To review or not to review?

This week I had a review published in Times Higher Education of Wyn Grant’s Political Football. I must be lapsing into that philosophical cliché of absent mindedness since I’d forgotten about it even though I read and reviewed the book only two or three weeks ago. Or does it reflect the fact that a review is hardly a career milestone? Given my years and grey hair, I’m occasionally asked advice from early career academics and one question that comes up is the place of reviews in your publication record. They seem to count hardly anything on your CV so is it worth doing them at all?

If you’re on the job market, I’d suggest that your time is best spent working on articles or your own books, and similarly if you’re aiming for promotion. A published review can get you a little bit of credit but more for services to the profession than for publication. You will have some words in print, certainly, but they will be very few words, of necessity lacking philosophical depth, and coming at a significant opportunity cost since it takes time to read a whole book properly for review purposes.

Despite giving advice like this, I note that in my career I have published around 18 book reviews, which is too many. I’m not good at following my own advice. Since I’m not looking for future promotions, however, I think I can afford to write them. I think of it as a way of paying forward. Books deserve reviewing. I’m glad that journals still publish reviews and realise the significance of my own books being reviewed. If early career academics cannot afford to spend time on that, then it is right that people like me do. I recognise my privilege.

There are some good reasons to accept a review assignment, whatever your career stage. If it’s a book that you really need to read for your own research, then a review can be a perfect opportunity. Not only will you get a free copy, and the impetus to sit and read it, you will probably do so carefully, given that your verdict is to be a public matter. I also consider the requested assignment. I once had to read a very big book but managed to negotiate doing so only if the journal gave me 4,000 words. It was worth the considerable time, I thought, if I could engage with the philosophical argument of the book more than superficially.

In recent years, I’ve also started to consider the art of the review. Even if I have very few words, I still try to tell a story with them. I have little interest in reviews that merely list the contents of the book. A ‘good’ review is a creative endeavour, even though it is a definite mistake to try and eclipse the book that is its subject. That’s what the reader of the review is interested in. But I think there is no harm in presenting the review in an entertaining way, perhaps with some kind of angle. Additionally, I have a rule to always respect the time and effort of writing a book. An author will have put a significant slice of their life into it and it is mean to focus unduly on the negative. I try to concentrate on the positives, since they are to be found in almost every book. Only once did I make it clear that I really disliked a book and I had already made sure that the author was successful and famous enough to take it. It’s fine to speak truth to power. Just avoid at all costs speaking power to truth.

1 Comment

  1. I’ve adopted a policy of agreeing to review books that are already on my to be read/to be purchased list, because I’ve learned that pretty much the only way I’ll read an academic book cover to cover nowadays is if I have to write a review for it. So I do reviews more for myself, to ensure that I actually keep up with the book scholarship in my field, than for anyone else.


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