Book reviews have been a staple part of literature, both popular and academic, for quite some time. Ideally, a book review provides the consumer with an informed opinion that helps one decide whether or not to buy a book. In some cases in academia, a reviewer may even enter into dialogue with the book and advance scholarship on a certain issue (occasionally a scholar, when critiquing another author's position, will cite book reviews of the other author's works).
Yet a recent article by New York Times writer David Streitfeld indicates that quite often this is not the case. In his article "The Best Book Reviews Money Can Buy" (online: http://finance.yahoo.com/news/best-book-reviews-money-buy-131408538.html?page=1 accessed 9/5/2012), Streitfeld tells the story of a certain Mr. Rutherford who had a revelation regarding book reviews. While initially working in marketing attempting to get others to review his clients' books, he recognized the potential for a whole new business model; Streitfeld writes, "Suddenly it hit him [Rutherford]. Instead of trying to cajole others to review a client's work, why not cut out the middleman and write the review himself? Then it would say exactly what the client wanted . . ." By 2010 Rutherford had his own website and was offering various pricing options ($99 for one review, $499 for 20 reviews, etc.). Eventually, Rutherford was making almost $30,000 dollars a month!
Streitfeld further narrates how Rutherford began hiring other reviewers to work for him. One such reviewer admitted in an interview that for a simple 50-word review, the reviewer didn't even need to actually read the book. She could find enough information on the internet to write a glowing report! For a 300-word review, a mere 15 minutes was all that was necessary.
Apparently Rutherford's company's reviews were not the only ones of their kind. Streitfeld quotes Bing Liu (from the University of Illinois) stating that "about one-third of all consumer reviews on the internet are fake." In Streitfeld's article, this seems to be linked both to the perception that a 5-star review is necessary for a book to sell well and to human nature itself. Elsewhere, Streitfeld cites Stanford professor Robert Sutton, who makes the following observations: "Nearly all human beings have unrealistically positive self-regard. When people tell us we're not as great as we thought we were, we don't like it. Anything less than a five-star review is an attack" (emphasis added). Sadly, I think this is a generally accurate analysis of human nature.
The result, as Streitfeld notes in his article, is that often reviews have come to resemble the endorsements that one reads on the cover of a book, rather than actual reviews. (There is, of course, the complete opposite problem: an entirely negative review stemming from issues unrelated to the book itself [e.g., "I know that this author is a Calvinist/Arminian/Calvaminian-hypochondriac, so anything he or she writes must be downright heresy!!"] It's not only the 5-star reviews that are sometimes suspect but the 1-star ones as well!)
While I am fairly certain that Biblical studies does not suffer from the same problem described above (at least not to the same extent), this still raises a few issues that I wish to address. To begin with, why do we write book reviews in the first place? Secondly, what should a book review actually provide the reader?
Of course, there will never be a totally objective way to analyze books. All of us have our presuppositions going into a book and those probably won't change. Thus two intelligent scholars may both review the same book and come away with differing conclusions. For example, within the past year or two both Stanley E. Porter (JETS 53.4) and Robert W. Yarbrough (BBR 21.1) have reviewed Daniel Wallace's Granville Sharp's Canon and its Kin, the former negatively and the latter positively. Now, both writers are intelligent, published New Testament scholars. I happen to very strongly disagree with Dr. Porter's review (and have already defended Dr. Wallace some time ago on this blog), but the fact remains that Dr. Porter clearly read the book, and his review is thus an intelligent opinion on the content of the book, not an attack against Dr. Wallace himself. Furthermore, he tries to fairly represent Dr. Wallace. Likewise, Dr. Yarbrough's review is a critical review, not a marketing endorsement. Both of these reviews, then, are true reviews, yet this illustrates that good people can disagree on certain issues, that some subjectivity exists.
A book review, then, should be a thorough, intelligently expressed summary and opinion (I use "thorough" in the sense of "the author actually read the book and does not omit discussing key portions of it" rather than regarding length per se; a 1-page review may be more thorough than a 2-page review in that sense). Since a review should, ideally, help in determining whether or not I want to actually spend money on this book (either as an individual or as an institution), the review should provide me with, at minimum, two key pieces of information: 1. What the book is about, and 2. what the book's focus and limitations are.
