Michael Gordin, an omnivorous historian of science at Princeton University, is known for many intellectual feats, among them the “Gordin method” of book reviewing. In its mythic telling, it goes something like this.
1. Morning: read the book.
2. Afternoon: write the review.
3. Send off to the journal editor before dinner!
(Gordin assures me that, in fact, it takes a lot longer to read the book.)
This post is intended for those of us who are not Michael Gordin: In particular, it is written for the promising undergraduate and graduate students contemplating trying their hand at academic publishing with a scholarly book review; if nothing else, it might also speak to the rest of us who think they can pull a Gordin but--let’s face it--cannot.
As it turns out, asymptotically few of us are Michael Gordin, but even that doesn’t make book reviewing into atomic rocket science (one of several subjects Gordin has written books on). So let me level with you. As a lowly assistant professor at a fine liberal-arts college in a flyover state, I am privy to no special insight into much of the academic profession. Vast swaths of the job market, publishing, university service, and other inner machinations of academe remain, happily I may add, an utter riddle to me. The scholarly enterprise of book reviewing, however, need be no great mystery. It might even be a bit of fun. As a genre of writing, it strikes me as one of the most learnable and manageable ways to break into scholarly publication. And while I cannot pretend to be a master of this fine art (more on the masters below the fold), I hazard here a couple demystifying how-to thoughts with the hopeful recognition that, like the board game Reversi, book reviewing might just take a minute to learn and a lifetime to master.
Why Book Reviews?
Book reviews, done well, help more than they hurt. In the pantheon of academic publications, book reviews are comparatively low stress and short. And by short, I mean short: sometimes no more than 500 words. If you’re lucky, the editor gives you 1,000 or 1,500 words, two or three single-spaced pages. There are so many books coming out every day, it is virtually impossible for the educated reader to single handedly sort what is worth reading from the rest. Book reviews help clarify an overstuffed book market for eager readers. Plus book reviewers help you, the reviewer, by publicly signaling the boundaries and strengths of your interests as a reader, writer, and researcher.
Now if you’re of well-mannered Midwestern stock, as many of my students are, your first temptation will probably be to write a positive, even glowing book review of a book you like: Stop right there. Don’t believe everything you think. As a rule, it is far better, and harder, to critically review a book you like than to gushingly affirm it. Push back with tact and care, but push back nonetheless. The history of Western thought could be read as ongoing parade of pushing back: Heraclitus managed to criticize most of his predecessors while still seeing the unity of experience. Thucydides made history by being the first to disagree with Herodotus, the first historian. Leibniz wrestled with Newton; Rousseau squared off against Hume; William James wrangled with Josiah Royce, his close friend; Sigmund Freud sparred with his closest colleague, Karl Jung; Edmund Wilson exchanged blows with Vladimir Nabokov; and John Searle did well to critically review Jacques Derrida. The trend continues today: in internet studies, Evgeny Morozov, whose reviews often court the fine line between knockabout funny and sophisticated trolling, has marched out his early career with a parade of ways to say no. These sparring matches entertain as well as inform; occasionally an editor will set up a back-and-forth dramatic dialogue between notable author and reviewer, the closest thing scholars have to a showdown at high noon or Bloggingheads.tv but at the patient pace of print.
For prospective graduate students, book reviews signal to graduate-school admission committees and future advisers your writing skills and interest areas. If you need more convincing, imagine this: In far less than 5,000 well-chosen words (no more than 1,500 words for each of three reviews), you could place three book reviews at three well-chosen journals at the cutting edge of your fields of interest, thereby showing (rather than telling) your choice of graduate-school admission boards one simple fact: You already know what you are doing. The easiest way to be accepted to do something--and in graduate school that is to read, write, and publish--is to have already have done that thing.
Should you become known for your book-reviewing skills, other perks may follow: Book presses often ship star book reviewers their recent books for free; reviewers can initiate the process by requesting “review copies” from presses, often delivered free of charge. It’s not just academics either: Dot, a real-life reader in Janice Radway’s classic Reading the Romance (review here), starts off as a bookseller and ends up influencing publishers with her established role as reviewer and recommender of romance novels.
There are caveats of course. One of the reasons book reviews are relatively low stress is because, at least among the academics I know, they do not count in the perverse calculus of academic publishing. Book reviews do not count as peer-reviewed refereed publications, and even at leading journals they often come under far less scrutiny than articles. In fact not all academic journals publish book reviews. No one to my knowledge has ever made tenure by writing book reviews alone; and pre-tenure faculty often avoid the book-review category for that reason. None of this, however, should be of any concern to aspiring students or the tenured classes. Carry on!
How to Review a Book in Five Steps
In five no-nonsense steps, (1) acquaint yourself with the genre, (2) choose a good book, (3) read the book while taking notes, (4) draft and revise the book review, and (5) send your final draft off to the editor of a journal.
1. Acquaint yourself with the genre.
Read a handful of academic book reviews (see the links below), and analyze them for the common features and attributes. Get a sense for what makes a book review solid, and what doesn’t. Take notes: What phrases work well, and how could your own voice improve them? Which statements are not helpful and to be avoided? How do reviewers pass judgement on the book? How can you tell when the reviewer is effectively petitioning to elect the book’s author for sainthood and when the reviewer thinks the author is a drooling idiot, without saying it outright? (And of course, doubt any reviewer too eager to praise or punish. No one believes a single five-star rating. Others can condescend and excoriate, while scholars trade in backscratches and pulled punches.) As you read, observe what kind of questions and larger contexts your review will need to address: no book review treats only the book it is reviewing. An adequate reviewer of, say, a scholarly work on Star Trek might note, for example, that Gene Roddenberry wrote westerns before he switched to science fiction, recoloring for the reader the credit shot at the end of every episode in which the Enterprise rides off into the sunset. And of course, never review a book by Harold Bloom without first knowing who Harold Bloom is.
