Against Academic Book Reviews


Several years ago, The Atlantic published a history of authors’, readers’, and reviewers’ gripes about book reviews. Reviews, the genre’s critics have charged over the centuries, are unsatisfying — too nice, too bland, too nepotistic. And while those barbs were levied at the literary book review, academics who work in book-intensive fields will likely find they resonant.

In general, academic book reviews are derivative works with a utilitarian purpose. They’re supposed to summarize scholarly books’ contributions, evaluate their worth, and situate them within a broader academic landscape. They can weigh heavily on tenure committees, depending on the discipline. And they consume a significant share of journals’ page counts. In its December 2020 issue alone, Perspectives on Politics, the journal that carries book reviews for the American Political Science Association, published over 80 reviews (not counting review essays, symposia, or author-meets-critics dialogues).

Given the amount of scholarly attention, resources, and energy that reviews command, it’s worth asking if they’re worth it. Looking at the state of academic book reviewing, it’s possible, even probable, that we should jettison such reviews in favor of other ways of linking books back to the scholarly conversation.

The target of my criticism is the standard book review: the standalone, capsule review of a scholarly volume published in an academic journal running about 500 to 1,000 words. That’s different from a “review essay,” which can run to thousands of words and cover one, two, or many books, or a review symposium, in which several authors discuss a single book. It’s also a form apart from the sorts of reviews for general audiences one encounters in major newspapers and magazines or in dedicated periodicals like The New York Review of Books.