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Book Reviewing: The Basics by Katie Faulkner
Image c/o Eric Lanke

Image c/o Eric Lanke

Todays post, written by Katie Faulkner is part of a short, multi-authored series of posts recently published on PhD2Published, all about book reviewing as academic publishing. Katie is a doctoral researcher and visiting lecturer at the Courtauld Institute of Art. She is also editor-in-chief of the Courtauld postgraduate journal immediations and Tweets as @katierosemary12

At the outset of our academic careers it can be so very gratifying when you realize you are now considered smart enough to review the work of your fellow researchers. Not to mention the joy of receiving a free book. Books for free are up there with complimentary conference lunches that involve chocolate brownies as far as I am concerned.

But reviewing books takes time, and tempting as it may be to imagine yourself as your favoured food critic writing a searing attack on your local branch of Nandos, a hostile or undiplomatic review could be potentially embarrassing. So before you eagerly sacrifice your precious Sunday to reading a book cover to cover, ask yourself the following questions:

What is in it for me?

  • Did I mention the free book? If there’s a book you want but can’t afford, it is worth seeing if you can review it for a journal. Look on the website of your chosen journal for contact details of their reviews editors.
  • A book review counts as a publication. It may not be peer reviewed, but a book review in a well-respected journal is a great advert for your knowledge of, and critical skills in your field.
  • How often do we study a book from start to finish? Writing a review gives you an opportunity to gain a really deep insight into the methodologies the author has used, how they have structured the narrative of their research and how they deal with the problems thrown up by their data and approach. Flexing your critical muscles is really helpful for thinking about your own writing, especially if you are working on a book or book proposal of your own.
  • Book reviews are meant to be succinct. They usually have a word count of anything between 300 to 2000 words, often without footnotes. If done well, writing a review is excellent practice in communicating complex ideas in relatively few words.

What is in it for the reader?

  • Why do people read book reviews? Usually, simply to work out if they need or want to read this book.
  • In mainstream publishing, the rise of social media, blogging and online magazines has diluted the power of the traditional literary critic writing for print journalism. Potentially, everyone is a critic. But as plenty of critics and authors point out, reviews from a trusted source are still valuable indicators of credibility and quality. In academic publishing, where success is reliant on the approval of your peers, the book review surely still has an important and useful place.
  • Bearing in mind that readers of your review will be looking for a fair and balanced assessment of the book in question, there are several necessary elements to every review piece:
    • A summary of the key argument of the book and the evidence used to support this.
    • A discussion of the author’s methodological framework and how this relates to the work of other scholars working in the same field.
    • The identification of any gaps, omissions or problematic areas in the gathering of data and subsequent analysis. How might it have been possible to interpret this information differently?
    • How does the book fit in with other research in the same field?
    • Who will find this book useful? Is it aimed at a specific audience or is it of more general interest.

What is in it for the author and/or the publisher?

  • There’s no such thing as a free book (I lied). In return for the shiny new tome on your bookshelf the publisher is hoping your review will drive sales of the book. By participating in the reviewing process, you are effectively implicated in the marketing of this book. This is probably fine if you think the book is great, but might niggle at your conscience if it is bad book.
  • If the author sees your review, they will know that at least one person has read their precious research with the attention it deserves. Choose your words carefully; remember how personally you can take criticism of your own work. Be rigorous, but don’t be personal or petty.

Want to know more? Check out the other two posts in the series by Laura Pasquini and Raphael Susewind.

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.