Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Why Aren’t There More Good Book Reviews in Archaeology?

By “good book review” I don’t mean a positive review. In fact, there are all too many positive reviews of shoddy books, and this is one of the problems with archaeological book reviews. In the interests of advancing archaeology as the scholarly study of the past we need to be more critical in evaluating books and other published works. This applies equally to scientific and humanistic approaches and to the past.

I love book reviews. I like reading them (I always turn to them first when I receive or view a new journal issue), I like writing them, and I really enjoyed my stint as Book Review Editor for Latin American Antiquity a few years back. It seems to me that far too few book reviews are published; just compare the number of new books published to the number of reviews in the major journals. Some journals (e.g., Ancient Mesoamerica) don’t publish book reviews at all! One of my favorite Open Access journals is the Bryn Mawr Classical Review, which consists entirely of book reviews. Now, I have little use for many or even most of the books reviewed in that journal. But I do try to keep up on some aspects of Classical archaeology, and BMCR is very useful for that. Maybe we need a new journal, the Archaeological Book Review.

Most of the essays in the BMCR are more along the lines of book review essays, an all-too uncommon beast in archaeology. The journal Reviews in Anthropology has some archaeological book review essays. I initiated this feature for Latin American Antiquity, but it seems to have been dropped by subsequent editors. Book review essays are important because they allow more details and substance on all three of the major components of the book review. A book review should:

  1. Summarize the contents of the book. Readers need to know that the book is about and what it covers.
  2. Place it into context. Who is the author, why did they write the book, what theoretical approach is taken, how does the book relate to other scholarship in the field, etc. etc.
  3. Evaluate the quality. Does the author accomplish what he/she intended to do? Are the data solid? Do the arguments stand up? Does the book make a significant contribution to the field?

Beyond these three basic components lies a fourth aspect that I like to see in book reviews:

  1. Book reviews should be well-written, concise, interesting, and insightful. This isn’t really part of the instructions that are typically given to reviewers; people generally either write excellent essays or they don’t. The task of the book review editor is to find people who can do this, and sometimes help reviewers improve their work if possible. There is nothing more boring than a review of an edited collection that consists entirely of brief descriptions of the individual chapters.

When I began my work at Latin American Antiquity, I was given instructions that no person should contribute more than one book review every three years. I thought this was silly and ignored it. For certain review authors, I would have gladly published several reviews a year because they wrote such good (insightful, etc.) reviews. Rosemary Joyce and Bob Zeitlin come to mind immediately here. I once received a brilliant review by someone I did not know well, so I immediately offered to let them review another book right away; the second review, however, came in boring and prosaic. Oh well. But to repeat, good book reviews are too rare in archaeology.

Back to the initial question—why are there so few good book reviews in archaeology? This is an important question, because book reviews can be an important part of the growth of a discipline. Here are a couple of off-the-cuff answers to that question.

  1. People are too nice. They don’t want to upset colleagues or rock the boat. Some authors have big egos and get upset with anyone who challenges them. Junior scholars are worried about issues of power with respect to senior scholars, and sometimes hesitate to criticize their books. There are cliques of friends and cronies who support one another and wouldn’t dream of writing a serious critique of someone in their group. Some archaeologists want to push a particular theoretical perspective, and write positive or negative reviews based on whether a book adheres to their cherished viewpoint or not. I think that these practices are bad for the discipline, and people should not be so nice.
  2. Too much archaeological writing blends and mixes up data and interpretations. This makes it difficult to evaluate books and articles. Some works have good data but faulty interpretations, whereas others have brilliant interpretations of rather scrawny data. But if the data and interpretations are too intertwined one sometimes cannot separate the wheat from the chaff.
  3. Book review editors are not sufficiently rigorous. It is hectic and time-consuming to solicit and edit reviews, and there is little or no compensation. It is all too easy to just accept a sub-par review instead of sending it back for revisions (or even rejecting it). I was certainly guilty here; I published some lousy reviews that might have been improved had I taken the time to work with the author to improve the product. I only rejected one review in 3 years.
I don’t have any grand conclusions or recommendations to offer. Perhaps my main message is that archaeologists should pay more attention to book reviews. We need to take them seriously and do our best to write the best reviews possible.


Christopher O'Brien said...

Good post Mike. I know I'd be interested in doing book reviews if asked...I get the sense that editors already have their favorite reviewers, but maybe that's not the case. A source of good reviewers might be those in agencies, like myself, whose advancement isn't dependent on not "rocking the boat" and who might be able to offer a more candid review. On the other hand, most agency archaeologists probably aren't keeping up with the literature. Perhaps a good source for book reviews would be archaeology bloggers...

cornelius.holtorf said...

As the current Reviews Editor of the European Journal of Archaeology (published by Sage), I agree broadly with Mike's entry and would like to encourage anybody who enjoys writing reviews (and is good at it or likes to prove him/herself) to contact me with a suggestion for one or more books they would like to review in our journal. We review anything that is arguably relevant to European archaeology and archaeologists in Europe! I am at cornelius.holtorf @ ark.lu.se (remove spaces).