Wednesday, 4 April 2012

The value of reviewing academic monographs

I came across this article via the twitters today, titled 'Why Bother Writing Book Reviews?' The author, Rachel Toor, asks us 'Is the time spent reviewing other people's books more important than writing your own stuff, making your own contributions?' 

Modified stock image c/o thekellyscope
While she points out a few positives associated with reviewing books, especially in disciplines where like mine (social sciences) where the academic monograph is the entry point into academic life, she concludes by saying that no - you shouldn't bother with book reviews: 'It's better to write one good article than to review 20 books, and even better to write one good book'. While I agree with the sentiment that sometimes the monograph and book review 'sausage factories' are not always the best uses of our time, writing book reviews can actually be very valuable for emerging scholars (grad students/postgrads) like myself.

While reading the article, I initially felt a slight twinge of regret at having written five book reviews over the past few years (OMG WHAT A WASTE OF TIME?!), but then I reflected on the positives:
  1. I got some free books, and for a poor postgraduate, books are sometimes better than food.
  2. My name and some of my thoughts made their way into some stellar journals. I have two review essays in New Media & Society, for instance, one of the leading journals in my field that I dream of getting an article into one day. Sure, as Toor points out, maybe nobody will ever read those review essays. However...
  3. ...I get a surprising number of 'hits' on the review essays I've uploaded to my profile.  People are searching for book titles or keywords and coming across my work through these book reviews. My guess is that a few of those hits are students googling for quick ways to summarise a book for an assignment, or maybe the authors googling themselves, but I suspect a few are simply from people interested in a subject area who have come across my essay and perhaps even glanced over my other work.
  4. Probably most importantly, the task of a book review (with a deadline attached!) makes me read critically and with depth, and then produce something coherent from that reading. This is something all emerging scholars/grad students/postgrads should be encouraged to do. Most do undertake this kind of exercise by way of notes that never get read again. Writing a formal book review, however, makes you articulate yourself with an audience in mind... and someone might read it!
  5. Finally, beyond the vague 'networking' and 'marketing yourself' rubbish above, I've actually established some real dialogues with the authors of the books I've reviewed. I was very humbled to get an email from one author who thanked me for my review (even the critical bits!) and asked me about my own work. I've also since worked with another author whose edited collection I reviewed. He contributed to a special issue I've been working on. (This is also why you shouldn't bee overly critical in your review essay, and never cruel or nasty).
So, yes. There are these positives, but there may be other more important things postgrads should be working on: fieldwork, a chapter of your dissertation, converting a chapter into a journal article, an important conference presentation, going out on a date, cooking dinner. Don't throw out the idea of writing a book review or five, though. You might be surprised by the outcome.

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