Advice for book reviewers

  1. Familiarize yourself with the current market for the book you’re reviewing – say, hypothetically, early modern European military history books. This includes their prices, the cost of publishing works with over 100 full-color illustrations, the intended audience(s), and the possibility that a specific work might intentionally cross genres, and that that’s a good thing.
  2. Mention that the publisher’s website sells the book for the price listed at the top of your review.
  3. If, early on, you criticize a section of a book for “fail[ing] to come to terms with [the subject’s] genius and character,” you might want to unpack that statement.
  4. If you’re going to claim that a work simply repeats old arguments, it’s helpful to a) say where exactly these arguments have been made before, and b) say how the literature has responded to them. Share your expertise.
  5. And if you do claim that a work simply repeats old arguments, it’s probably worth dwelling on what you consider a “surprising” claim within said work.
  6. If you’re not an expert on a specific individual, consider providing evidence or reasoning before dismissing the views of the expert on the topic. Especially if that expert spent 20 years of his life editing and annotating 19 volumes of the individual’s correspondence, and has written the only articles on this individual to appear in print.
  7. Feel free to perfunctorily dismiss arguments with phrases like X “maintains” that, and “here we go again!”, but realize that you may be encouraging your reader to wonder about your own reasoning when assessing their arguments.
  8. Consider whether you want to describe artistic depictions glorifying a Great Captain (ones commissioned by said Great Captain) as “accurately portray[ing] [the subject’s] military greatness.” Maybe mention discussions of how such iconography is constructed.
  9. If you’re going to criticize a 408-page book (with over 100 illustrations, many full-page, as well as self-contained chapters) for being too “dense and detailed,” then you probably shouldn’t recommend a 500-page narrative as an alternative in the next sentence, much less a 2000-page work.
  10. Know your audience. “Scholars” are actually pretty good at dealing with dense books, and non-academics with a passing interest in military history can be voracious readers as well, as the detailed commentary on this blog indicates.
  11. If you’re going to criticize a book for not having a truly “international” perspective, or not discussing “new military history” topics, consider comparing it with every other book on the topic. Possibly even mention some criteria with which to measure that claim.
  12. Finally, if you find yourself recommending an 80-year old work as the best scholarship in the field, consider what that says about the historiography of that topic.

But that’s just how I’d do it.

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2 responses to “Advice for book reviewers”

  1. jegrenier says :

    That’s one way of doing a review. Or you could just admit that someone intruded on your turf and you’re none too pleased about it. But then you’d have to admit you haven’t had an original idea in the last three decades, but that shouldn’t be too hard because it’s a you-centric universe. Still, the best kind of review is the one from Amazon.com, from a former student who who remains enraged that you gave him a B and not an A, someone whose primary qualification as a historian is that he likes to dress up like people who have been dead for 250 years. Don’t let it get you down; remember we’re genetically closer to chimps than most people realize.

  2. midgardarts says :

    I’m detecting a sub-text here, but I don’t think that invalidates the message. Maybe I’m projecting, who knows.

    I know I have read reviews that tell me more about the reviewer and their particular problems with the field than the actual book in question. And I agree with jegrenier that Amazon reviews are the best of all possible worlds.

    Case in point: http://www.amazon.com/review/R6PWZPGBS2B94/ref=cm_cr_rdp_perm?ie=UTF8&ASIN=1581607342&linkCode=&nodeID=&tag=

    The review isn’t my best, and unfortunately most of the author’s comments have been removed, but you will probably get the gist.

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