I was recently asked if I would write something about book reviews. There are some pretty helpful posts already out there about book reviewing and I’ve had a go at the topic before too.
So check out:
Why write a book review: Patter
How to critique an academic book: Grad School Ninja
How to write a history review: History Professor.Org
How to write a critical book review: Carleton College History
And while this is not about academic books, it’s also helpful
How to write a bad review: Salon
These posts contain good advice about being suitably respectful in approach. They provide pretty concise instructions about what information you need to include in a review.
There are also online book reviews sites – LSE Review of Books is relatively new but already has a very impressive set of reviews published. In my own field of education, Gene Glass, Nick Burbules and Kate Corby founded the Education Review in 1998. It reviews books in Spanish, Portugese and English. These and other online book review resources are not only helpful places to look if you are considering buying or recommending a particular book, but are also fine places to visit if you want to see the range of what counts as a book review
I reckon that there are two kinds of book reviews.
One difference is simply how long the review is. There are reviews that are pretty short and factual. They tell you what’s in a book and that’s that. Some of them add a catchy introduction to help the reader see the connections between the book and their experience. Then they take you through the text in an abbreviated way. Longer reviews may deal with one book or more. Some essay reviews are so detailed that you almost feel that you don’t have to read the text yourself. Like Ranciere’s ignorant schoolmaster you can talk about the text or topic without having read it yourself!! I’m not recommending this as a strategy BTW because who knows if I would actually agree with a reviewer’s reading – it’s more a comment on how informative some reviews can be. What’s important, I think, is that detailed reviews do give you a pretty good understanding of what’s in a text and whether you want to engage with it as a reader.
The other difference between types of reviews is whether the reviewer has added something of their own, or just primarily dealt with the text. All reviews do contain some evaluative comment, usually at the end, about the book’s strengths and weaknesses. So the reviewer inevitably has to take a stand, and put themselves out there and in it.
But some reviews do more than evaluate. They provide some kind of additionality – what I am going to call A VIEW – to what’s already in the text. This might be for example through the reviewer: making a connection to a broader topic related to that dealt with in the book; proving a coherent analysis of the field and the kind of contribution that the book makes; or offering an interpretation of the topic of the book through a specific argument.
Have a look at this example (I do know its about education but I’m reading for genre not content per se) to see what I mean by A VIEW:
Policy for the Poor and Poor Education Policy: An Essay Review, by Michael Apple. Education Review 14 (10)
Michael Apple uses a review of an edited book, about education policy and poverty, to make an argument about the absolute necessity for critical research in global contexts. He begins his essay review by discussing an immediate economic situation in Spain ( in 2011), then links this to the global spread of neoliberal policies and their consequences. He then mentions some of the research that already exists about global poverty and policy and what it shows. He thus situates the book he is reviewing in the context of both this international realpolitik and the literatures. It is two and a half pages before he gets to the actual text he is reviewing. His evaluation of the book – and he does have positive and some critical comments to make – are related to the warrant he set up at the beginning of the essay viz. the state of global poverty and education policy. His summary conclusion is also related to this warrant as he returns at the end of specific comments on the text to his overall argument about the need for (educational) researchers to do research which helps makes sense of, and disrupt, local and global inequalities and their relationalities.
Now I don’t want to say that either the factual review or the review with A VIEW is better than the other. They both have their place and both are legitimate. Both contain the basic bibliographic information about the book, and provide some synthesis and evaluation of its contents.
But writing a factual review with a catchy introduction is a different kettle of fish than writing A VIEW – it is much more like a report. As I have suggested in the example above, A VIEW is actually an argument and as such requires careful plotting of its introductory warrant (the thesis), the moves in the argument and its conclusion. Writers of A VIEW also have to be very careful that they don’t spend all the time talking about what interests them and that they do due justice to the text that they are reviewing. There’s some ethics involved here too.
So there’s a choice in thinking about reviewing books – long or short, with or without A VIEW.
But just between ourselves, I must say that I do prefer to read and write A VIEW rather than the factual review. A VIEW certainly feels to me more like a creative, rather than a quotidian process. And I can recommend having a crack at it.
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