Book Reviews

In the discipline of history, the single-authored monograph is the basic unit of scholarship, and an academic’s prestige is usually arbitrated by the number of such books that he can produce, and by the influence that these books have had. No one has time to read every book that gets published, though, so reviewing is an important service to the profession. That is, a given issue of the average historical journal will contain about five articles (often preliminary studies that will later appear as chapters in books), and some seventy book reviews. A review is typically about 1000 words long; it summarizes the book in question and gives a judgment of its quality. The idea is that a scholar will get the journal, look through the reviews to see what’s new, read the ones that are relevant to her interests, and if anything looks really compelling, check the books out from the library, order them through interlibrary loan, or even buy them from the publisher (although academic books do tend to be rather pricey).

In her turn, she will be expected to produce book reviews herself. Summarizing a book is time consuming, but not too difficult. It’s an exercise in the art of prĂ©cis – of making the book’s message as simple as possible, but no simpler. The tricky part is judging the book’s quality. For that, you need to know what else has been published on the same topic, and really good review will cite those works in proof – it will “situate the work in the historiography,” as the jargon has it. The temptation is always there to give the book the benefit of the doubt, on the assumption that the author has more expertise than you do, and nothing would have gotten published if it wasn’t pretty good in the first place. However, a scholar owes it to his readers to seek out and mention any errors of fact or overall weakness. Moreover, some books just aren’t very good, for various reasons. I know someone who will refuse to review such books; she’ll just send them back to the journal editor, since writing an honest review might alienate the author, and “you never know who might be on a fellowship selection committee.” This move is better than just lying about a book’s quality, I suppose, but to me it’s cowardly, and I don’t like it. We get tenure for a reason: the idea is that we are licensed to speak truth to power without having to fear for our livelihoods. Such guaranteed job security is not just about opposing Trump, the alt-right, evangelical Christians, Wall Street, or the State of Israel from our perch in the Ivory Tower, but also about calling out the members of our own profession on their mistakes, as uncomfortable as that might make things for us at our next big conference. (At the same time, I don’t believe in being gratuitously mean, like one grad school professor who gave me a C- on a book review that I had written for his seminar, with the comment “you are too nice!” – I had criticized the book, just not forcefully enough for his liking.)

So when you’re reviewing a book you try to be fair, and if it has any problems to find a middle ground between turd-polishing and being a big jerk. And you definitely try to review the book that was written, not the book that you wanted to read (another thing that too many academics like to do). 

I myself have managed to publish a number of book reviews over the course of my career – by my count 25, some of which have been referenced on this blog. My most interesting experience with book reviewing began in the autumn of 2009, when I received, from the editor of Reviews in History, a draft of a review of my own recently-published book on St. George by Sam Riches, who herself had written a book about the saint. She liked some aspects of my book, but had some reservations about it, and concluded that “it is not the definitive work on St. George in the English tradition – that has yet to be written.” I received the review because one of the features of Reviews in History is that it gives the book’s author a chance to respond. Now, at the time, I believed that one should never respond to a review. This was the message of Paul Fussell’s “Being Reviewed: The A.B.M. and its Theory,” republished in The Boy Scout Handbook and Other Observations. The “A.B.M.,” to Fussell, is the “Author’s Big Mistake,” that is, a “letter from an aggrieved author complaining about a review,” which “generally delivers the most naked view of the author’s wounded vanity” and reads “as if some puling adolescent, cut from the high school basketball team, has published a letter about how good he really is, and written it not very well.” So I let it slide, and the review was published in January 2010, with the notice that “the author of this book has not responded to this review.” 

But I came to revise my opinion over the next couple of years. Fussell’s examples of A.B.M.s were taken mostly from the New York Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement, and mostly involved works of fiction, or popular non-fiction. Academic books, I came to perceive, are somewhat of a different matter: they make arguments, which can be defended, and as long as one sticks to the facts without getting testy, then it’s all part of the conversation. I read a number of responses to reviews that were in this vein, and I figured that there would be no harm in my doing it too. So in the summer of 2012, I took some time out of my life to pen a response to her review, which I’m pleased to say that the editor of Reviews in History posted, even at that late date. (For the record, I was never upset that Dr. Riches didn’t give my book fulsome praise. It is better to be talked about than not talked about!) Read both and decide for yourself who makes the better case. 

As a result of my contact with the editor, he asked if I would care to review a book that he had just received. I said that I would be happy to, and he sent it to me. I read it twice, as is my habit – it’s one thing to dash off a review for a graduate seminar the night before the assignment is due, it’s quite another to write for publication – you want to make sure that you have really understood what the author is trying to say, because you want to be fair and you don’t want to appear sloppy in print. This operation took a little longer than I hoped, and I got the review to him two weeks after the deadline he had given me. In response, I received an email with the subject line “Terribly sorry” and a message saying that “I forgot that I had two copies of that book, and I gave the other copy to someone else for review.”

“So I take it that review was better than mine?” I responded jokingly.

“It wasn’t, actually,” he replied. “But I’ve already sent it out for the author’s response!”

I had a good laugh about this. If nothing else it shows the importance of meeting deadlines! As it happens I easily placed my review somewhere else. Generally editors won’t accept unsolicited reviews – they have no idea about the agenda of the would-be reviewer – but after explaining the situation they were happy to publish it, and they didn’t even ask me to shorten it. The editor of Reviews in History asked if there was anything he could do for me. I said that there was a book I was interested in reviewing, and he arranged to have it sent to me. This one I ended up reading three times, because I found it difficult and I wanted to do it justice, even I didn’t like it very much (attributable largely to a disciplinary divide – I am a historian, the author was a literary critic). The review was published in the fall of 2013; the author, as I had originally, chose not respond. 

That summer, I had further contact with the editor of Reviews in History on account of another review of my book that I discovered in the Journal of English and Germanic Philology. By that point my book had been reviewed about a dozen times in various venues – again, some people liked it, others didn’t, and that’s fine. This review, however, sounded strangely familiar. As I read it, I realized that a large chunk of it was simply plagiarized from Sam Riches’s review in Reviews in History! Like a good citizen, I immediately informed Dr. Riches and the editors of Reviews in History and the JEGP about this gross violation of scholarly protocol, and the JEGP withdrew the review in its next number. The author, one Giovanni Narabito of the University of Messina, did not seem to have much of an institutional presence there, and a bit of googling eventually revealed a plausible explanation. The Wikipedia entry for Italian crime boss Giuseppe Narabito explains that his clan “established a cell in Messina on Sicily,” where they “exercise considerable power up to the present. The clan turned the University of Messina into their private fiefdom, ordering that degrees, academic posts, and influence be awarded to favored associates.”

It could be that “Narabito” is the Italian equivalent of Smith or Jones but it sure looks like someone was promoted for non-academic reasons here. But why not just stick to protection rackets and drug smuggling, I wonder? Those activities are a lot more lucrative!