The Art of Reviewing
To the Editor:
Bruce Mazlish's advice to reviewers ("The Art of Reviewing," Perspectives, February 2001) is generally sound and helpful. But it is not enough for reviewers to be thorough, objective, and open about their own points of view. Critiquing a book, whether published or in manuscript, also requires an examination of the author's references—the scholarly apparatus displayed in footnotes and bibliography—the very foundation on which the work is based, testimony to its integrity and reliability.
Let me provide two examples from my own experience as a prepublication reviewer. In one case, I scrutinized the translation made of a French study dealing with 19th-century society. Although the translator had satisfactorily rendered the book into English, he neglected to verify the author's sources. When I did so, I was astonished to discover numerous errors: incorrect titles for books cited, inaccurate page references, and garbled quotations. The substantial list of necessary corrections I suggested caused the press that solicited my opinion not to publish the book.
In another case, a manuscript dealing with a figure prominent during the French Revolution was submitted to me for review. Out of curiosity I compared the text with an obscure study of the same individual mentioned in the author's own bibliography. I soon realized how much of the manuscript had been "borrowed" from the older work. (Plagiarism, it may be said, is the highest tribute one historian can pay to another.) Originally a doctoral dissertation, it had somehow escaped serious scrutiny by the author's thesis adviser and other readers. Again, my severe comments dissuaded the press from publishing it.
A reviewer's opinion of a work may well be personal, even subjective. However, a critical examination of an author's sources, time-consuming and painstaking as it might be, offers one certain way of determining the merits of a scholarly publication.
Montana State University
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