FORUM: The War On Book Reviews

The substantive and the accessible meet in a good review

This essay continues a forum on the value of book reviews that began with John Wilson’s essay last week and will continue over the next two Mondays. One bold premise behind this forum is that book reviews are good for promoting healthy democratic discourse. We as a society can have better and more peaceful conversations about even the most divisive and controversial of topics, if we center these conversations around good books. As so, each Tuesday this month also features a book review to continue the conversation.

For decades I have roasted a goose every year. It can be any day of the week—a Tuesday, for instance—but it is always on December 25th. The anthropologist Mary Douglas was a fierce champion of traditions that mark special times and seasons. To illustrate their importance, she invited people to contemplate their loss: “Try to imagine a standardized meal, say breakfast, served at all meals in the year including Christmas Day.” C. S. Lewis dramatized this dystopia by creating a Narnia where it was always winter but never Christmas. Culture warriors today talk up a “War on Christmas” for the same reason: to remind people that they value something by having them imagine it going away.

I once heard a jaded cultural critic insist that there should be a moratorium on productions of Shakespeare’s plays. It made me flare up: Just because you have gone to too many performances of Hamlet doesn’t mean you should deprive others of what will be a welcome and memorable experience.

Likewise, certain over-satiated souls have called for an end to book reviews. This protest has been against all forms of the genre—scholarly, popular, and literary. In 2021 Paul Musgrave wrote an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education titled “Against Academic Books Reviews.” Again, my reaction was surprisingly visceral: I’d like to cook your goose, Professor Musgrave.

In a parallel way, some voices try to score populist points by asserting that poetry should be eliminated. A counter-spell that always charms me is Wislawa Szymborska’s “Some People Like Poetry.

Some people like book reviews. I’m one of them. So far in my career I have reviewed 113 books. Those reviews have been published in both academic journals such as the American Historical Review and the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute and in literary or popular venues such as the Times Literary Supplement, Books & Culture, Christianity Today, and the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Teachers of creative writing are unfailingly irritated by students who declare that they want to be a poet but do not read poetry. Let me therefore hasten to add that my primary fondness for book reviews is as a reader. I am a member of seven learned societies, all of which send me their journals. Even when a research article is right in my area of expertise, I almost never read it. I always read a lot of the book reviews, however—many of them on subjects far away from my own research interests. I also subscribe to around a half dozen popular or literary magazines or websites (and lurk around the sites of others looking for free content), and I also read their book reviews avidly.

For many years I read every article published in Books & Culture. I did this as a kind of intellectual discipline: It was my attempt to keep up a little bit with what was happening in thought and culture across all areas and subject matters. I now read about two-thirds of my weekly Times Literary Supplement.

Book reviews provide a particularly satisfying combination of the substantive and the accessible. As to the latter, you are usually only committing yourself to reading around 1000 words; and reviewers, as a general rule, try to orient non-specialists. Academic articles and monographs are at a length and a level of detail that I often don’t need or want outside my own area of specialization. I am eager to learn about a vast array of subjects, however, by reading book reviews. Most articles one finds on the web, of course, are short and accessible, but they are not introducing you to substantial knowledge. How weary I am of going to websites that are supposed to be for “thought leaders” and finding articles along the lines of “You’ve Been Making Grilled Cheese All Wrong” or “Help! My Partner’s Idea of How to Address Our Sex Problems is to Share Them with Millions of Strangers.” (OK, that is actually the one headline I always wish to see in Slate’s unpleasant and unavoidable “Advice” section.)

Almost every serious book is the product of years of hard work. A book review allows the reader to draw nigh to the fruit of all that research and reflection. One of the standard complaints of those who advocate for a moratorium on book reviews is that they are not critical enough. Musgrave grumbled: “We’re employing a Lake Wobegon scale in which every scholar is brilliant and every book is above average.” But what matters is whether a book is good, not what percentage of other books are also good. I am currently on a triumphal streak of scores of restaurant meals that have been, each and every one, delightful. I am, of course, a little careful to pick an establishment I have reasons to have confidence in—just as I am not interested in reading a review of a book that has all the signs of being a shoddy offering by a dubious publisher.

I teach in an M.A. program and one of my standard assignments is to have my students write a book review. Although they usually do not have the vantage point from which to offer an authoritative critique, I find they are quite ready to denounce all kinds of sins of commission and omission. I tell them that to be truly critical they also must be able to grasp what the author has achieved, and that I prefer to read reviewers who know how to honor that labor.

The language of praise is a more difficult art than the language of censure. Any novice can take a poke at something. But crafting arresting words with which to extol a worthy book is a more advanced skill.

When I think back on my 113 book reviews, a line from one of them recurs pleasingly in my mind. My sense of satisfaction comes from having found a way with language that expressed my sense of the book’s excellence: “It is my earnest wish that everyone would find some book somewhere out of which they would derive as much pleasure as I did in reading The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes.”

“Criticism” also means just and well-informed praise. Some people like those kinds of book reviews too.