Book reviews remain an important part of humanities scholarship. Most academic journals publish them, and many publish multiple reviews in a single issue. Journals either publish review essays of individual books and/or clusters of books (such as American Quarterly).
Yet, there’s surprisingly little information on why scholars write book reviews and how to write them. What’s more, many view book reviews as a time-wasting task or a CV filler at best (even though book reviews don’t qualify as peer-reviewed publications).
In academia, we still write book reviews as part of the profession because the evaluation of books in an academic journal matters, and not just for book authors. Many people benefit from book review essays, including authors, academic publishers, readers, and the reviewers themselves, as Casey Brienza explains.
The case for not writing book reviews is strong, with some arguing that the time spent reviewing someone else’s work could be spent on writing your own (especially for graduate students, as Karen Kelsky of The Professor Is In advocates). And yes, if you’re writing book reviews as a way to avoid your own work, especially your dissertation, then you should redirect your focus to your own work.
However, writing book reviews can also help you with your work. I wrote my first book review as a graduate student in 2013 and I didn’t write one again for four years. I have greatly benefited from writing book reviews and in 2017, I committed to writing one per year after reviewing Alondra Nelson’s The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation After the Genome for the journal Souls. Here are just a few reasons why you should write book reviews and key tips on how to write them so that they can support the development of your own work.
Book reviews help you learn the academic publishing process
Writing a book review is a great way to learn about academic publishing. Many top journals don’t publish articles by junior scholars (sometimes as a policy but more often because those manuscripts don’t pass the peer review process), but they will gladly publish book reviews from them.
As much as the academy is focused on product, academic publishing is a process, a long one that involves working with an editor to prepare your piece for publication. Writing book reviews is a low stakes way of getting acquainted with this process, especially since book reviews are shorter (often less than 2,000 words) than articles.
Book reviews require you to dwell with texts
Writing a book review is one of the few chances you will have to really dwell with a single text or a set of related texts. In a profession that is increasingly focused on measuring and managing individual scholarly productivity and driven by the “publish or perish” mentality, book reviews truly stand out.
Here’s your chance to read a whole book from start to finish and consider it as a whole on its own terms rather than resorting to an unsubstantiated critique based on reading only the text’s introduction or to the equally unsubstantiated tear-down culture that pervades academia. Writing a book review can also be a chance for redefining and rethinking your relationship to reading.
Book reviews keep you current
Because book reviews are written about recently published books, they offer a chance for you to stay abreast of and highlight new directions in a field and offer your own input.
University presses publish hundreds of books every year. Duke University Press alone publishes around 120 books annually. All of this scholarship is in conversation with existing scholarship in different ways and brings new, sometimes groundbreaking, theories and methods to the table.
Book review essays offer a chance for you to share your unique input on the evolution of a field of study.
Book reviews let you map your fields and find new ones
Writing a book review is also a chance for you to delve deeper into your primary and secondary fields. This is my personal favorite reason to write book reviews.
For instance, I’m currently writing a book review for an oral history journal on Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective. Oral history is not my primary field of study, but it is a field that is growing in importance to my research. Studying Taylor’s collection of oral history interviews and writing about them for an oral history journal gives me a chance to learn more about the theory and practice of oral history, which in turn strengthens this part of my own research.
Book reviews can diversify publishing
Many who have made the case for writing book reviews have done so by emphasizing that it is a “service to the profession.” Yet, it’s more than that.
The academic publishing industry plays a pivotal role in disseminating our research, yet it is totally lacking in diversity. According to the 2015 Diversity Baseline Survey, 89 percent of book reviewers are white/Caucasian, 87 percent are cisgender woman, 91 percent are straight/heterosexual, and 88 percent are nondisabled.
Although rectifying this imbalance should be the priority of publishers (not authors with marginalized identities), book reviews are one way authors with marginalized identities can increase their presence in publishing.
As such, writing book reviews is not simply a service to the profession. It’s one way to increase diversity in academic publishing and bring multiple perspectives to bear on emergent scholarship.
Key tips on how to write book reviews worth your while
Some journals only solicit book reviewers, meaning you cannot pitch them. In these cases, reviewers are solicited by the journal’s book review editor. This is what Casey Brienza calls “proactive commissioning.”
Sometimes, a journal’s book review editor will circulate a call for reviewers to write about specific books. A great way to be in the loop about this is to join a large academic listserv like QStudy. This is how I ended up reviewing Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake: On Blackness and Being for the Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies (pdf). I responded to a call for reviewers that was circulated through QStudy.
For the review I am currently writing, however, I reached out the editors of an academic journal—what Brienza calls “reactive commissioning.” If you choose to reach out, contact the book review editor and explain why the newly published book you have in mind makes sense to review for their journal.
For step-by-step guides on the entire book review writing process, including how to communicate with editors, check out those by Wendy Laura Belcher, author of How to Write Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks, and Karen Kelsky, author of The Professor Is In: The Essential Guide to Turning Your PhD into a Job.
Both of those templates break down book review essays into a formulaic structure with three main parts: summary, strengths, and weakness—and this is a great start. However, breaking out of this formula is essential for transforming this genre and for writing a book review that’s worth your while.
Instead of strengths, I suggest thinking in terms of contributions. What is this book contributing to the fields of X, Y, and Z? Instead of weaknesses, I suggest thinking in terms of conversations. How does considering X, Y, and Z complicate, expand on, and transform this book’s main contributions? This is the approach I took when reviewing Nelson’s book and so that essay shifts from a detailed outline of her work to an engaging and engaged conversation with its major contributions.
Finally, don’t just review any book. Choose a book that is related to your research and use the essay as an opportunity to think with and alongside rather than against another scholar. This can be the start of an exchange with that author and a key way to build professional community.