In general, academic book reviews are derivative works with a utilitarian purpose. They’re supposed to summarize scholarly books’ contributions, evaluate their worth, and situate them within a broader academic landscape. They can weigh heavily on tenure committees, depending on the discipline. And they consume a significant share of journals’ page counts. In its December 2020 issue alone, Perspectives on Politics, the journal that carries book reviews for the American Political Science Association, published over 80 reviews (not counting review essays, symposia, or author-meets-critics dialogues).
Given the amount of scholarly attention, resources, and energy that reviews command, it’s worth asking if they’re worth it. Looking at the state of academic book reviewing, it’s possible, even probable, that we should jettison such reviews in favor of other ways of linking books back to the scholarly conversation.
The target of my criticism is the standard book review: the standalone, capsule review of a scholarly volume published in an academic journal running about 500 to 1,000 words. That’s different from a “review essay,” which can run to thousands of words and cover one, two, or many books, or a review symposium, in which several authors discuss a single book. It’s also a form apart from the sorts of reviews for general audiences one encounters in major newspapers and magazines or in dedicated periodicals like The New York Review of Books.
I’m talking about the plain old academic book review, the kind that clogs up Google Scholar searches for book titles, the formulaic pieces with beats more predictable than a Hallmark movie. It’s a genre so disdained in some circles that Inside Higher Education once published an essay defending the idea that doctoral students should invest time in writing them.
For starters, these reviews are ferociously dull. As an experiment, I skimmed review after review in Perspectives and came away with the sort of boredom that I’ve previously only associated with childhood attempts to read the dictionary. And yet champions of the academic book review defend the genre’s lack of zazz as evidence of its seriousness. Even professors like me who (in nonpandemic times, at least) work in 1960s cinder-block dumps rather than ivory towers sometimes flatter ourselves that our thoughtful intellectual engagement supersedes any need for flashy writing. Perhaps our reviews do not have to resort to such vulgar tactics, and, after all, everyone hates a showoff. Perhaps the dullness is the point.
If we’re using book reviews as evaluation tools, we’re employing a Lake Wobegon scale in which every scholar is brilliant and every book is above average.
That, at least, would seem to be the justification for why many disciplines continue to rely on these reviews as a standard unit of academic output. But look closer and the book review’s tide of tedium seems neither preordained nor beneficial.
After all, when they set their minds to it, academics can display the same jugular-slashing talents that elevate literary book-review feuds to legendary status. A Nina Strohminger review of a Colin McGinn work begins: “In disgust research, there is shit, and then there is bullshit. McGinn’s (2011) theory belongs to the latter category.” (Later, equally memorably: “In pursuit of a grand unifying theory, Freud saw phalluses everywhere; McGinn (2011) sees only crap.”)
Back in 2002, the sociologist Loïc Wacquant filleted three books at once by employing a combination of the backhanded compliment — these books “would have greatly advanced our knowledge — of urban marginality and racial division” — with a forehanded thrust:
All three authors put forth truncated and distorted accounts of their object due to their abiding wish to articulate and even celebrate the fundamental goodness — honesty, decency, frugality — of America’s urban poor.
And there’s David Correia’s immortal “F**k Jared Diamond,” a 2013 review of the UCLA scientist’s The World Until Yesterday. A sample: “He disguises the racism of his biological and environmental determinism in a Kiplingesque narrative that seems downright thoughtful and caring.”
Yet the talent for invective that bursts through in these examples is like the brightness of stars against the infinite void of space. They are the exceptions that prove the rule. Rather like letters of recommendation, book reviews have been debased as an inflation of puffery has crowded out all but the softest variations in praise.
As I read through the scores of reviews in Perspectives, I learned that almost every book reviewed in that journal issue was groundbreaking, meticulous, original, and merited serious scholarly consideration. When the reviewers disagreed with their texts, they did so in the kindest way, perhaps by mentioning that they believed that the author over- or underemphasized some condition or by suggesting that there were certain limits to their conclusions. At times, reviewers simply gave up, as with the reviewer who wrote: “The conventions of book reviewing require that the reviewer identify some problems with the text. I must admit that I am somewhat hard pressed to do so.”
