A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Thursday, April 11, 2013

What Makes for a Good Book Review: More Thoughts From a Publisher's Perspective

Today I have posted the second and final part of Henry Neufeld's post on what makes for a good book review. Part one can be found here.

Here's where I prefer to write as a reader rather than as the publisher. If you have found a way to engage your readers in the topic of books you read, then I'm happy. But what engages me?

To misappropriate the Apostle Paul:  Much, and in many ways.

One of Adams' complaints about reviews is that they may substitute for reading the book. And he's right. That could happen. I use academic reviews in that way. I look for reviews by someone whose scholarship I already respect and read the review to discover the major arguments and also the quality of the work. But for me this is a necessary short cut. Currently I'm revising my study guide to the book of Hebrews. I wrote it eight years ago. I want to make sure to catch the best of recent scholarship as I revise it. It's not a commentary, and certainly not exhaustive, so I'm not going to read everything. But I do want to see the best of recent scholarship. Academic reviews, wherever I might find them, will help me discover the literature that is breaking new ground and that is going to impact the much more limited scope of my study guide.

By an academic review here I mean a review written by someone with academic qualifications in the appropriate field of study that includes key information such as the scope of the work, the major arguments, and evaluations of the quality of that work. That's not all there is to a good academic review, but those are key. Whether the academic in question wrote the review for a journal or published it on a blog is of limited concern.

The majority of blogger reviews, however, are not academic reviews. I often hear complaints about reviews based on the fact that they do not include all the information necessary. But for many blogs, a full academic review would be incredibly boring. That's not what the blog is about.

So here are some other ideas for engaging with your readers about books:

1. A series of quotations with a brief response

2. Comments about a particular argument, again brief

3. A simple list of a few points you liked about a book and a few points you didn't

4. An extended, multi-part response (one of my preferred forms)

5. Your own reflections on the topic with only a brief mention of the book as catalyst

As a publisher I would find any of these options acceptable from someone who had received a free book (remember to let people know about the free copy!) and as a reader, if I'm interested in the topic of the book, I'm likely to read any of them.

If you do choose to write an academic review, be sure to do it well. Inaccurate or misleading reviews are extremely annoying, at a minimum. Try to review rationally. I don't mind if your review reveals more about you than about the book or its author, provided that whatever the review asserts about the book is actually true.

Finally, a note on technical details. (Note that the preceding is a sentence fragment, left as such intentionally.) Typos, format issues, and cover design are valid topics for reviewer comment, but generally only for brief comment. There are those who don't have to produce books who feel that there should be no typos in a manuscript. I very, very rarely read a book – and I read many books – even from major publishers, in which I don't find something wrong. Mention that you found typos if they have an impact on reading the book. Make sure that you are equally hard on typos in books you agree with as on those you don't.

Other technical issues that deserve comment include endnotes vs. footnotes, indexes, the detail of the table of contents, and the overall quality of the printed book (paper, consistency, etc.). But again diatribes on the matter are rarely helpful in a review. Your readers already know whether they prefer footnotes or endnotes, and you're unlikely to change their mind. (Incidentally I prefer footnotes, but depending on topic, nature of the presentation, and author, I may use either chapter endnotes or book endnotes.)

In addition, you might do well to make sure you actually know the topic on which you comment. One reader sent me an extensive list of uses of the singular “they” in a manuscript, noting that my copy editor should have caught such glaring errors. My copy editor was doubtless quite capable of catching such an “error” except that our company notes on style list the singular “they” as acceptable. Some style manuals require it. This reader was applying his high school English, and it showed.

I would not recommend writing book reviews as a means of getting free books. But if you can find a good way to engage your blog readers in response to these books, they can provide you with some excellent material. While some readers may decide not the read the book (and you may have done them a favor!) others will learn about a new book they might otherwise have missed.

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