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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive On Blurbs, Prefaces, and Other Good Intentions

How do you go about deciding to read a book?

Perhaps you already know that a certain book has just been published. You may have seen a review, let's say in daily or weekly papers. As far as I'm concerned, something written in The New York Review of Books (I am addicted to that one!) or the Times Literary Supplement may have grabbed my attention. At other times, a colleague or another scholar or a friend might have mentioned something concluding with the statement, "you must read this." Or I may be looking at Amazon or a similar site. Or I am simply in a bookshop.

What do I do then, after my initial curiosity has been kindled? I usually read the title page, then the blurbs. If it's a hardcover, I read both the front and back, inner and outer, on the flaps of the additional paper cover; if a paperback, I go straight to the usual first page of endorsements, short quotations from hardcover book reviews, then the back cover. Then the Table of Contents, Prefaces by the author or a third party, and Acknowledgments. Finally, I read the book's beginning and jump to the very the end—even in a non-scholarly detective or mystery novel. Having ascertained presumed value and the book's "What," I settle down to the real business of reading the "How," the unfolding process.

Essentially, this is the way I go about reading any book, scholarly works included. I may have read a review, at other times a printed or Internet catalogue, or heard a verbal recommendation. But when I have the book at hand, or even the book image and some pages on the Internet, my first impulse is to read the blurbs and the various Prefaces and Introductions, then the Table of Contents, then jump to indexes and bibliography. Only after I have formed the book's general map and declared contexts in my own mind do I finally settle down to the real business of reading.

Blurbs. Why read them? The answer is simple: for certain kinds of shorthand information. By and large, blurbs can be divided into two kinds. The first is the "straight" kind: some blurbs are introductory summaries to/of the book and its author[s], simply factual. These are usually written by the authors themselves or by in-house Publisher hands. They are the equivalent of, sometimes identical with, a publisher's short description of a book in a catalogue, next to the book's front cover image.

But don't we all also know of the other kind of blurb, the ones that qualify as info-commercials, intended to advance sales by praising author and book extravagantly; these are either reproduced from reviews or solicited from Third Parties? I certainly do, since—like many other scholars—I'm an occasional blurb-writer as well as a habitual blurb-reader, and I am "blurbed" on the covers of my own book publications.

As a blurb-writer, I recognize that "blurb" is a genre. Brevity is its possible hallmark—the blurb must be short, four to ten lines at most if a single blurb, shorter if a number of other blurbs are being sought by the publisher. As a result, it is sometimes fragmented [...]; something about, or a hint as to, the contents; words of praise for author and/or book; or the citing of an endorsement ("Run and buy it!")—and always signed by a known authority on the book's subject matter. As a blurb-reader, I hope for information in a nutshell, the good judgment of superiors and peers, truth in advertising according to the required legal norms.

As a blurb-writer again, I recognize that, once you've agreed to write one, factors additional to a book's value or excellence may intrude: you wish to have the book on your shelf (this is the regular reward of published blurbing); the author is a colleague, an acquaintance, a student, an ex-student, an influential person—in short, someone you wish to honor or help in some way; or you find it difficult to say "no" to a publisher; and so on. Of course, at times you read the book and believe that it is truly wonderful.

What really gets me is the inflationary praise attached to books with or without reference to their real value. Even when a short summary has been blurbed, there follow quoted remarks and signed endorsements, such as the following recent examples, taken at random from books on my shelves. On the back cover of a 2001 book, an appetizer referring to the author's other publications:

Fascinating.
Masterful.
A deeply probing search for the real [X].

On a 1995 book:
No serious Bible reader—whether Jewish, Christian, or secular—can afford to ignore this volume.

On a 2003 book:
A meaningful contribution to....

On a 2005 book:
This is a liberating reading.

I haven't named the books or their authors. Had I done so, I'm not sure that many of you guild members would have heard about them or would have agreed with this praise. And even if you don't, you might say to me, dismissively: This is sales talk, as you know. Treat it as sales pitch and no more, don't look for credibility, get on with your reading, don't waste your time.

And this is, of course, partly true. Praise or endorsement blurbing in the profession[s] is largely an American practice, a commercial move instituted by publishers of academic books after the example of more commercial publishing. You and I can simply treat it cynically, as suggested above; this is not easy, however, when the "name" of a scholar I know or know of, and respect, is attached to the blurb. Exaggerated praise, especially when it is not deserved, would detract from the book or its author's credibility, is an exercise of undue influence by relying on authority, and might influence your or my own judgment when we read.

So you or I can wish for blurbs that are purely informative about the book and its authors, as used to be the practice of the late Sheffield Academic Press, as continues to be widely accepted in European academic publishing, and as is followed by SBL publications. Meanwhile, can we make a decision to endorse only books we really appreciate, use factual descriptions rather than eulogized raptures, and make a firm deal with publishers that our blurbs will be seen by us before they are processed into unqualified and fragmented ... statement? Better still, perhaps, would you refuse to blurb the next time you're asked, temptation of any kind notwithstanding, until that Utopian moment when current practices are changed?

