In addition to providing weekly book reviews, I’ve also had my share of “meta-discussions” on the subject. Sometimes it’s not enough to just review books, we have to also talk about reviewing books and in an inceptionesque sort of way “review the reviewing of books.” So, once upon a time, I explained to you how I do book reviews. I’ve also explained how you too can get free books to review on your blog. The former of these posts spent more time on the overarching process, so today I want to unpack what I think the elements of a good book review are. And to do that, I’ll need to invoke triperspectivalism.
For a quick refresher on triperspectivalism, it’s simply an epistemological tool to help explain and better understand any subject of study (for a few other examples, see my Perspectives on Triperspectivalism series). The “tri-” in triperspectivalism comes from the three perspectives used:
- The normative perspective
- The situational perspective
- The existential perspective
These are derived from the three aspects of God’s lordship: authority, control, and presence. If we were to enter a field of study, observations from the normative perspective evaluate what God has authoritatively said on the topic. Observations from the situational perspective would evaluate facts from nature, history, science, or a combination of similar disciplines. Observations from the existential perspective would evaluate how the study relates to our subjective experience.
In the case of something like book reviews, normative becomes norms for good writing, situational becomes the situational content of the book itself, and existential becomes the fit between author, intended audience and actual reader (i.e. in this case me). A good review, in my opinion at least, looks at the book from all these perspectives. As I have been reviewing books over the last couple of months, I’ve tried to follow what I outline below, but without using the “framework” I’ll unpack here. Even if it’s just a sentence or two, I try to comment on all 9 aspects below (because of course each perspective has its own triperspective inside it).
When it comes to evaluating a book from the normative perspective, you need to ask whether the book is well written, well organized, and meets its own internal goals. Not to get too crazy with the triperspectival parsing, but you’ll notice this is a triad as well. When I review a book I want to see writing that follows good English style and syntax (a norm for all writing), whether the material in the book is organized in a clean way (it has a sensible situational structure to it), and that it succeeds in accomplishing its own internal aims (it is in sync with its own existential criteria).
In the past I’ve criticized books in this perspective usually for either being disorganized (e.g. Michael Horton’s The Christian Faith) or having unnecessarily clumpy prose (e.g. Christopher Seitz’s The Character of Christian Scripture). In a rare case, I’ve felt like a book didn’t meet its own internal goal (e.g. The Driscoll’s Real Marriage). The mistake that some book reviewers make here is to criticize a book for failing to meet a goal that the author did not set for himself. However, that would be elevating an existential preference of the reviewer to a norm from which to criticize, and that’s never a good thing.
The more critical (in the sense of “conceptually interactive”) a book review is, the more time the reviewer will spend in the situational perspective. In fact, most of the time you pick up a book to review it is for situational considerations: the ideas advanced in the book, the sources it uses, and the implications it suggests. In this sense, the situational perspective deals with the “situation” the book presents, or what the book is about. If you’ve been keeping up with the recent issues with David Barton’s The Jefferson Lies, it was pulled from the shelves by Thomas Nelson because it struck out in all three of these areas. Barton misused his sources to come up with ideas and implications that are not historically accurate. Because of that, it didn’t matter how well written, organized, and true to its own goals the book was, it was a situational disaster and so got the axe by the publisher.
This is the area of book reviewing where expertise comes into play. To evaluate a book normatively, you just need a good grasp of English style and syntax, and pay attention to what the author says the book is trying to do and then what it actually does. But to review a book situationally, you need to have some level of conceptual expertise in the subject the book covers. For instance, in my review of Meaning at The Movies, I felt that the author mishandled Romans 1 exegetically (a source) and so drew an interpretive principle from that text to then apply to culture in a way that did not work well (an idea and resultant implications). Likewise, in Michael Horton’s God of Promise, his sources on ancient Near East literature are outdated, his analysis of the sources yields inaccurate results, and so his implications drawn for his overall system (his presentation of covenant theology) are faulty.
Finally, when it comes to existential considerations you need to focus on the author, audience, and yourself. With the author, credentials come into play, but usually in the sense of whether or not the particular author seems suited to talk authoritatively on the subject he is addressing. Typically the back cover gives the author info specifically for the purpose of explaining why he or she should have a platform to talk about the subject. The author, in usually the preface or introduction, typically explains who they intend the book to be for. The evaluation you make as a reviewer is whether or not there is a good fit.
What is sometimes left out in all of this is the subjective (because we don’t like that word) impressions of the reader. I’ve tried to include those more often in my reviews. While they may be somewhat out of place in an academic review, I think they are an important part of the existential perspective and deserve their place. Earlier this week for instance, when I reviewed Genesis and Christian Theology, I pointed out that there was a good fit between author and audience, but at a personal level, I just didn’t like the book. It’s a type of criticism that isn’t necessarily saying “this book is bad,” so much as saying “I thought I would like this, but I just didn’t.” Too often we tend to equate the two, but they are really separate considerations. One is a normative evaluation and the other is an existential one. Tripespectivalism can help you keep them apart.
So there you have it. Considering how complicated I could have made it, that wasn’t so bad now was it? All this talk about book reviews though reminds me I’ve got some reading to do…