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06/03/2013

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David Morrow

I like this way of thinking of book reviews. I've never done a book review myself, but the cases in which I've been tempted to do one are cases where I felt like a new book was an important contribution to a field that I would like to know better. I agree with you that a book review, while technically better than nothing, counts for very little on a CV. So maybe the take-home lesson should be: Only do a book review when you were already planning on (or looking for a reason for) spending a lot of time reading and thinking about the book.

Marcus Arvan

Chike: first of all, congrats on your recent successes! I, for one, very much look forward to reading some of your stuff.

Anyway, as to your topic (book reviews), I think they're a nice service to the profession, but that one shouldn't do too many of them. They take an absurd amount of time to do, and do well, and I don't think it's generally a great use of one's time. Time spent writing book reviews is time one could be spending on other things that give you a greater "bang for your buck."

Chike Jeffers

A comment by elisa freschi that didn't show up:

"Chike, congratulations for your success and for taking the task of writing reviews seriously. I agree with you so much that I do not only write reviews on journals, but even on my blog and on Amazon.com or Philosophy papers.com, although in the latter two cases they count nothing at all on my cv.

Yet, I would like to introduce the point that a review, in order to be useful to the public and to the author herself, needs to be also intelligently critical (I am not talking about listing typos!). I do not know about the field of Africana philosophy, but in my field, reviews tend often to be too positive, and not to focus on the real weaknesses of a book (but rather on marginal problems). Since this is the general tendency, if a reviewer once spots a real weakness, the author might even become resentful (although in fact spotting weaknesses is a favour to the discipline and to the author itself, apart from helping the readers). Should one inaugurate a "journal of honest reviews", where everyone knows that s/he will receive a honest and useful review?

(I discussed this topic on my blog here: http://elisafreschi.blogspot.co.at/2011/05/where-could-real-reviews-be-published.html)"

Chike Jeffers

Marcus, thanks very much. About your comment: would you say they are an important service but people should wait until after tenure or even later to start doing them regularly? Or would you say they are still not a great use of time at that point?

Chike Jeffers

elisa, the question of how one balances honesty in criticism with kindness and charity is a tough one. Especially when you know you will likely encounter the people you review in various situations. In one case of criticizing one of the chapters in the King anthology, I even let the person know on Facebook what I was going to say... I also let the person know I would love to discuss the chapter further, so as to go beyond my brief remarks, but we never did get around to having that conversation.

Matt DeStefano

Chike,

As Marcus said, looking forward to reading more of your work. I'm curious about your comment that reviews "don't count for much" on one's CV. I've heard this comment from other philosophers, and it strikes me as a shame. It seems that a good review does a considerable amount of work. Is there a reason that they don't count for much?

Chike Jeffers

Great question, Matt. The first thing that ought to be clarified is that a distinction is often made between reviews and review essays. The latter are supposed to be longer, they are often about more than one book, and, in general, the idea is supposed to be that the review essay is a more in-depth and intensive investigation than the simple review. The distinction is actually quite fuzzy as it sometimes really just reduces to page length (my review of the Césaire volume was supposed to be a review but was reclassified as a review essay)... but review essays are treated as worth more on the CV.

That being said, I think book reviews are viewed as not counting for much on the basis that articles are much more likely to be strongly original and insightful. This seems unfair, perhaps, because an article can be derivative and unoriginal while book reviews can be used to make original and insightful points.

It is true, though, that if one is not taking the time to read all the work being counted up for the purposes of job candidacy or tenure/promotion, etc., counting book reviews for less could be seen as the safer bet. It really is possible and not strange for a book review to be little more than a summary of another person's work, whereas it is much harder to publish an article that can be so easily reduced to that description...

Marcus Arvan

Chike: that's a question I'm struggling with right now (whether it's good to do book reviews early on). I've published one book review and am working on another right now, and I have a real problem. Neither of the books I've reviewed have seemed to me to have many redeeming qualities. In my one published review, I was pretty clear about that, and in the one I'm writing now, I'm struggling with the same issue. And of course one problem is this: if I write scathing reviews, I might look like a jerk and hurt myself professionally. On the other hand, if I write a puff-piece -- which I agree with Elisa are *way* too common today -- I'll feel like I've been dishonest: and I abhor dishonesty. So I'm in a real pickle! (Note: I actually usually have at least some nice things to say about books I read. I think I've just gotten super unlucky with the books I've been asked to review.) So, yeah, there are at least two reasons I'm skeptical of the utility of doing book reviews early on: (1) they're a big time-sapper, and (2) there can be some real moral and professional conundra (if you're honest in your book review, it can make you look bad; if you're dishonest, well, you're dishonest).