2. Choose a good book.
In order to choose a good book, one needs to have a clear topic or question of interest. When in doubt, talk out and then correspond in writing about your questions with advisers, instructors, and editors. Chances are, once you have a topic, careful database searches and recommendation seeking will render a small stack of quality books to choose among. (Do not, I repeat, do not just take the first on-topic title you encounter on Google books.) When in doubt, choose a book that multiple trustworthy sources recommend.
A moment on mechanics: academic books come in several types. Arranged in decreasing order of prestige, there’s the usually single-authored monograph (a detailed book-length study of a specialized topic), the edited volume (wherein a few editors combine new chapters by separate scholars), and the topical reader (wherein a few editors combined excerpts from classics on a topic by separate scholar). I’ve reviewed all three types and in my experience, this is an easy one: stick to the monographs. Despite good faith efforts and supportive editors, I doubt I will ever feel satisfied with my (published) attempts to summarize or synthesize the dozens of articles in edited volumes. By contrast, monographs enjoy the latitude to luxuriate in their topic and argument. Reward yourself: review a good monograph! Or do better yet: review multiple monographs on a single conversation.
3. Read the book while taking notes.
Many good students are under the mistaken impression that reading is a linear pastime, and that, in order to read or review a book, they must start on page one, graze their eyes over every line until the last page--until at last they can close the book and be done. Boloney: a book is not a scroll. Don’t read it like one. There is of course much to be said in favor of sustained, absorbed reading (or at least something to say against its opposite: cf. Edward Tenner’s review of Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows and Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus), which every good book deserves. That said, a good book reviewer picks up a book and starts everywhere but the beginning. She scours the acknowledgements for name networks; she processes patterns and anomalies in the index and footnotes; she rummages for hints and highlights in the italicized parts, lists, and graphs; she leaps from introduction to conclusion, from the heading and closing of each chapter, from paragraph heading to example; and then she luxuriates in sustained reading of sections and chapters. Again, the smart reviewer also reads around the book, engaging the works, authors, and debates it responds to as part of the book’s larger conversation.
As for note-taking, C. Wright Mills’ appendix “On Intellectual Craftsmanship” to his classic 1959 The Sociological Imagination is my preferred guide: in a bumper-sticker, discipline your note taking creatively. Be sure to take notes in full sentences and paragraphs that include the original quote with page numbers. Conceptually, approach your subject as if you are mapping your next adventure on Google maps--zoom in on the minute details of personal lives, zoom out to observations on social structure and historical context, and play around as you find your best path forward. Take too many notes, and then be ready to set most of them aside.
4. Draft and revise the book review.
If you’re new at this, draft it as best you can with other exemplary book reviews near at hand. (That old saw comes to mind: “copy one source, and you’re a plagiarist; copy five, and you’re a student; copy fifty, and you’re a great scholar.”) There are many ways to review a book well, but all of them must do, according to Robert Pinsky’s delightful “How Not to Write a Book Review,” at least three things:
A. The review must tell what the book is about.
B. The review must tell what the book's author says about that thing the book is about.
C. The review must tell what the reviewer thinks about what the book's author says about that thing the book is about.
This list has the philosopher’s quality of being both plain and expansive. Cover it, the book’s evaluation of it, and your evaluation of their evaluation. An evaluation should work both with and against another position. A generous argument against a position should also improve that position. Close reading and selective quoting are two other musts. In revision, ask for comments from trusted advisers.
5. Send your book review off to a journal editor.
Email it off, together with a polite note inquiry after their interest, to a journal editor; check to see if the journal has a specific book review editors. Which journal to start with? If you’re an aspiring scholar, aim high at first, then work your way down the prestige hierarchy. Wash, rinse, and repeat as needed. When in doubt, and this one might as well be life philosophy, fail quickly and move on.
That’s it. Book reviewing is no mystical process. It is eminently doable. In the long-run, and with the benefit of the rhythms of experience and practice, step one will fade away, step two will solve itself, and steps three through five will become a pleasurable and streamlined pastime. In the not too distant future may we find ourselves practicing some version of the Gordin method without being Michael Gordin.
A few standard reviews of monographs (good for step one):
For Daniel Pope reviewing Michael Schudson’s Advertising, the Uneasy Persuasion: Its Dubious Impact on American Society, click here.
For Susan Douglas reviewing a book on female images on magazine covers, click here.
A few critical reviews (many of them written by then graduate students, flint for step four):
A couple of superior, genre-busting reviews:
Other useful links:
Robert Pinsky’s delightful "How Not to Write a Book Review"
Wendy Belcher’s substantial "Writing the Academic Book Review" (.pdf)
Academic Skills Center, Trent University, "Writing Academic Reviews"
Benjamin Peters, a media theorist and historian, is an assistant professor of communication at the University of Tulsa. He holds a Ph.D. from Columbia University and has held fellowships at Hebrew University, the Harriman Institute, and Yale Law School. More on his work, including his handful of published reviews, can be found here.