By Philip L. Tite
The following essay engages the religious studies book review from a structural, functional, and pedagogical perspective. Due to the size of this essay, it has been divided into three entries for the Bulletin Blog (to be posted over the next few weeks). This is Philip Tite’s first contribution to the Blog since joining Craig Martin as editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. It is Dr. Tite’s hope that this piece will be of use not only for those beginning their publishing or teaching careers but also for those established in the field as a form of professional development. It is also hoped that this article will be useful in the classroom, either in its current form or appropriately modified by the instructor, as a guide to students assigned book reviews.
As both scholar and teacher, the importance and utilization of the “book review” within the academic study of religion has perpetually fascinated me. In my teaching I have had students read and write reviews, as an academic I have easily read thousands of reviews in a vain attempt to keep up on the field, and as a research scholar I have held my breath in terror as I began to read reviews of my own books wondering if my career has just come to close.
But how does one write a review? What should the review try to accomplish? And how can we utilize book reviews within our own work and teaching? In this blog I will offer some basic observations, opinions, and suggestions on the function of the religious studies book review. For many what follows will be commonsense. For others, however, it may offer a helpful guide in writing, teaching, and reading reviews. And perhaps, for a few, what I have to say will serve as a corrective or challenge in how they compose their own book reviews.
Structuring the Review
When I assign a book to students to review, I typically spend part of a class session explaining what should go into the review. Structurally the review should include four major components:
1. An introductory paragraph or section (depending on how long the review should be) – Present the book’s main point; offer a brief introduction to the author, contextualizing as much as possible her or his broader research, institutional connection (especially if this has a bearing on the theoretical viewpoint espoused in the book); and the theoretical and methodological tools drawn upon by the author.
2. A comprehensive, yet succinct, description of the book – Before offering an opinion of the book or articulating one’s own presuppositions, a good book review should let the reader know what the book is about. Although this point should be commonsense, I have read many reviews, especially those published in European journals (though this tendency is not limited to European scholarship), that tell me almost nothing about the book but everything about the reviewer. Don’t presume that a reader has read the book. The description serves three functions: first, it indicates that the reviewer actually understood the book; second, it allows the reader to gather a snapshot of the book prior to, or in lieu of, reading the book; and, thirdly, the description distinguishes the reviewer’s voice from the author’s voice. Beginning with the table of contents and summaries in the introductory and concluding chapters is a good way to frame the description (or at least to check one’s description with that of the author!), though a description should move beyond simply a re-presenting the table of contents. Look for an overarching, logical progression in the book; i.e., try to discern how the author unpacks the main argument. The key here is to ask, would a reader who has never read the book know what the book is about from just reading my review? If the answer is yes, then this aspect of the review is a success. If the answer is no, then it’s time for a rewrite.
3. A balanced evaluation – This is where the reviewer’s voice should dominate over that of the author, specifically by moving beyond a redescription of the book (which articulates understanding of the book) to an explanatory analysis of the work (theorizing the book at a critical level).
(a) Here the reviewer should situate the book within the contours of scholarly discourse. How does the book fit current trends? Is it out of date or is it cutting edge? Does it belong to a particular school of thought? Who is being challenged and why? Try to identify theoretical presuppositions driving the work, perhaps in comparison with the author’s previous or subsequent work.
(b) Having already set forth the argument in the book, offer a judgment of how successful that author has been in making his or her argument. Was the argument persuasive? Did it gloss over issues that would undercut the author’s position? Did the author do what she or he set out to accomplish or could the argument have been articulated better?
(c) Note technical problems (such as gender exclusive language, serious content errors, typographic or production issues), but don’t get bogged down here. Nobody wants to read a laundry list of errata. Such a list is not only boring, it also suggests that the reviewer didn’t actually read or understand the book. Still, noting such problems can be helpful for both the author and publisher, especially for a book that could be re-published in a revised edition such as a textbook.
(d) Imagine that the book is going to be revised and ask yourself what you would like to see in a new edition, how could this book be stronger or more useful?
(e) If the book is designed for classroom use, then engage its strengths and weaknesses as a pedagogical tool. Indeed, it is ideal to “test run” the book in a course that you are teaching and let the reader know how it worked or didn’t work (students can offer invaluable feedback, so draw on them at this point).
I say a “balanced evaluation” because too often reviewers tend to lean toward the negative aspects of a book. Students in particular gravitate toward identifying problems. It’s a truism that it is easier to find fault rather than good in a work. As we tell our students, “critical” does not necessarily mean negative. There are always strengths and weaknesses in every book, even those that we as reviewers really do want to throw against the wall in a fit of angst (I know that I’ve been there!). While I certainly do infuse my theoretical biases into my reviews, occasionally even bouncing off of the book under evaluation to argue a particular position that I adhere to, I also try to respect the fact that this is not my book and that my reader is not necessarily from my academic camp. Furthermore, as reviewers we need to recognize our own rhetorical relationship with our readers – I want to both inform and persuade my reader and typically a balanced review will garner far more confidence in me as reviewer than would an extreme position. Occasionally a book will demand a really negative review – I’ve written a few of these reviews myself, reviews that I still consider some of my best – but most books do not fall into this category.
4. A closing paragraph or section – Bring the review to a close. No essay or review should just “end”. There should be a summation or wrap-up of some sort. Several techniques can be used here: (a) A recommendation for the book can be helpful, especially as it sets the tone on which you wish to leave the reader (e.g., “This book deserves the attention of anyone working in such-and-such an area of study”; “X has offered an indispensible work that pushes scholarly discussion forward in new and exciting ways”; etc). Alternatively, a negative tone can be set with something like: “Although the topic addressed is undoubtedly important, scholars will need to look elsewhere for…” A middle ground is offered by: “Despite these caveats, X has offered a useful…” (b) A review can end by identifying the best audience for the book. Remember that not all books work for all readers, especially when we are looking at those works that are designed for the classroom (e.g., does the book work best in advanced undergraduate and graduate courses than in introductory level courses? Does the book miss the targeted general reader in an effort to communicate to the specialist?).
These four elements can be arranged in two different ways. Firstly, we can write the review so that it follows this neatly laid out form as above. Secondly, we can integrate nos. 3 and 4, describing a point and then offering our critique, then present another point followed by a critique, etc. The advantage of the first arrangement is that the description is not lost in the evaluation, while, simultaneously, the voice of the reviewer and author are more clearly distinguished. However, the latter arrangement has the advantage of avoiding unnecessary redundancy in the evaluation section where description may be needed. Furthermore, the latter allows a more sophisticated and integrated analysis of the book to emerge. The choice is really up to the reviewer, though I typically recommend the first option for students – at least when beginning to write reviews.
Regardless of the arrangement one may follow, all four elements need to be in a review. Although this point may seem obvious, I have seen so many reviews that are only evaluation or only description. With the former, the reviewer’s biases tend to dominate the review and I, as a reader, typically don’t trust the reviewer’s evaluation of the book. With the latter, there is the added problem that the reviewer gets lost in the details of the book, losing the proverbial forest among the equally proverbial trees. I also tend to feel cheated when there is no evaluation – and the review seems a bit dull to read (I like to see a lively discussion!).
One final word on the mechanics of writing book reviews. I strongly recommend NOT reading other reviews of the book until you have completed your review. Give a fresh perspective on the book. Avoid being strapped down by another person’s review – trust me, it’s harder to write a review once you’ve read a review of the same book. Don’t give in to temptation.
The next installment of this blog, which will appear within the next few weeks, will address the functional value of book reviews.