Matt: what Chike said. I think people (rightly) associate good, worthwhile philosophy defending something "new and original", and this just isn't what book reviews tend to do.

Justin Caouette

Thanks for the post, Chike.

I had a quick question, if I may.

I have been trying to write a book review but cannot find a reputable journal that affords graduate students the opportunity to write one. I was told by one journal that the authors of such books spent a lot of time and deserve to have a person with a PhD in hand review their book. After about three emails back and forth the editors of that journal and I decided to agree to disagree. Some of their reasoning for not allowing PhD students to write a review included "grad students should be focused on their research", "grad students are not yet experts", and, as mentioned earlier that the authors deserve to have an "expert" review their work.

Needless to say, I disagreed with the editors of this respected journal. So, I was wondering, do you know of any journals that do not require you to have a PhD in hand?

Jenny S

I would like to offer three additional virtues of writing book reviews at a very junior career stage. The first is the free copy of a book, given the expense associated with academic publications (and especially certain publishers - I'm looking at you, OUP). As a graduate student, postdoc, or VAP, when you may have an extremely limited research budget, this feature of the academic publishing industry is worth keeping in mind. If a book in your area is going to be effectively required reading in any case, why not volunteer for a free copy, and an excuse to engage with it?

A second feature is the opportunity to open new research avenues. In the first year of my PhD, I volunteered to review an edited volume that, as it turns out, pointed me in the direction that became essential to my dissertation, and led to later (peer reviewed) publications in the form of an encyclopedia entry and journal article.

Perhaps a third virtue of book reviewing is that it forces you to engage with a book as a whole. This can be useful both for edited collections and for single authored books. There are many (good) reasons that we tend to engage with individual chapters and excerpts in certain books, but the book review format offers the opportunity to think about how the project as a whole fits together.

elisa freschi

I agree with Jenny's third point (reviews are a good chance to engage with a whole book, or more than one at once). Moreover, review essays are a way to engage with our colleagues and are in this sense one of the way which make philosophy a collaborative enterprise. And if it is not collaborative… then what makes it different than a "perl-glass-game"?

elisa freschi

I am sorry: I meant glass bead game.

Roman

There seems to be one good reason why reviews don't count for much on the CV: they are not peer reviewed. In fact, pretty much anyone can sign up to write them and get published. So even if you do good philosophical work in a review (which is unlikely, since reviews tend to be limited to 1,500 words or so, which is just enough to sum up the main threads of the book and offer two or three critiques), as a general heuristic it makes sense to largely discount them. (A much trickier question, I think, is why book chapters are so devalued on the CV.)

On the other hand, I do think they have one benefit for a CV (aside from the obvious other benefits discussed above), though one that may not be worth the time investment: they can show something about the trajectory of your research. I have no idea if search committees looking for coherent research projects on a CV actually look at book reviews for that purpose (thoughts?), but it seems like it's likely to serve it.

A further question for others here: does anyone know how to write a review essay? I've tried to write review essays rather than book reviews, and been turned down by editors.

viswa honest raj

First of all, a hearty congratulations. sorry for being late.
Being a reviewer i know the pain points in it. First of all it is not an easy task writing reviews.We need to read the book and understand it in both authors perspective and users perspective.Once it is done, we can start our review.Being unbiased is yet another difficult task. Even after this pain,reviews don't count for much on the CV.

Rachel

I think that my only experience reviewing a book was an overall positive one, but if I had it to do over again, I would have passed. It took up a solid 20hrs of my time, which is way too much for not very much benefit.

I only accepted the request because it was from Mind and because it was a book I wanted to read anyway (and is by a friend/colleague).

Reviews don't count as publications, and the time would generally be much better spent writing an article. It's not *wasted* time, per se, but I think there are better ways to spend one's time, especially early in one's career.

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