Regarding the first, a review should summarize the content of a book with accuracy. This means that a reviewer should actually have read the book (duh!). If I'm considering buying a new book on the theology of the Apostle Paul, for example, I want to know what areas the book focuses on, what (if any) space is devoted to the apostle's life and conversion, what chapters deal with the New Perspective, etc. I also want to know where the author is coming from. Is he or she Roman Catholic? Liberal? Protestant? Hyper-Covenantal-Pentecostal-Post-Tribulationist? Are there certain obvious theological presuppositions that the author holds? (this last point would be especially important if I were teaching a college-level class for a particular denomination or theological tradition).
As for the second point, I want the author's intelligent opinion on the content. I may or may not agree with the reviewer, but at least I should be treated to a well thought-out analysis of the contents of the book. Ideally, a critical thinker reviewing a book should be able to recognize strong portions of a book he or she disagrees with as well as weak portions of a book he or she agrees with. Furthermore, if the book omits key material, I want to know about it before I buy it. A book on Pauline theology that fails to discuss justification would be severely handicapped, and I probably would not be interested in adding that to my library. Conversely, a statement like "author Josephine Johnson's treatment on the use of second temple literature in the General Epistles is nearly unparalleled" would definitely make me sit up, take notice, and possibly make a bee-line to Amazon.com (if, in fact, we can make "bee-lines" while traversing the internet). Finally, the author should qualify what the book is useful for. A book on Hebrew poetic structure in Genesis would probably be a poor choice for an "OT Survey class" for college freshmen but may be quite appropriate for a doctoral class on Hebrew exegesis.
Let me close by pointing the reader to a book review in an academic journal that, in my opinion, gets it right. Granted, I'm a bit positively biased towards the author here, because he's a former college classmate of mine back in the late 90s and early 2000s, so keep that in mind (although I'm still a bit jealous he got higher grades than me and finished his doctorate first . . . :)!
(for the record, I don't think a book review needs to be in a peer-reviewed academic journal to be valuable. I've read quite a few reviews on personal blogs, etc. and have benefited from them. One of my friend's blogs pretty much focuses exclusively on book reviews as well as linking the reader to other reviews, author interviews, etc. [see the blog roll])
A test case. Kevin W. McFadden, "Review of Romans by Craig S. Keener," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society vol. 53.2 (June 2010): pp. 407-409.
My old friend Kevin McFadden reviews Craig Keener's commentary on Romans in the New Covenant Commentary series (Eugene, Oreg.: Cascade, 2009). The review is approximately 2 pages long. It's a bit different than standard reviews in that there's less summary of the content simply because the book is a commentary (after all what, how can you summarize a book that's going chapter by chapter through another book? "In chapter 1, Keener covers Romans 1. In chapter 2, Keener covers Romans 2 . . ." and so forth ad nauseum)
McFadden does, however, point the reader to specific areas of Keener's commentary that may differ from other commentaries. Furthermore, he clearly discusses many of Keener's positions on key points in Romans (e.g., Keener's view of the purpose of Romans, the nature of God's righteousness, various New Perspective issues, etc.)
While McFadden's review is mostly positive, it is nevertheless a critical, well thought-out review. When he likes something Keener does, he tells us why. Conversely, when he thinks Keener's work falls short, he also tells us why. Thus I am informed what the strengths and weaknesses are of this particular commentary, in McFadden's view (if you want to know, read the review for yourself! Or better yet, read the commentary). Also, I am informed by McFadden that the book "In general, . . . accomplishes the goals of the author and the series" and also that "it is amazingly concise for a letter as long as Romans." More importantly, however, McFadden tells me that the commentary "will be understood by a general audience, although in some cases readers may be confused by technical terms . . ." (this is an absolutely essential observation for this kind of a review, and one that may very well determine whether or not I would use this book for a class).
In conclusion, from a good book review such as McFadden's, I glean the following:
1. what the book is about, 2. the views of the author on key issues, 3. the strengths of the book, 4. the limitations and/or weaknesses of the book, and 5. the suitable audience for the book. When those points are covered, I generally have enough information as to whether or not I would wish to purchase this book or suggest it for class reading. In contrast, a poorly written review could conceivably cause me to waste my money (hey, theological works aren't cheap!) The bottom line, once again, is that a book review is neither a song of praise nor a spiteful attack, but an opinionated summary and analysis.
With special thanks to all my professors that forced me to write book reviews for a class!