Howdy, friends! Sorry to have gone silent for the past few days–last week was the first week back to classes, and then I spent yesterday in bed all day long suffering from “nervous exhaustion.” (Well, I slept a lot, and tested negative for everything else, so what would you call it?) Poor Dr. Mister is on call this weekend, so in between his usual clinic hours and hospital duties, he stopped by to check on me every couple of hours. (House calls sure are handy–they help make up for his busy schedule and inability to go on sabbatical with me. . . almost!) Fortunately for him, I was a pretty easy patient because I was usually asleep. I take pride in being a low-maintenance patient.
Anyhoo: today’s letter from the mailbag comes from a young historian who has questions about book reviews and the role they might play in his budding career:
I am in the middle of my first year as a new assistant professor. I am writing to ask you a few questions about writing book reviews. I have read the instructions posted on the leading journals in my field–submit your vita or fill out our form and so forth. Here are my unanswered questions: 1) Including a careful reading (or two?) of the book, approximately how much time does a book review take you to compose? 2) How many book reviews do most assistant professors complete in a year? 3) What is the process of saying no to a book review, or would this decision shut the door forever with the journal I turn down? 4) To what extent do academic-political considerations factor into your reviews? That is, is there a risk in writing an especially negative review early in my career–even if the book warrants it?
Assistant Professor Andy
You seem to take book reviews awfully seriously–not that that’s a bad thing. It’s always good to hear from an Assistant Professor who is thinking about the big picture, and about how everything he writes is part of a strategy for building a national or international reputation. Book reviews are a very important service to the profession, so you should think about how they will reflect on you as a professional. I’ll answer your questions in order from the perspective of a fellow historian. (Commenters from other disciplines should feel free to add on or offer different, discipline-specific advice.)
Let me answer your last question first, about academic or political considerations in writing book reviews. Since you’re offering an important service to the profession in writing a thoughtful, thorough book review, you should review only the books that are in a subfield in which you hope to establish yourself, and/or books that you must read for your research or teaching anyway, and/or books you really want to read anyway, just because they sound fascinating. You want to write reviews in fields you know, so there’s no benefit in agreeing to review a book in a field you don’t know. Saying “yes” is a favor to the book review editor and to the journal, but it’s not that big of a favor that it would secure you a guaranteed “yes” to any article you might send that journal for publication. (Lots of people review books in a single journal issue, but only 4 or 5 people publish headline articles.)
To answer your third question, how to say “no” to a book review request, it’s quite simple: just write back speedily but politely to let the book review editor know that you can’t review the book in question because your research interests actually lie more specifically in X subfield rather than Y subfield, and suggest other possible reviewers whose research is more germaine to the book’s subject. Book review editors are usually doing that job for free, on top of their other teaching, service, and research obligations, so if you say “no” in a timely fashion but give them the names (and e-mail addresses) of others who might be happy to help, they’ll be very grateful. Saying “no” in this fashion will help you build a reputation as a good colleague, and it will maximize the chances that the book review editor will ask you to review a more appropriate title the next time around.
As to your question about how much time and work a book review should take: well, that will depend on the book, because all books are not equal when it comes to length, complexity of argument, or richness of primary sources. Reviewing should take as much time as it takes you to read a book carefully, and then to compose a thoughtful review, which includes 1) an overview of the topic, scope, main arguments, and the sources used in making these arguments, and 2) an attempt to explain its larger significance (if any) and its place in the relevant historiography for the journal in which your review will be published. For me, this usually takes about two days of reading the book (and making notes about important ideas or issues to raise in the review as they occur to me), and then perhaps half a day to draft the review, and another few hours of revisions after I’ve left the book and review alone to think about other things for a while. So, this should bear on your consideration of how many books you can review in a year, when you consider that each review will probably take a whole weekend.
My final suggestion is that you err on the side of generosity, especially if you haven’t yet published a book yet. I wrote one book review when I was a confident young turk that I really regret now, and the process of writing a book has made me much humbler a reviewer. If you give a careful summary of what the book does, readers can fill in the blanks about the questions it doesn’t answer or the evidence it doesn’t include. If you have real problems with the conceptualization of the book or the evidence presented, you can state your objections briefly. Rarely do we read books that answer every question we have on a subject, but then, that’s a mark of good scholarship in my view. If a book raises more questions than it answers, that means that the book convinced you that the subject is important, even if some of its arguments or conclusions are problematic. Think about it–which book would you rather write: a book that stimulates debate and discussion among other historians and is assigned in graduate (or even undergraduate) courses because of the provocative issues it raises, or a book that is so 100% thorough and reliable that it’s briefly praised in book reviews but is forgotten soon after it’s shelved in your library?
Those are my thoughts–but as always, Andy and I are looking for other ideas from my illustrious and industrious readers! Especially if you have experience on journals or even specifically with book reviews. What have I left out that you think is important, or where would you offer a different opinion?