I read through a dozen or so reviews in Perspectives before I found a review that I could judge to be, on the whole, critical. Even there, the fatal blow landed softly: “Scholars already familiar with the scholarship cited in the text will likely get the most out of [the] contribution, and graduate students will also find the synthesis of material useful and noteworthy.”
The monotony of complimentary reviews steadily fed my cynicism, as it should feed yours. Sure, books that are published by major scholarly presses have been subjected to quality control via peer review. But another more sinister explanation for the overwhelming blandness and positivity of the standard academic book reviews stands out: careerism. Why publicly attack someone when they may be on your next hiring committee, or asking difficult questions of your next conference paper?
It becomes clear that scholars are censoring their true feelings in book reviews when you consider peer review. The pools of book reviewers and of journal-article reviewers overlap quite a bit, and, unless journal editors have been conspiring against me, peer review is never particularly generous or understanding. In some ways, the distance between the gentleness of book reviews and the harshness of peer review is understandable. Peer review is anonymous; book reviews aren’t. Peer review determines what gets published; book reviews don’t.
Yet factors like those make clear that if we’re using book reviews as evaluation tools, we’re employing a Lake Wobegon scale in which every scholar is brilliant and every book is above average. If the basis of scholarly progress is critical engagement with intellectual arguments, then we would be better served by more critical reviews.
It wouldn’t matter so much if the reviews that arrived so late were thoughtful, deep engagements with the text. Yet the genre’s strict format limits the depth even the most careful reviewer can provide. When book reviews receive extra length they can take on more ambitious terrain and thus justify the additional space they take up.
Arthur Goldberger and Charles Manski’s 1995 review of The Bell Curve in the Journal of Economic Literature, for example, runs to 15 pages. Goldberger and Manski provide an accessible and devastating account of the methods and data in the book, which predicts that cognitive stratification shaped by hereditary ethnic differences in intelligence that cannot be fixed by policy interventions will produce a dystopian society.
Limiting them to 750 words would have been not only harmful to their argument but, by blunting its force and making it harder to contain the book’s damage, to society. Not every book can receive that treatment. But we also shouldn’t reserve that treatment for, well, The Bell Curve.
Book reviews aren’t completely useless. I accept that providing an overview of a book’s argument can prove useful for graduate students cramming for comps or researchers deciding what texts to consult next. But this is not enough of a return to justify the investment of scholarly resources that go into the process. We can do better. Other models can provide most of the benefits of reviewing with fewer drawbacks.
Consider The New Rambler, an online review journal. It publishes timely, serious, and lengthy reviews of new books in history and related subjects, as does the more venerable H-Net . Both venues offer the incomparable advantage of not being behind paywalls, allowing for book reviews to become part of the scholarly conversation more quickly.
Journals could convert the pages they spend on capsule book reviews into publishing more long review essays. Gathering together multiple books or spending more time engaging with a single volume would be more useful for the field than another dozen short reviews praising ordinary books as groundbreaking. Standard reviews could be moved to review websites hosted by scholarly associations, if there’s still a need for them.
Opening up the capsule book review to longer and more extensive works would benefit scholars. It’s easier to find ways to productively criticize a book in 1,500 words than in 500. When I asked academic Twitter for help in identifying the most legendary book reviews in their fields (from which I’ve drawn several of these examples), almost all of the responses were from negative reviews that were far longer than standard book-review length. In my own experience as a reviewer, it’s been much more productive to address several related books at once or to engage at length with a single argument than to try to fit summary, context, and critique into a paragraph or two apiece.
These changes would probably not make academic book reviewing substantially meaner, but they would at least allow for reviews to be completed in colors other than muted pastels. By making reviews more accessible, they might even help boost sales. And, most important, they would help reviewing live up to the role that disciplines have assumed it was playing all along.