reviewing reviews

breaking news! I received my first invitation to review a book published just a few months ago by Cambridge University Press. As luck would have it, it’s a book I was dying to read the moment I saw it in the CUP bookstore (on one of my regular Forlornly Covet That Which Is Wildly Beyond Your Fiscal Means Sessions), and, joy of joys, they are sending me my own copy. While thrilled, though, I’m somewhat anxious. I’ve never really written a proper review, and I wondered if anyone of you much less fledgling folks out there might have any avuncular/matronly advice to offer. What makes a good review to you? who is a good reviewer, who are your favourites? what’s the best way to read a book you know you’ll have to review? what sort of balance is to be struck between the book under review and the history it discusses — how much do you assume the audience knows? &c.

For the record, and to share one of my favourites outside the discipline, Simon Blackburn’s reviews are excellent. Often masterfully droll. See in particular his utterly hysterical appraisal of Heidegger.

5 responses to “reviewing reviews

  • Tim

    Writing reviews is great. If you enjoy it, don’t bother waiting for an invitation: contact editors of journals you like about books you want (and want to write about).

    I like to (in no particular order) give a summary of the content, situate it with respect to trends in current scholarship, evaluate it (finding a mix of good and bad things), and add one or two “meta-” points, like how the book is edited or sequenced, presented, all that paratextual stuff.

    Speaking of paratexts, I wrote a review of a Gerard Genette book last year, which was titled Figures IV in French and retitled Essays in Aesthetics by the editor and translator. She also cut out essays on the grounds that they didn’t appeal to a non-French audience, but didn’t translate or explain a bunch of French titles and terms (and omitted some of Genette’s). She also displayed no self-consciousness that these paratextual changes changed the text at all — when Genette was the guy who advanced the idea of the paratext in the first place.

  • Eric T

    With regards to the question on how much you assume the audience knows, I think it really depends on which journal you publish in. For the most part I prefer to err on the side of caution and assume the audience knows less rather than more, unless the topic under review is really broad and general. You should bear in mind your limit too. If you have lots of words to play around with you can afford to sketch more of a historical background.

    As for reading for a review, I like making notes on stickies as I go through the book, noting down thoughts and page numbers as I read. When you finish, you can either work directly from the stickies in the book, or like I do, take them out and stick them up on a wall so you can actually see the way themes and ideas group together in front of you. Just make sure you’ve noted page numbers on each sticky! It’s a bit old school, but it works for me.

  • Aaron Pendell

    Cheers! Also, Eric T is spot on.

  • R J Keefe

    Unsympathetic reviews are never helpful to the ready. Bad reviews can be very funny, but they’re rarely informative. The better you understand what the writer set out to accomplish, and the more scrupulously you judge the book on that criterion alone, the better a reader will be able to judge the book’s interest for him- or herself.

    (I’ve been reviewing The New York Times Book Review for more than three years now and the foregoing distills what I have learned from the exercise.)

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