mine got a nasty e-mail from an author for writing what seemed to me a totally reasonable book review – and so there can be a real downside to writing reviews, especially critical ones.
Because I’m not very smart, I’ve written 14 book reviews, 11 pre-tenure. I can’t say that any of the reviews was worth the time they took, and a lot of them caused a fair bit of heartache. I’m by nature a super-, even hyper-, critical person, but I also don’t want to write a book review that’s so critical that it moves into the territory of being mean-spirited. I’ve probably failed at striking a good balance, but it’s not for lack of trying. My process is usually to write a first draft that has everything that I really want to say, and then I edit out the unnecessary and petty crap over and over again until I have a review that I’m okay with: neither too critical, nor unrepresentative of my feelings about the book. That’s the idea, anyway; I’ve never been really happy with the results. I’m almost always worried about how my reviews will be received. As the result of one particularly difficult review, I’ve tried to write many fewer reviews, but inevitably I get roped into one every now and again, at which point I remember why I tried to stop writing them.
One might ask, then, why bother to publish book reviews at all? We could just publish short summaries. But good, critical reviews are incredibly useful. A take-down of a particularly bad book provides a useful corrective, and sometimes a review can lead to a useful back-and-forth that articulates important critical differences in the field, but the book review that takes a step back to consider the broader intellectual landscape is especially useful. For example, John Cherry’s review of the Berbati-Limnes survey in 1998 ends with a comment that the northeastern Peloponnese was so heavily surveyed that “we may finally have reached the stage where it is feasible to attempt synthesis and comparison on a scale much larger than that of any individual survey, throwing into sharper relief the distinctive patterns and rhythms of change in particular regions, and the factors that may ultimately help us explain them,” a call (repeated from an earlier article of his, to be sure) that has inspired an awful lot of good research and more surveys in the area.
Reviews can be especially toxic, though, when they’re uncharitable, when senior scholars attack young scholars, and when they’re used to settle scores. Once I got very annoyed when an established scholar wrote a review of a book to which I (then pre-tenure) contributed a chapter; he had also been, I am 99.99% sure, one of the reviewers of the book’s manuscript when it was submitted to the press. His review of my chapter was wrong-headed (it was the kind of review that was annoyed that I had written an article about A in B instead of what he would have written about, X in Y), and he repeated some of his dumb comments in the review. (Incidentally, is it kosher to review a book whose manuscript you reviewed?) I recently got all agitated when a book written by a friend of mine – his first book – was reviewed uncharitably, again by a senior scholar. You can read some of my thoughts on Twitter. I won’t repeat them here, except that what I found upsetting about the review was (1) that it didn’t seem to even try to understand the context of the book on its own terms, (2) didn’t (try to) understand the actual arguments of the book, (3) didn’t understand basic facts (e.g., about the Greek language) and (4) was written by a senior scholar who was attacking a younger scholar’s work. It’s hard to read a review like this and think that something else isn’t going on. What I suspect is going on is, at least in part, this: Some institutions are full of people who see themselves as gate-keepers, but their gate-keeping activity seems mostly to take the form of attacking (in print and elsewhere) any young scholar whose work doesn’t conform to their extremely narrow and out-dated definition of what’s acceptable scholarship.