There has been something of a hiatus in my writing for this blog due to a number of external commitments. With the Summer months stretching before me, I hope to update the blog more frequently in future. One of my commitments which draws me away from updating this blog consists of book reviewing, which I do quite frequently. In some quarters, book reviewing seems to be looked down upon, for reasons which escape me. Sadly, the days when writers could make a decent living solely from reviewing are long since past. Nevertheless, I consider book reviewing to be a fundamental aspect of any scholar's life for a number of reasons. It is an excellent way to keep abreast of latest developments in the field and engage with new writers and new ideas. Reviewing also offers an opportunity to practice my own writing style. A well written review can reach an audience beyond an academic readership. It also provides a chance to identify which of the latest volumes might be worth ordering for the library!
I don't claim to have a vast amount of experience as a book reviewer. However, I write reviews on a monthly basis - as well as reading countless reviews each week. I feel that there are five rules which good reviewers should follow. As ever, your comments and suggestions would be greatly received.
Rule 1: Respect Your Responsibility
Reviewing a book is a serious business. It is important to remember that your review will have a direct impact on others. Your responsibility is to provide guidance to the reader about whether they should expend their time and money in acquiring and reading this book. As we are all aware, we live in difficult financial times. Most hardback non-fiction seems to be retailing at around £20-25 at the moment. Volumes from academic presses retail for a far higher price. The reader of your review is trusting your judgement in making this decision. Your advice should be given honestly and prudently. Remember that your review will also have an impact on the author in terms of sales, royalties and - potentially - career advancement. Think carefully about how to frame your review.
Rule 2: Inform The Reader
One sort of book review infuriates me beyond all others. This sort of review can be seen in a variety of publication types and consists of a lengthy overview of the general subject of the book before turning to a judgement of the book's value in the last few sentences. The reader of your review will have at least some understanding of the topic. There is no need to outline Augustus' rise to power or the narrative of the Iliad. Focus on the key questions: is this book important? Does it say anything new? Does it offer a valuable contribution to the field? Is it reliable? Is it ultimately worth reading?
Rule 3: Judge The Book - Not The Name On The Cover
We all know academics that we admire (if not revere). These may be the leaders in their field, innovative thinkers or distinguished academic veterans. Likewise, I am sure that many of us know academics of whom we are less enamoured. Perhaps we think their research is shoddy needlessly controversial. Alternatively, we may be suspicious of the theoretical underpinnings of their work. Your review should concentrate on the content of the book and your opinion of the author. On occasion, the background of the author may be relevant. Readers may wish to know that the author has previously created a new paradigm or has published a number of studies relating to the book under review. Aside from this though, steer clear from presenting your personal adoration or animosity in the context of a review. Your credibility as a reviewer will otherwise certainly suffer.
Rule 4: Don't Write Your Book
It is unlikely that all of your reviews will be positive. You have a duty to your reader to pronounce a judgement on the value and reliability of the book. If the approach taken by the author is mistaken or misleading then you must explain in your review why this is the case. There is always a temptation to describe how the book should have been written and how you could improve upon it. This is a temptation which must be resisted at all costs. If necessary write your own book - don't force it upon the reader in the guise of a review.
Rule 5: Know The Audience
Every book has an audience. Part of your role as a reviewer is to identify the appropriate readership of the book in question. This recommendation will be based on a number of factors including the complexity of the text, assumed prior knowledge and cost. Some of your readers will move from reading your review to ordering the book online without seeing it in advance. In an academic context, it should be clear whether the book would serve as a course text or need only be ordered as a reference copy for the library. Don't underestimate the prior knowledge of the 'general reader'. Think synoptically about whom the book may interest. For example, a text on painting styles in Pompeii may appeal to a wide audience ranging from archaeologists to art historians to (perhaps) those with an interest in interior design.
Ultimately, the secret of a good book review lies in the knowledge of the reviewer, their engagement with the text and the quality of the judgement they give.