Can Young Academics Review Books Well?

January 4, 2017 — Leave a comment

Over Christmas break, I was mostly reading books, but I saw my fair share of Tweets. The one above caught my eye, and also got me thinking. I’m not sure I properly qualify as a young academic, but I have had book reviews published in a journal. I’ve also done my fair share of book reviews (that page is out of date, but you get the idea).

I’ll keep this short, because 1000 words about why a tweet is wrong seems either petty or excessive (or both). I’m going to assume that because this is a tweet, it is reflective of in the moment thinking. Looking through the mentions, it seems to be prompted by Leeman reading a poorly constructed review of one of his professor’s books. I would assume as well this isn’t the first time Leeman has come across a shoddy review by a young academic, otherwise he wouldn’t think to make a new rule.

It is not entirely clear how to divide the reasons that come after “Either.” It could be a binary, in which case it would be a false dichotomy. To avoid that, let’s say there’s 4 elements. Young academics doing book reviews:

  1. Try too hard to prove themselves
  2. Are extra critical (probably in excess, because more is probably better in most cases)
  3. Miss the forest for trees
  4. Say nothing of value (presumably scholarly)

Having easily done several hundred book reviews since my time at Dallas, I will be the first to confess I have done all of these. It is hard not to think about #1 if the review is being published somewhere that receives a wider reading than your personal blog. My review of Michael Horton’s The Christian Faith, might be close to violating #2, but I still stand by it. It was also one of the few reviews I’ve done that was published in a journal. And, in a point I’ll come back to, there was professorial oversight.

#3 is certainly a danger if you’re not able to do synthesis and big picture thinking. The result is a review that provides a good chapter by chapter summary, but offers no overarching conclusions. And when that is done, #4 is also in play. Anyone can read a book, and with time and effort, summarize what each chapter says. But, without some kind of critical interaction, or evaluative comments, no scholarly value is imparted. Judging by the output of my reviews, you can rest assured many are guilty of #4, and some are surely #3, but I’d have to go back and figure out which ones. #4 is probably the biggest issue in book reviews in general, but if one were to take time to compile data, I don’t think it would be limited to younger reviewers.

All that being said, I don’t think this is a young academic problem. It is much more likely to happen with younger, less established scholars. But, one only has to subscribe to JETS or Themelios to find reviews that come from older academics that hit one of these 4 elements. Maybe the one the least likely to happen is #1, but then we have the sad tale of G. E. Ladd, who published books in pursuit of #1 and was devastated by a review from another establish scholar that violated #2.

If we look at this list as a criteria for editors to keep in mind, I think we’re much close to a new guideline. The age or rank of the academic involved shouldn’t have bearing on publication if the review does the following:

  1. Does not seem out to reinvent the wheel via book review
  2. Is appropriately critical (summarizes and evaluates)
  3. Describes both forest and trees where appropriate
  4. Adds value to the scholarly discussion of the book in question

We need more reviewers, young and old, who are capable of doing the above. And perhaps more significantly, are capable of realizing when you can’t do this with a particularly book. Perhaps this is the element that Leeman’s Tweet hits on. Younger academic reviewers may be less able to sense when they can’t fulfill the criteria. That is one reason why I appreciated the opportunity to do an independent study right before graduating Dallas that focused on writing good book reviews. It was overseen by Dr. Glenn Kreider, who helped me shape reviews that met the above criteria. The resulting reviews were divided between two journals. In each case, I was the primary reviewer, but because I completed it under Dr. Kreider’s supervision, his name appears as well.

If we’d like to avoid more reviews like the one Jonathan Leeman read, maybe we ought to have more seasoned professors like mine who are willing to shape the reviewing tendencies of young academics. If they produce shoddy reviews, it’s probably not because they’re young, but rather untrained. Or worse, they’ve had shoddy reviewers modeled for them by older academics who should know better.

As I look ahead to the reviews I’ll do this year, I want to be more clear about my limitations and strive to hit the criteria Leeman gave us. I want to be more selective, while still writing on many books. That probably means less full critical reviews, but hopefully it will mean better quality reviews when they’re completed. And also, thanks to Leeman’s tweet, I think I want to resurrect the series on doing quality book reviews.

Or maybe I’ll just review tweets about book reviews…

Nate

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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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