On the Potential of Book Reviews
Building a More Inclusive and Cohesive Community
Numerous reasons motivate academics to review books for professional journals, perhaps as many reasons as there are reviewers.
The process keeps individuals contributing to a larger discourse, maintains professional development, and fosters a coherent, inclusive academic culture. And yet reviewers are geographically, professionally, politically, and generationally diverse, meaning they engage in academic criticism with different perspectives. But with the myriad tasks that historians face at all levels of their careers, book reviews are often seen as a burden rather than an opportunity. Book reviews are essential components of historical inquiry, and the discipline, professional organizations, and institutions of higher education must recognize them as the essential publishing standard—as the one task most likely achievable by the greatest number of historians.
Book reviews express all the tools of historical analysis, and they are an important genre of publication. Book reviewing provides professors and graduate students the opportunity to engage with new scholarship, contribute to ongoing conversations and debates in the field, and demonstrate specialized expertise. Published book reviews form a point in the triangular relationship among reviewers, authors, and editors that offers scholars the opportunity to shape, challenge, and influence the production and reception of new arguments. The book reviewer is a counterpart to anonymous readers employed by the press as part of the publication process. Therefore, book reviews should be referenced in any discussion addressing the scope and inclusivity of the process of peer-reviewing books.
Reviewing a book requires numerous skills central to historical methods. Critiquing and criticizing research are skills cultivated in graduate school and central to historical inquiry. Other methods involved in book reviewing are inherent in pedagogy and indispensable in higher education. Evaluating sources and methods, assessing the logic inherent in an argument, and judging the quality of writing all benefit from constant practice and refinement. An academic review provides a sense of where a book fits into a field, which is also a task required in college-level courses.
The book reviewer is a counterpart to anonymous readers employed by the press as part of the publication process.
Two recent events influenced the academic pursuit of reviewing books. First, the economic crisis of 2008–09 disrupted the delivery of books to book review editors, while offers of electronic PDFs became more common; the COVID-19 pandemic made the acquisition of books even more challenging. Several academic presses closed their warehouses for months, while journal editors struggled to place the few books they acquired for review with professors who were focused instead on implementing distance learning strategies. Nearly four years after the pandemic began, keeping the review process functioning remains a challenge, to the detriment of our collective knowledge.
When some folks continue to miss out on the opportunities offered by reviewing books, the book review sections of journals suffer from a lack of specialized expertise and viewpoints. An increase in authorship not only will lead to a more equitable distribution of scholarly contributions; it also will invigorate our collective scholarship as new voices join ongoing conversations. These diverse perspectives constitute a powerful attribute of academic discourse and provide a mentoring quality to the world of criticism that values perspectives of junior colleagues while providing space for maturation.
Reviewing is also an integrated part of a whole: a career-long cultivation of an authoritative and insightful voice that is capable of quickly perceiving an argument, contextualizing it, and offering a pertinent critique. Scholars at the top of their field enjoy a gravitas that can be marshaled in support of the genre’s importance. The discipline needs to hear critiques informed by those who have achieved the widest recognition in their careers of reading, writing, teaching, and mentoring. Critiquing newly published books for a learned audience is the best method for acquiring a normative understanding of the spirit and nature of interactive academic discourse.
A scholarly exchange of ideas also requires quality book reviews. Reviewers need not hesitate to offer criticism of an author’s work if it is delivered with civility and anchored in close reading and thoughtful consideration. A strong, critical voice will be discerned by one’s peers, so a serious, analytical, and respectful approach to the task will serve everyone’s best interests.
Book reviews need to be recognized as important work because they epitomize the culture of criticism and guide historians through contributions and challenges to prevailing orthodoxies. Colleagues, department chairs, deans, and university presidents should appreciate the importance of book reviews as faculty publications. And yet surprisingly many guidelines for tenure and promotion do not esteem reviews as valuable publications. In our experience, we encountered numerous academics reluctant to take on a review precisely because they felt pressured to publish a larger project prior to a tenure or promotion decision and thus could not prioritize reviewing over their own research.
