This post looks as ‘book reviews’: published appraisals of new literature, often published in sections within academic journals. I’ve long agonised over the utility and merit of published reviews of academic books and here are my thoughts and experiences.
Book reviews are a much maligned and misunderstood medium of scholarly discourse. They serve to present a response to new work by one ‘authority’ – be it a graduate student, a middle-career researcher or a long-retired scholar – in the same particular field as the authors (whether it is theoretical, methodological, geographical, thematic or chronological or indeed a mixture thereof). Book reviews can be invaluable to specialists, but also useful guides to students and general readers in understanding and contextualising new research. Good reviews can be thus simultaneously an important part of scholarly discourse and public engagement.
Many reviews are increasingly available open access via publishers’ and societies’ websites and those that are not can still form key sections of leading regional, national and international journals. Moreover, reviews can be helpful because they offer insights into the thoughts and work of the reviewers as well as the author(s) of the work being reviewed.
Crucially, unlike perhaps more than journal articles whose utility might dip over time, book reviews become more, not less, significant as time passes. They rapidly become historical documents in themselves, testifying to the debates and perspectives current in the archaeology of any particular theme, period and/or region.
Consequently, some archaeologists I know put a lot of weight on how their particular book is appraised: affecting their prestige and reputation and the use and sales of the work.
Having said all that, there are limitations and reservations to the merit of book reviews. Some archaeologists may value book reviews but find it difficult to write them because of pressures on their time. In the REF world, I’ve heard many archaeologists tell others ‘not to bother’ engaging in reviewing new books. Book reviews and reviewing can be looked down upon.
Some reviews can be personal and dismissive – whether intentionally or not. They are a medium that often defends traditional work and criticises innovation and controversial topics. Often, only established scholars get invited to receive free books and write reviews. All manner of subtle and not-so-subtle language is utilised to denigrate new work and criticise it.
Book reviews valorise book-length studies as somehow magically worthy of greater comment, and thus relegating shorter pieces of research such as book chapters or journal articles.
At their worst, they can be nepotistic back-slapping exercises for cabals of like-minded researchers, or get used to run down new work that challenges the reviewers’ own. Usually, there is no opportunity to respond to book reviews; for better or worse it is not a venue for back-and-forth debate.
One of the most annoying things about book reviews for me is when they pedantically focus on the grammatical and typographic errors, or whinge about the cover price. Academic books can be expensive, and presentation and stylistic errors are deserving of note if they seriously detract from the reading experience. However, listing minor errors or complaining about the state of the publishing industry in a book review makes the reviewer look like a complete tosser.
Some archaeologists I know have sternly stated they ‘never write reviews’ for fear of making enemies, others who have told me that they never read them, since they do not respect a medium that does not offer a ‘right to reply’. Others simply don’t bother at all because they have other priorities or don’t wish to engage in this manner with new work.
Now that I’ve made some general points, let me explore my own experiences.
Atitudes to Reviews of My Own Works
I confess I have never avidly sought out book reviews of my own monograph and edited collections. Those that I’ve seen tend to be useful, fair and give one perspective on the merits and limitations of the study in question. Others depart from this, but still this gives me a sense of the reviewers’ own thinking, even if I don’t agree with their appraisal of my work. I sometimes rage against comments, but when I’m in a more mature state of mind, I realise that this is the result of getting published: at least a handful of reviews will properly read the book! Fixating on comments of one reviewer is unhealthy.
For example, it was only c. 5 years after a review of my 2006 monograph Death and Memory in Early Medieval Britain did I find a rather critical review of it published by Oxford-based scholar Sally Crawford. It was actually one of my students who said in a seminar ‘that lady doesn’t like you does she?’ I subsequently read up and found out what the student meant. I didn’t agree with the appraisal but equally felt it was a worthwhile ‘take’ on my book.
Being a Book Reviewer
In my career to date, I’ve penned c. 45 book reviews since 2001, which I guess means an average of between 2 and 3 per year. I see this as an important aspect of my scholarly work, serving present and future communities of researchers and a medium for presenting some omissions, queries and challenges for current researchers as well as congratulating them on their successes. Unsurprisingly, I’ve written some critical reviews, and some positive ones. A few, albeit rarely, have been gushing with enthusiasm where I feel it is deserved.
Perhaps most of all, I enjoyed writing a ‘Review Article’ appraising the current state of early medieval mortuary archaeology research (for the interdisciplinary journal Early Medieval Europe: Williams, H. 2005. Review article: rethinking early medieval mortuary archaeology Early Medieval Europe 13(2): 195-217). Here I got to explore at length a couple of books and place them in context. I have also liked writing reviews for the European Journal of Archaeology, who allow longer reviews and occasional citations.
In recent years, I’ve done far less of late, and I feel guilty about this as some books I wanted to review simply haven’t been completed. Review editors rightly are frustrated with me and I know I’ve let a few down (and therefore the authors too): Sorry!
Still, those I have reviewed, I try to offer the reader a sense of broader context, and then pursue an appraisal of the book and identify key omissions.
I’ve only occasionally heard back from authors regarding their views on my book reviews. I’m not sure that’s good or bad…
Being a Review Editor
Then in 2010 I got the opportunity to take over from Professor Richard Hingley as ‘Assistant Editor’ (now we’ve changed this title to more accurately describe it as ‘Review Editor’) for the Royal Archaeological Institute’s Archaeological Journal. I was officially review editor for only one volume of the journal – 168 for 2011 – but I was in this post for 18 months before I took over as Honorary Editor in May 2012.
Being RAI book review editor gave me a very different perspective on reviewing books. I got to appraise and manage an eclectic range of different styles and characters of book reviews, as well as consider books of very different sizes and subjects. I had to identify and communicate with referees, edit their reviews and liaise with the Honorary Editor over content. This helped me learn the ropes of publishing journal articles too. It was a steep but useful learning curve.
I found it a challenge to ‘chase reviewers’ who were busy people with many other commitments on their time. Most took the responsibility very seriously and eventually got book reviews to me. Only a few ignored my emails and never submitted reviews, but for one reason or other this will inevitably take place.
In terms of the character of book reviews published, I was told firmly when I took over that the RAI shouldn’t publish ‘critical reviews’. I agreed insofar as the RAI shouldn’t be publishing personal attacks and snide dismissive reviews. Where I disagreed was in feeling that ‘reviews’ must be definition be ‘critical’ engagements with the works under scrutiny.
Now that I’ve served as Honorary Editor (2012-2017), I still get final say over the Archaeological Journal‘s book reviews. In practical terms, since I have a very efficient review editor, she can manage the review section independently unless she raises a concern with me and wishes my input. Dr Kate Waddington has now been review editor for 5 volumes of the journal and she does the job effectively and professionally. I hope she stays at the important job as Archaeological Journal review editor for a long time and her important role, as with reviews editors for other journals, gets recognised for its key contribution to archaeological research and debate.
I hope that other archaeology journals continue to celebrate the merits of their review sections too, and something can be done with journals’ online platforms to make book reviews more, not less, usable in this format. In my view, the current state of online book reviews is far from ideal.