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Book and Other Reviews by Raphael Susewind
Image c/o Eric Lanke


Image c/o Eric Lanke

is a political anthropologist at the Universities of Bielefeld and Oxford. He works on Muslim belonging, the ambivalence of the sacred and diplomatic culture in India – and blogs and tweets about these issues and academic life in general. Today’s post also gave him a good excuse to further delay his seventh book review

In her last post, Laura Pasquini suggested that publishing book reviews provides not only writing practice, but also improves one’s reading skills and habits. Today, I want to highlight one more synergy: book reviews prepare you for grading student papers (and probably also for other kinds of reviews) and vice versa. I learned this lesson when I recently had to write a stack of concise narrative evaluations of undergraduate disserations; the next book review flowed from my pen (well, keyboard) like a charm. Pleased about this, I discovered three similarities:

  • Firstly, as Laura emphasized, book reviews require analytical reading – and they are best if you are able to concentrate on one key point only (which should be the key argument, if present). The same holds for grading student papers: for speedy marking alone, you need to read analytically rather than sequentially – and students generally prefer one major and substantive suggestion for improvement over a heap of nitty-gritty details of what else could have been better, too. Though admittedly finding the key point in student papers can be harder than in a good monograph…
  • Secondly, and again going back to Laura, book reviewers should evaluate. There are good books, and there are not so good ones – your readers want to know your reasoned opinion. Likewise, lecturers have to decide in the end which mark to assign. If all book reviews and marking sheets screamed excellence, the whole point of the exercise were lost. Because they are rare, review editors in fact love differentiated evaluations (almost as much as submission on time); one even called me up to congratulate me for my balanced, but in the end negative review. My judgement balance now stands at two excellent, two good, one “ok” and one terrible book – which about reflects the state of publishing in my field.
  • Finally, book reviews and narrative evaluations of student papers (as well as other kinds of reviews) share the same basic structure: one introductory sentence, a weighted summary highlighing one particularly mentionable section or chapter, an evaluation of the key argument, a comment on style and presentation (only if particularly commendable or really dismal, in my opinion), and a final mark/recommendation. Practicing this structure in book reviews will make your grading more effective; and evaluating student work can improve your review style.

Importantly, the two formats have differences as well however. Above all, they are written with different audiences in mind: other readers in the case of book reviews, but authors in the case of student papers (or other kinds of reviews). This difference needs to show:

  • In book reviews, your suggestions on how to improve should preferably target the field at large, not the specific work under review. The book has been published and cannot be changed anymore: it is as good as it is. If it isn’t good, it is sufficient to point out why; you need not make the author suffer by demonstrating that you could do better within your 800 word review. But more can always be done by others, and lessons can be learned by the whole discipline. Focus on these. In contrast to books, however, student papers can be resubmitted – and it is only the student him- or herself who hopefully learns a lesson. This should render different kinds of suggestions.
  • And book reviews are of course public, so being nasty or sloppy is not an option (and will most likely backfire, too). Oh wait – shouldn’t “being nice and careful” be an integral part of teaching, grading (and journal refereeing) as well, precedent notwithstanding? How could I forget…

Finally, there is a last similarity between book reviews and teaching: neither count for much on the academic career ladder. Which is another good reason to be rather efficient about them (and efficiency stems from practice, and from synergies such as the one pointed out above). But going back to Laura’s earlier post, both teaching and reading (and by extension book reviews) are also seedbeds for ideas: they may not count directly, but practicing them will ultimately help you achieve what counts.

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