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When I was in graduate school I started writing book reviews because they were the only things I could get published. A few years into my teaching career, I hit another lull in both my writing energy and the opportunities that were coming my way. During this period, I used book reviews to bring me out of what may have been a slump, after the publication of a couple of books and a selection of articles. The difference this time was that I did not stop writing book reviews when other projects started to come along, and I have steadily produced about four or five book reviews per year since then. If book reviews are the grunt work of academia, why do I continue writing them now that they are no longer a career necessity?

Reasons

One pragmatic answer is that the convenience of the on-line volunteer and submission process now used by the Review of Biblical Literature makes it easy to cultivate a habit of producing reviews. I am almost always somewhere in the process of reviewing a book. I must confess also that writing reviews is still a self-serving activity in a couple of ways. I pat myself on the back every time I complete a review because I am performing a service for the guild. In 2003 more than 10,000 books were published in the category of religion. This includes popular books, of course, but university presses alone produced more than 600 of these titles. (These statistics are available on http://www.bookwire.com) It is difficult to find statistics that provide the precise number of academic books in biblical studies that are published each year, but one can reason from the statistics above that it is many hundreds. It is impossible for anyone to survive this tidal wave of scholarship, unless one is on a large boat with a lot of hands. I hope that no author whose book I have reviewed will think that I was merely bailing the bucketful of ideas and information they hurled at biblical scholarship back into the ocean, so I will leave that metaphor alone. What could be more daunting, though, than wandering through the publishers' displays at a large academic conference and seeing dozens and dozens of new books that one will never have time to read. Book reviews are a way that we help each other.

Writing book reviews also provides me an important sense of completion in the midst of large writing projects that have their ups and downs and can take many years. Reviewing books also keeps bringing me back to the discipline of careful reading. In the midst of a busy academic schedule I find my reading habits drifting toward skimming. Reviewing a book well requires reading all its parts, from forward to footnotes.

Challenges

Writing a good book review is an art that requires some cultivation. While there is no perfect model for the task, there are some goals to strive for and some common mistakes to avoid. Writing a fair review involves a serious attempt to understand a book's purpose. Sometimes this is hard to do, but the purpose and intended audience is usually made fairly clear in cover and front material. A friend of mine who is an academic publisher recently expressed the frustration involved in getting his press's books properly reviewed. Books with academic content that are aimed at a popular audience can not be sent to academic journals because they are sure to be blasted for their failure to deal with certain technical issues in great depth. Unfortunately, when publishers have to avoid academic journals when sending such books for review, then the readers of those journals are not made aware of works in the field that are academic in purpose but are aimed at general audiences. A fair review must consider whether a book's depth and breadth adequately match its intended audience and purpose, regardless of whether they meet the needs of the reviewer.

This kind of unfair criticism reveals a larger concern related to the purpose of book reviews: How can I make sure that the review is about the book and not about me? I can well remember my early days of writing book reviews as a graduate student when I was preoccupied with convincing the reader that I knew the field that the book addressed. The habits of writing for professors as a student are hard to break. The worst kind of book review is the one that uses the book merely as a launching pad for the reviewer to present her or his own view of the subject. A good review should keep returning to the book, its organization, and main lines of argument, as the proper focus.

The easiest kind of book to review, of course, is the academic monograph. Experienced writers and scholars typically write monographs. They are clearly and cogently organized, and are driven by a sustained argument. Unfortunately, most books do not fall into this category. A year or so ago, I swore to myself that I would not review any more books that were revised dissertations or collections of essays by multiple authors. The former can be tortuous to read. I often found myself lost in a swamp of tangled prose and obsessive documentation. Yet this is another kind of book to evaluate with its purpose clearly in mind. It is essential that revised dissertations be reviewed, but after reviewing about a half dozen, I think I have done my share. I have kept this half of my vow so far, but I now find myself sitting with a 500-page, twenty-five part broken promise. The dilemma here is the extent to which one can review a "book" that is not a book. Even given the confines of a 1500-word review essay, twenty-five separate reviews of individual articles are not feasible. Instead, I find myself reviewing the major introductory articles and selecting one essay each from the major groupings within the book. All I can offer the readers of my review is a sampling of what this collection has to offer.

One other group of books offers a particular challenge to the reviewer. Some books are not written to be read straight through. In biblical studies, this would include language reference tools, encyclopedias, and commentaries. These, of course, are among the most desirable books to review because they are useful and expensive, and getting a free copy is the only pay ever offered to book reviewers. Reviewing them, however, involves at least imagining using them for their intended purpose: ongoing or periodic research. For example, a biblical commentary typically includes a significant discussion of an exegetical issue the first time it arises within the biblical book. The extensive discussion cannot be repeated every time the issue arises. Therefore, someone using the commentary periodically to do exegetical research on specific texts can easily miss these discussions. A good commentary should attempt to remedy this by consistently referring back to the primary discussion of the issue at its first occurrence.

As I proceed through an academic career, I regularly feel the impulse toward cynicism all around me. This poisonous attitude can have many targets-university administration, the task of teaching, even the world of academic publishing. One way to avoid such cynicism is to stay involved in the basics of the field. Writing book reviews may not be for everybody, but it is basic, and through the ups and downs of teaching and academic life, it is one of the best ways to keep the critical skills of reading, thinking, and writing sharp.

Mark McEntire is Associate Professor of Religion at Belmont University, Nashville, TN, and regularly writes for SBL's Review of Biblical Literature (http://www.bookreviews.org).

Citation: Mark McEntire, " Why I Still Write Book Reviews," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Sept 2004]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=311

 
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