I’ve been asked to review a book written by an acquaintance with whom I need to remain on good terms. But the book is a fairly superficial treatment of its topic, and I was disappointed by gaps in their list of citations. How do I write a critical, honest, but diplomatic book review?
– Anonymous, History
Dr. Editor’s response:
Is “anonymously” an option? Assuming it isn’t – and assuming you wouldn’t want to look like you don’t stand by your opinions – you have a few choices as to how you might approach this book review:
1. Keep it literal
Articulate what the book does that has not been done before. Is it the first to discuss an archive on Event A or Person B? Does it provide access to materials or information that had otherwise been inaccessible? What’s in the book? You can state neutrally what topics the book covers, the theoretical lens it uses, its time periods and geographical reach. You may find that the verb “describes” is a useful alternative to the adjective “superficial.”
Avoid half-hearted or faint praise. And because your audience here isn’t the author – it’s other readers of the journal – you shouldn’t write your book review the same way that you provide feedback on undergraduate assignments, sandwiching positives around a negative so as to make the content more palatable. Take inspiration from the book you’re reviewing: keep it superficial.
2. Calibrate expectations
We’ve all read academic books that fall short of our hopes and expectations. The sentiment is common among readers and writers alike:
Academic Books: An Explainer
Introduction (the actual book)
Chapter 1 (the good one)
Chapter 2 (article I wrote years ago but probably good)
CHapter 3 (the one I hate)
Chapter 4 (half-legible scribblings of a mad person)
Epilogue (Dear Reader, plz be merciful)
— Tobias Wilson-Bates (@PhDhurtBrain) June 1, 2022
So, compare the book you’re reviewing to others about which you feel similarly. “As Nguyen’s Title did for [topic X] …”; “Like Gagnon’s Title, Author’s Newbook details …”. If the book you’re reviewing is a part of a series, you can compare it with or contrast it against the scope of the other books.
Readers familiar with these other books will understand what category of books you’re placing the reviewed one in; readers unfamiliar with them will see that you’re not comparing the reviewed book to the ground-breakers of your field.
3. Put it in conversation
You were disappointed by gaps in their list of citations – so what would happen if you extended the dialogue and put the book in new conversations? Can you connect the themes and arguments of this book with the texts you think it should have cited? “A consideration of this work alongside texts by authors A, B, and C might reveal a need for more work in [area X] or raise new questions about [significant topic Y].”
One place to find inspiration: John Morley’s extensive Academic Phrasebank contains conventional sentence-openers for academic writing across the disciplines, grouped into categories like “signalling transition” and “classifying and listing.” His “being critical” collection includes eight subcategories, each with around a dozen sentence openers, such as
- “One question that needs to be asked, however, is whether …”
- “Smith’s argument relies heavily on qualitative analysis of …”
- “Smith’s analysis does not take account of …, nor does she examine …”
While you might want to tone down some of Morley’s word choices, the options in his phrasebook may give you some momentum as you put words to the page.
4. Get weird
When I last wrote about book reviews, I concluded, “If you want your book review to matter in your discipline […] then you should write something unusual, something collaborative or original or expansive.” Your book review can be more than a simple summary and assessment, if you want it to be.
Unlike, say, grant applications or tenure dossiers, book reviews are a low-stakes genre – you risk losing little by taking a creative or imaginative approach, and the research suggests that the rewards for doing so could be larger than those reaped by a conventional review. If you’ve ever wanted to experiment in your writing – print a dialogue or an interview; incorporate hypertext – do it now.