By Philip L. Tite
Continuing from Part 1 of this essay, where suggestions on how to write or structure a book review were offered, this entry explores the functional aspects of the religious studies book review, with the final entry (to be posted over the next few weeks) directly engaging the pedagogical value of the book review. To reiterate from Part 1, this essay is offered as a resource for instructors and scholars to use in their own work or teaching. Feel free to modify and use this essay for classroom or personal use (though please cite the original source). Also, if you have something to add to what has been written, we would love to hear from you in the comments section.
Function of the Review
The book review can serve diverse functions for authors, reviewers, publishers, and readers. Below are some of the functions I have identified, though certainly others could be added. Of course, not all functions will fit all reviews, or all perspectives on what is valuable about the book review.
1. The review replaces the book – We are all busy and nobody has enough time to read the voluminous amount of scholarship that is out there. There is a proliferation of books, articles, journals, essays, and, more recently, blogs that demand our attention. As scholars and teachers we are required to “keep up in the field” even beyond our specialized research projects. The book review serves this need (as do abstracts and book notes, which are heavily descriptive in nature as compared to the full-blown book review – see below for my comment on book notes). For those of us who can’t read everything out there, or merely wish to “keep up” on general trends in various subfields, the review can be extremely valuable. This function demands a balanced and accurate description of the book.
2. The review brings books to the reader’s attention – Rather than “standing in for” the book, the review can allow the reader to become aware of books of interest that have recently been published. With both a descriptive and evaluative dimension, the review functions as a teaser for the reader to get his or her hands on the book and read more deeply. Furthermore, the review allows the reader to avoid works that are not worth reading – either due to the poor quality of the book or its lack of relevancy for the reader.
3. The review contributes to larger debates in the field – An advantage (and curse!) of publishing a book rather than a series of articles is that the book will be reviewed (at least if the publisher is doing their job). This allows the book author and reviewer to enter into a larger discussion or debate. A review is an excellent venue for facilitating such interaction in a far more concentrated way than citations of the book normally will allow. This function requires a strong evaluative dimension to be present in the review as well as an engaging reviewer that is willing and able to open discussions with the author and reader.
4. The review advances the reviewer’s position – I was once told by one of my teachers in graduate school, Peter Erb, a senior scholar that I have the utmost admiration for, that if I really want to understand an academic’s thought (in particular developments in a scholar’s thinking) then I should read that person’s reviews more closely than his or her books and articles. The logic was that incremental shifts might be discerned within a series of published reviews that may not be as readily apparent in books and articles. This is true when a scholar has a large corpus of reviews and when those reviews have a well developed critical component. For many reviewers, the book review is an opportunity to advance her or his theoretical position vis-à-vis a particular work. The book simply serves as a bouncing board for that purpose. Ideally, the reviewer is engaging the book rather than simply wandering off into unrelated tangents.
5. The review is a tool for publishers and authors – In a market-driven publishing industry, reviews serve to offer suggestions for revisions, new editions, or other forms of presenting or developing the book’s content. When writing a review, we should consider that both the publisher and the author are among our audience. They will read our reviews! So we should ask ourselves what we want to say to both of them. Do note that many publishers will only be looking for that catchy quote to include in a marketing package, sometimes even citing our review out of context in order to promote a book (I’ve experienced this a few times). However, I also hope that my review will be of benefit for the author as well as the publisher.
6. The review may serve a role in career decisions – Book reviews can leave impressions on readers. Some of those readers could very well be hiring, tenure, and promotion committees. In (most?) departments, faculty members need to demonstrate that they are engaged in solid scholarship. Reviews of a book can demonstrate to a committee member (especially when that member is not a specialist in the specific area) whether or not a book is “good” scholarship or not. My advice on this point is directed to committee members, authors, and reviewers:
(a) Committee Members – Don’t place too much stress on reviews in making faculty decisions. Remember that a review is merely one other scholar’s opinion of a work, not a definitive evaluation of, nor a consensus of scholarly opinion on that work. If the book review serves this function for you, then read several reviews in order to discern the true strengths and weaknesses of the book. Also remember that the way a book is reviewed does not necessarily indicate the book’s potential or actual impact on the field (I’ve read many reviews that praise a work that subsequently has no or little impact, while other reviews dismiss books that in later scholarly use have a significant impact). Keep it in perspective.
(b) Authors – Don’t let reviews get to you. Recall the advice to committee members: the review is only one person’s opinion. Furthermore, reviewers can – and often do – misread books, make errors in presenting books, and are burdened with biases that are more relevant to the dismal (or acceptance) of a book than your actual argument. Again, keep it in perspective.
(c) Reviewers – Don’t let the potential impact of your review determine whether or not you take the gloves off or not. Be true to your reading of the book and let the chips fall where they will. Also, realize that yours is not the only review that will be published and that other reviews may take a different perspective. View the review as an opportunity to enter a discussion, perhaps even a debate, and go for it. With that said, of course, do try to be courteous and professional. Again, keep it in perspective.
7. The review contributes a form of “peer review” for the field – All credible publications should go through some form of review process, be that a formal referee process (such as with articles), a book proposal evaluation, or an editor’s evaluation of a work (such as in well establish non-peer reviewed journals or in a book of essays). However, the review process doesn’t end there, nor are all evaluation processes created equal in academic publishing. And we should remember that publishing houses are driven, in part at least, by marketing potential – a potential that in some cases may override quality of scholarship. The review allows us to contribute to the peer review process, albeit at the post- rather than pre-published stage. As a reader of a review, I want to know if I can trust the scholarship of the book. This is especially true when I’m looking at something outside my specialization.
8. The review can be part of the research process – When I was trained to do research, it was driven into me to do my homework, to read as much as possible on a given topic. Certainly we need to be somewhat selective in our research given the voluminous output of academic articles, books, theses, etc., despite the need to the cover all the bases. One type of academic writing I occasionally engage when doing a survey of scholarship or when focusing on a specific academic’s work is the book review. We can pick up on reactions to a work, arguments that challenge or support a book, and we can gain insights into the reviewer as a subject of study (especially when that reviewer is a well established scholar).
9. The review serves the reviewer in various ways – Let’s not kid ourselves, we agree, write, and publish reviews for more than altruistic reasons. As reviewers we get something out of the process. Some of these benefits include: (a) a free book (especially when the book is out of our price range, this is a good way to build one’s library); (b) for many younger scholars, the book review is a way to break into academic publishing, and indeed it can be a nice way to get one’s feet wet (such as when in graduate school); (c) building one’s CV (though I would caution the younger scholar not to rely on book reviews to establish one’s reputation; if you only publish book reviews, you will not be taken seriously in the field as a researcher – be sure to balance this section of your vita with articles, essays, and eventually one or more book projects); (d) for those who have been in the field for a while, the book review is a way to “keep one’s name alive” – this is especially true for those who have slowed down in their scholarly output, either due to post-tenure burn-out, heavy teaching loads, or administrative work; and (e) by agreeing to do a book review, we force ourselves to actually read the book and (ideally!) to read that book more carefully than we may some other books on our shelves, thus allowing us to not only “keep up” in the field but also to be challenged and learn from the author who has toiled so long on writing the book that we have the privilege to read.
The next installment of this blog, which will appear within the next few weeks, will both directly engage the use of the book review as a teaching tool and offer closing thoughts on this essay.