Wednesday, May 6, 2015

World's worst book review?

A scholarly book review should do three things: (1) Describe the contents of the book. What is the book about, and what does it cover?  (2) Describe the scholarly context of the book. Where does the book fit within the literature, how does it relate to other works in terms of data, theory, or methods, etc. and, (3) Evaluate the book critically. I've written a lot about book reviews in this blog; for an overview, see my earliest such post.

I have just read what may be the worst book review I have ever seen. I'll keep this anonymous to protect the guilty. Scholar A is reviewing an edited volume. In the first paragraph of the review, this person states that they will review here Scholar B's chapter on Topic C, "because as a lead editor, Scholar B's chapter may set the tone for much of the volume, and also because it is an archaeology I know." The review goes on to talk about this one chapter, with almost no mention of the other chapters. Amazing.

A review of one chapter in an edited volume is not a credible book review. But wait, there's more: the review fails to evaluate that one chapter critically. It describes the content of the chapter, and pays minimal attention to its context. But was this a good or a bad chapter? What about the rest of the book?

This inappropriate review casts doubt on the quality of the editing of book reviews in the journal. How did this get past the book review editor? I don't have to disguise the title of the journal, because I don't know it. I printed out the review a while ago, and the pages do not indicate the journal title. The headers, on both left and right pages, say "Book Reviews." I was all set to look up the name of the journal, but then thought better of it. I would feel obligated to complain to the book review editor, getting at least one colleague riled up and reinforcing my reputation as a busy-body critic with nothing better to do than hassle colleagues who do shoddy work.  (I've been this way since graduate school, when I criticized both a book reviewer and the editors of American Antiquity for what was an ethical lapse; I can't seem to help it.) If you check my old critique, be sure to read the responses that followed).

Given that there is a book review crisis in New World archaeology, it is irresponsible of the reviewer and the journal to waste valuable journal space on such a poor review. The space for book reviews in journals is limited; when I was a book review editor, I spent a lot of time agitating for a higher page count for reviews. This is valuable space. Scholars have a responsibility for using it wisely. There is  no excuse for writing such a bad review, and no excuse for publishing it.


Anonymous said...

I agree with the critique of the book review in your blog post. However, it doesn't really maintain anonymity for the author of the book review when you include a direct quote. Doing an internet search of "because it is an archaeology I know", provided me with the book review instantly.

Michael E. Smith said...

If I was concerned with completely hiding the actual review, I wouldn't have included a direct quote.......

Anonymous said...

Fair enough :)