And now for Prefaces. These may be grouped under several categories according to their source: the book's author or a variety of Third Parties.

A Preface may be written by a book's author her/himself. This may be personal or even confessional: the real "entryway" to the book will be reserved for the Introduction. It may tell the reader a little or a great deal about the author's intellectual and emotional life contexts. While upholding the "Death of the Author" as a postmodern prerogative, we can allow that curiosity in this regard is theoretically upheld by the equally postmodern allowance for contextualizing the author. Statements of background or intent, a book's history of coming into being, acknowledgements and thanks to family and friends and colleagues and book producers (yes, book dedications are also a favorite of mine)—all of these tell us something about an author's personality and location in the broader sense. Hence, it might be important for assessing the book or getting an insight into its assessment by a third party, such as an endorser (in a blurb, for instance).

Then there are Prefaces by a Third Party. A preface, say, by a senior endorser may be a great bonus for a book, especially if it's written by a younger scholar. I'll always be grateful to Prof. James Barr, my PhD supervisor, for writing a short Preface for my published thesis, Colour Terms in the Old Testament (1982). If I remember correctly, his consent to write this inner blurb was a decisive factor for the late Sheffield Academic Press, then JSOT Press, to publish the thesis; and his praise was measured, so that I felt it was authentic (a thesis supervisor is not only a Third Party but also an Interested Party).

Another kind of a Third Party Preface will be by an editor or a series editor. Information supplied here will refer to another aspect, or context, of the publication: its place and status within a manufactured publishing framework, complete with its own ideology and raison d'être, the expectations and base it both upholds and advances. Such practical contextualization is helpful for the process of reading, since it lets the reader place the book against a declared mini-world of ideas and concepts—even if, as has become customary, such Prefaces may include praise for the book's author as well as setting out the series' mandate or mission.

Thus, for me, in two recent books on the Song of Songs (Richard A. Norris, ed., The Song of Songs: Interpreted by the Early Church and Medieval Commentators [The Church's Bible, 1; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003], and Richard S. Hess, Song of Songs [Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005]), the series editors' Preface helped me not only to contextualize the books under discussion but also to crystallize their value for contextualized readers, which we all are. In that case, the books were defined as confessional as well as primarily scholarly. Dialectically, this outspoken definition allowed me, as an a-religious Jewish scholar, the freedom both to judge the books against their acknowledged context, confirming my own position as etic to their emic stance, and object to their presentation of a confessional Song of Songs interpretation as valid beyond itself—and to do that without too much anger. My point here is that a Preface, especially by a Third Party and even more so by a series editor, creates a framework for the book. This may have a restrictive effect (its desire might not be mine), but at least it creates a unique space against which the work can be appreciated, or objected to. So, finally, it may have a liberating effect as well.

Introductions then. A good Introduction is a declaration of intent. It will set out a book's premises, hypothesis or thesis, debt to previous scholarship, and methodology. It will set out the author's intentions and chart the work's journey. It may contain a summary of the chapters ahead. Even its length, relative to the whole book's length, is important. In short, it may be read as the book's capsule; and I always ask myself, as and if I continue reading beyond it: Has the promise made by the Introduction been fulfilled beyond it? Could I have read the Introduction only, to save time?

In the last two years I've put a lot of energy into writing book reviews for RBL and other publications. Beyond the perks (you get to keep the reviewed books, don't you?), this time-consuming task was undertaken as a conscious attempt to take review writing seriously as a sub-genre of academic writing and to practice it as an informative and critical, but, if possible, non-offensive writing form. It is the logical upshot, an attempt to contribute, of my inability to read all or most of what I'd like to: time factors and the publication explosion ["The making of many books is without limit and much study is a wearying of the flesh" Qoh. 12.12b, JPS] make me rely more and more on reviews, in the hope that they are informative and responsible. Prior to reading a review, or in the absence of a review of a book, I tend to rely on blurbs, or Prefaces, or Introductions. I find Blurbs, Prefaces, and Introductions highly revealing. And I take them seriously, expecting them to do their job in a reliable and honest manner. Ideally, I'd like blurbs to be measured and truthful, if blurbs we must have beyond the purely factual; Prefaces of all Parties to be descriptive rather than prescriptive; and Introductions to be informative and short entryways to the real "house," which is the actual body of the book—so that if necessary, they should suffice until, and if, there's more time to read the rest, respectfully.

Truth in advertising, if advertising we must, this is my plea. Therefore, as a reader and, even more so, as a writing reader (a book reviewer), I find it proper to pay special attention to these seemingly extraneous materials (which, admittedly, I have discussed here in ascending order). I hope that you do too.

Athalya Brenner, University of Amsterdam

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