What an Academic Book Review Does

What an Academic Book Review Does

Despite having a reputation for being an easy introduction to scholarly writing, book reviews in academic journals are a fairly-specialized genre. Their reputation for being easy comes from the fact that they’re generally pretty short, so it’s easy to juggle the relatively smaller number of demands than you’d have in an article or book chapter. But as a book review editor, I can tell you that there are still demands.

To be somewhat crass, book reviews are supposed to help readers decide if they want to dedicate precious resources (especially time) to reading the book or not. It’s important, then, to understand what they need to include.

A book review, in general, needs to do three things:

  • explain what the book is about
  • explain what its contribution to the field is
  • explain what readers might learn from the book.

These three goals can be met in a infinite number of ways, but they must all be met in some way or another. In order to do this, book reviews often have some element in which they situate the book in relation to an issue or discussion in the field. They articulate the purpose, goals, audience, and/or thesis of the book. They summarize the various chapters of the book. And they indicate why readers — particularly researchers or teachers — might be inclined to read (or buy) the book.

I have two connected pieces of advice, and then I’ll let it rest.

First, just as with other types of academic writing, readers need to know what you’re doing. Yeah, you, the reviewer. If you’re reviewing a book with a bunch of chapters and you can’t summarize them all, that’s fine if you help me understand what decisions you’ve made and why. Help me understand how your choices inform my decision about whether to read the book. If you’re applying a particular heuristic to your analysis, help me understand why. Just remember — you know the book, and if I’m reading your review, there’s a good chance I don’t. You need to help me understand it.

Second, every journal (and discipline and editor) has expectations specific to the venue. If you’re writing a review for a pedagogy journal, for instance, you should probably write with pedagogy in mind. If a journal only publishes multi-text reviews, it’s useful to think about how to meet their needs. Etc. You learn those by actually reading the journal, or at least looking at how other reviews have fulfilled the three goals of a book review I outlined above.

But as I said above, they’ll almost always meet those three goals, and that’s a good place to start as you’re thinking about writing your review.

One final tangent: In the vast majority of cases, I won’t review a book that I am inclined to review negatively. And as a book review editor, I’m not particularly inclined to publish a negative review. I can certainly imagine a case where I think a book is so terrible or damaging that I would be compelled to write/publish a negative review (if it was, for instance, advocating racism or violence or something). But more often than not, I don’t see negative reviews as being worth the time and energy for anyone involved. Not everything is for me, so if there are things that are not my cup of tea, even if they’re in my area of expertise, I don’t have any compunction about letting them be.

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