By Catherine Bateson |
It’s somewhat ironic that at the time of writing this blog, I have two book reviews to write in the not too distant future, and I actually need to read them first – so far all I can say is that I like their covers (but that’s not the best book review judgement). As has been mentioned previously by Stephanie Wright, the ability and art of writing book reviews is just one of many output factors PhD students have to contemplate while also undertaking thesis research. With that comes the question of how you approach a book review if you choose to write one – as Stephanie asked, ‘is honesty the best policy’ or do you write an overall view of the text? I can’t expand on Stephanie’s insights into reviewing. Instead, here’s my advice on how to actually go about writing a review. Spoiler alert – not all books are the same when it comes to how you approach reviewing.
A lovely new (and usually free) book has landed on your desk for you to review. First of all, work out what type of book it is. That sounds obvious, but there is a difference between monographs and edited volumes with separate chapters by different contributors. It will fundamentally impact how you write your review. That latter book type can also be broken down into a couple of further categories: edited volumes with chapters written especially for the publication, and chapters that have come from conference papers. Being a fan of writing reviews (did I mention it’s a way of getting free books?) Here’s is some advice about writing reviews for each.
These are probably the easiest reviews to write – you’re effectively discussing one person’s findings, so it’s easier to keep the flow of your review going. Approach it like a mini literature review: choice quotes, textual analysis, critical conclusions, how it fits within contemporary scholarship debates, etc.
Reviewing an edited collection with different chapters
These are trickier to read and write about for review, especially if there are lots of chapters, because if you have a word count limit of 1000, trying to summarize a book of 10, 15, or 20 plus chapters is no easy feat. Each chapter is likely to be on a different topic, even if the book is on one subject. When it comes to writing about books like these, just pick a couple of chapters to focus on, three or four at most. That way you should hopefully avoid the trap of being too chapter descriptive. The task is made trickier if the book is also subdivided into parts. If this is the case, pick a chapter from each part to give an overall view of the book’s structure and core focus.
Reviewing an edited collection created from conference papers
The approach for this kind is similar to above, but it is crucial to remember the context in which these chapters will have been written (there will usually be reference to the fact the book was born from a conference collaboration in the introduction). This is where passing a critical judgement is hindered by context – I once reviewed an edited collection of conference papers and became frustrated that some of the arguments I found interesting weren’t going far enough. Yet that’s not a fair criticism because inherently these chapters are short papers/mini-journal essays and can only do so much, so don’t judge them just on that basis. As with above, select a few chapters and parts to discuss instead of trying to take on every single separate chapter argument.
It’s worth noting that unless you’ve been asked to review a particular book, or you’ve offered to review a specific monograph, the texts journals and scholarly blog sites advertise as available for review often tend to be, for whatever editorial reasons, edited collections. Do not let the fact that they are separate chapters with different scholars’ approaches daunt you in tackling them. Writing about books like this in a review context is a good skill to have.
Of course, how you go writing your own judgement on the work you’re reviewing is up to you and Stephanie’s blog offers up good advice on the level of critical honesty you might want to employ in your reviews. Keep the audience you’re writing for in mind. Whether it’s for a review that will end up in a journal or on a scholarly blog forum, most book reviews now make their way into open access public domain, which means it’s not just fellow scholars you are writing for. Don’t flower it with academic language, reviews are not the place for that. Most people read them quickly to get an overview of the book, so keep analysis succinct. This is especially true if you are contributing to the growing platform of book reviews on online scholarly forums, which is perhaps the best way to start off a reviewing career.
Remember, don’t review a book by its cover alone, or by how many separate chapters, parts and scholarly arguments it has in it. Focus instead on its core arguments, where it fits in the scholarship and don’t be afraid to get personal by articulating the parts that make you stop and think, revealed something new or raised challenges to your own thinking (especially if you’re writing a review on a book subject close to your field of study). Here are two websites that are helpful in terms of how to approach the writing process for book reviews, as well as what forms they could take. Which reminds me, I really should start reading and writing about those books sitting next to me.
Catherine Bateson is a nearly-third year PhD History student at the University of Edinburgh, researching Irish American Civil War songs. Unlike last year, when she took a book to review away with her on an archive trip to America, she left books for review in her flat while she went on academic travels this summer. Having now written this blog, reading and reviewing those books has moved to the top of her ‘to do’ list. You can follow her writing efforts for these on Twitter @catbateson.