No part of the academy can unilaterally conjure a new valuation of scholarly publication, but a dedicated effort by historians might persuade others to engage with the idea of a more fair and realistic framing of the subject. Given the number of tenured historians who serve in faculty governance and on executive councils in some capacity, there is ample opportunity to explain the need to recognize the importance of writing and publishing book reviews. In brief, old-fashioned consciousness raising may prompt a reconsideration of the status quo.
The vital role book reviews play in academic discourse is a timely topic given the issuance of the AHA’s Guidelines for Broadening the Definition of Historical Scholarship in January 2023. The guidelines create an opportunity to expand who gets to be considered an engaged historian. Recognition of the importance of book reviews also connects to the topic of job equity. Issues of job security, teaching workloads, and the demands of life influence decisions about the feasibility of potential writing projects. Many historians are not empowered to write an article or a monograph, but book reviews are achievable, especially if valued on annual reports and applications for fellowships, jobs, and tenure and promotion.
Until we rethink these processes, the major criteria in judging academic worthiness will remain based on some formulaic expression of measurable productivity wherein certain tasks matter more and others less—criteria that invariably values book reviews much less. A scheme that celebrates only the publication of books and journal articles expresses a system that marginalizes many historians. A more just and accurate approach to ascertaining merit would emphasize the idea that all scholarly production is enmeshed in a connected whole. Academics should be recognized for their participation in all aspects of that discourse.
Problems with job equity in the academy are not new, but they have become worse in recent years. Greater participation from everyone across all ranks will strengthen professional unity and have the greatest benefit to those at the margins. Adjuncts, postdocs, and visiting professors also face demanding time constraints augmented by uncertain futures, which is why their successful publication of a book review deserves appropriate recognition.
Ending the misguided judgment of what matters as a worthy publication is requisite for a more just professional culture.
The culture of criticism benefits if book reviews become a more celebrated attribute of academic publishing. They are typically presented as a lesser part of a publication, appearing in a journal after the articles and afforded limited word counts. We encourage journals whose review sections contribute to academic discourse and research to consider some of the innovative changes that could be of benefit to professional discourse. In this day of easy digitization, the posting of a thoughtful recorded discussion between two or three experts may be more appropriate than the publication of 800 words by one. Linking written or audio files online can be accomplished with ease. Those journals that have begun to reimagine their platforms with new ways of promoting criticism offer inspiration and direction.
Book reviews permit scholars of all ranks to demonstrate disciplinary expertise to their peers, which lays the groundwork for collaboration among colleagues and new avenues for research. Respect for this process may encourage our most professionally at risk colleagues by nurturing a more inclusive culture of book reviews and by recognizing the added value reviews bring to the discipline. Thus those who find themselves marginalized by an unfriendly job market still have access to significant professional discourse. Likewise, a more supportive environment is even more critical given gender and racial inequities, especially those combined with the obligations of childcare, eldercare, departmental duties, and demanding institutional service that often falls unevenly on women and minority colleagues. Ending the misguided judgment of what matters as a worthy professional publication is requisite for a more just professional culture and a stronger sense of community.
We have identified several ways the discipline may encourage individuals to write book reviews, with internal rewards remaining the strongest motivator—thus the focus on empowerment. We also encourage the discipline writ large to celebrate the potential of book reviews as a publishing standard capable of uniting all those assembled under the big tent of history. Book reviewing requires knowledge, wisdom, and insight. The more historians write, publish, and esteem book reviews, the more they promote scholarly debate, academic publishing, and the recent publications of colleagues. Recognized and rewarded as they ought to be, book reviews possess the potential to connect individuals to a more vibrant academic discourse—a distinct benefit for everyone.
The authors thank Tom Carter for copyediting this essay, and James Amelang, Kathleen Comerford, Katherine French, Audrey Kerr, Meeta Mehrotra, Allyson Poska, Lucius Wedge, and Merry Wiesner-Hanks for their comments.
Gary G. Gibbs is a professor of history, Whitney A. M. Leeson is a professor of anthropology and history, and James M. Ogier is a professor emeritus of German and linguistics at Roanoke College. Karen F. Harris is the retired book review office manager for the Sixteenth Century Journal.
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