Several years ago I had the good fortune to sit next to a famous author who had been several times on the New York Times bestseller list while on an airplane. After a while we struck up a conversation that included advice about writing. I asked him if he ever wrote book reviews. He replied, “No, book reviews are for people who don’t know how to write. I choose to write books that are significant.”
With that in mind, and as the editor of a journal, I am forced to ask myself what is the value of the book review? I expected this panel to be a rather dour gathering, but as it turned out I was surprised at how optimistic they were as a group about the importance and future of the book review.
According to this group of experts book reviews are especially valuable as books proliferate. How does one triage so much reading material so that you can get to the best research in your discipline? Book reviews are a way to stay current in the field, identifying key trends, and debating significant ideas. It allows an author to get their ideas out there and to let other scholars in the field respond to their ideas.
What does a book review look like?
Book reviews vary in length depending on their context. Most academic reviews, panelists generally agreed, were not to be more than 700 words. Authors should be expected to receive a book and produce a review with three months, but sometimes it is worth waiting for a major scholar to take a little bit longer if the review is deemed significant enough.
One of the dangers of book reviews, according to the panelists, was that people tend to fall into the rut of simply summarizing a book as if that is a book review. In fact this is perhaps the worst kind of review. The best kind of reviews, instead, encapsulate the key arguments and then respond to them. Good reviews use critical thinking and do more than say nice things: they honestly evaluate a book pointing out its flaws, weaknesses, and challenge the author. In rare cases, this may mean pointing out shoddy or faulty research. Of course reviewers should not go out of their way to be mean. Obviously a top notch book review should maintain a professional tone.