You may remember a blog series I claimed to be starting last fall. I’ve long thought it worth putting some organized thoughts down on how to go about being a book reviewer. For reasons I can’t remember, I was sidetracked last fall and so the series never really got off the ground. As I’m getting more organized now, I’d like to resurrect it.
While I talked about how to approach buying books, and a bad reason to want to review them, I didn’t have much else to say on the topic since deciding this series was in order. If you look back at the original outline, the latter post falls under the existential perspective. It is a negative point about why you’d want to review book in the first place. Here, I’d like to offer a positive point and then move on through some other existential considerations before going back to a situtational rundown of actually acquiring books.
Before you really start reviewing books, you should have a good “why” in mind. That might seem rather basic, but it can be easy to just get sucked in without giving the process too much thought. Initially for me, I posted book reviews on my blog that I had completed for classes. As this was near the end of my time in seminary, my initial “why” was staying sharp by engaging in academic exercises in theology.
Over time this unfortunately morphed into a way to get free books. But I was still committed to reading them and writing down my thoughts rather than just taking advantage of publisher’s generosity. Also, down the road I began doing more research for teaching as well as work for Docent, so book reviews weren’t entirely necessary to keep my academic muscles strong. It was around this time that my pace of reviewing took a noticeable drop as time was being devoted elsewhere and books were being bought instead of requested. After a while, I lost interest in doing reviews, but still felt compelled to complete ones for books I’d already requested and received. More recently, my interest has been renewed and revitalized and so you’ll probably start seeing more and more frequent reviews in the coming months.
Now, that gives you some background and ups and downs, but doesn’t really explain why I keep reviewing books now. I think ultimately it comes down to three reasons (of course).
- I enjoy reading and writing
- I want to contribute to scholarship
- I want to serve others by helping them steward their time and money
I enjoy reading books and processing what I’ve read in writing. I don’t enjoy all books equally, but I enjoy a good book and I like to think out loud about what I’ve been reading. In that case, I would, and will, write about books that I read even if I don’t necessarily have to for a review. If you this doesn’t describe you, (1) I’m not sure why you’d want to review books, but more importantly (2) if you don’t enjoy doing book reviews, just don’t do them. Unless it’s an obligation (and if you’re blogging it probably isn’t), you’re free to spend your time doing other things. I’ve taken seasons here and there to do that myself, and I’d encourage you to do the same. If you enjoy reading and writing, you’ll probably enjoy reviewing book. If you don’t, you won’t. At the end of the day, you should enjoy the basic activities that go into book reviewing if you’re going to spend time doing them.
Beyond simple enjoyment, you should want to contribute something through your reviews. That doesn’t mean that every review must be a seminal work that shatters everyone else’s preconceived notions about the book in question. It does mean that your review can’t simply be a summary of the book. Summaries can be helpful, but they’re not offering any kind of scholarly or academic contribution to the subject. A good review has some degree of summarizing, but it also includes analysis and that’s where your contribution usually lies. That being said, in reviewing books, you should want to contribute something to the conversation the book is a part of. Your analysis can be both positive and negative, but generally speaking, that’s what makes your review worth reading (or not). I like to shoot for having some kind of particular angle in the review that adds to what others have said, or brings my own background understanding to bear on the book in a way that I think others might not do.
Not every review you offer is going to contribute something academically substantial. I tend to decide while reading the book how much I want to engage it in writing once I’m done. Some reviews (like my new books of note), is really just sharing my basic ideas about the book and who might find it helpful. More rarely, I may have a harshly critical review in hopes of steering people away from a particular resource. In both cases, I’m sharing about what I’ve read so that others can make an informed decision about how to spend their time and money. I am also in these cases serving the publisher who gave me the book by letting others know what I think. If I have established a reputation as a thoughtful reader, then my opinion on a particular book’s value has some clout. If that’s the case, I ought to use it wisely and also keep in mind my potential influence (even if it’s small) when it comes to evaluating books.
Ultimately, I want to take something I enjoy and make it academically profitable and practically useful. If I can do that through my review (in the past and moving forward), then I think I’m on the right track with what I’m doing here.