The Elusive Art of the Book Review

A dozen or so years ago, my first ‘official’ book reviews were published. Both of them had been commissioned–that sounds so grand!–by the APA Newsletter on Teaching PhilosophyPhilosophical Naturalism by David Papineau and What Is This Thing Called Science? by Alan Chalmers. (The always-ahead-of-the-curve APA website’s archive is incomplete and I cannot find copies of these reviews any more. Perhaps it’s just as well.) Back then, I was completing my dissertation and welcomed the opportunity to broaden my readings, develop some analytical writing skills and of course, add a few lines to my CV. My editor was happy with the reviews I sent in and suggested only exceedingly minor edits.

A year later, I wrote another review, this time of Theory and Method in the Neurosciences (Peter K. Machamer, Rick Grush, Peter McLaughlin (eds)), for the journal Metascience. My draft review was rejected by the editor: it supposedly read like a tedious listing and description of the table of contents. The editor had seized on a confusion that I still entertained about how to write a good book review: the step-by-step analysis of arguments or the broad, synoptic take. In the case of my current assignment, this confusion had been made worse by my reviewing a collection of essays rather than a unitary monograph. Suitably chastened, I revised the review to take on–hopefully–a more elevated and magisterial view. It was accepted, and I moved on.

In the intervening years, I’ve only written a few more reviews. Truth be told, I’ve not been approached too often, and I’ve not minded, as I’ve often felt myself lacking in time given my academic commitments and teaching loads at Brooklyn College. Moreover, I find myself not wanting to review philosophy books as much as novels or collections of essays; if I want to diversify my readings now, it’s in a direction away from philosophy, of which I get plenty during my teaching and academic writing. But ‘the literary market’ seems considerably harder to crack, and so I patiently wait for my first commission in this arena, and satisfy myself by writing the odd critical note here on this blog.

Still, my early experiences in writing book reviews and my subsequent reading of review essays and author-reviewer disputes in those hoary fora, the New York and London Reviews of Books, still prompts the question of what the ‘correct’ approach to writing a book review might be: the micro or the macro? (As described above. I’m leaving aside the question of whether the hilariously negative and scathing review–a la Strohminger of McGinn–serves any value whatsoever, other than confirming the popular impression of academics as highly educated squabbling children.)

The best reviews, of course, eschew the excesses of either approach: they disdain the grim plod through the minutiae of the text as well as the lofty ramble or learned filler that only glancingly or perfunctorily considers the book under review.  The former suffers on stylistic grounds and sometimes misses the forest for the trees; the latter on content, especially as it confirms its author as a blowhard.

Unsurprisingly, very few get the balance just right.

2 comments on “The Elusive Art of the Book Review

  1. Tom Gething says:

    I also think reviewing books on a blog is very different from reviewing them for a publication. Blog reviews tend to run shorter, which makes it difficult to do more than scratch the surface and, one hopes, pique the reader’s interest in the subject. More like the “Books in Brief” section of the New Yorker.

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