Book reviewing incites its audiences. It’s likely apocryphal that on reading the review of his Treatise on Human Nature in late 1739, which he later described to Francis Hutcheson as “somewhat abusive,” David Hume hunted down and cornered its publisher at sword-point. The Times Literary Supplement recently excavated a 1972 piece “Sensationally Stupid,” in which Anthony Burgess excoriated the depravity of reviewing:
Not even the most saintly reviewer can avoid showing off (“As a mere amateur of Dutch painting I must wonder why Professor Bullshop could not, in these fifteen hundred closely printed pages, find room for a brief reference to that lovely painter Piet Voedstoppung”), falsifying in the service of wit, bringing in cruel and personal irrelevances (“Miss Chesslady has, I understand, a wooden leg, and she appears to write with it”). It is, without doubt, a far more corruptive craft than real fiction.
But one of my all-time favorite reviews of reviewers is John Leonard’s take on Dale Peck’s book of essays, Hatchet Jobs: Writings on Contemporary Fiction (2004) in the New York Times; in “Smash-Mouth Criticism” Leonard gave as good as Peck was giving elsewhere. Really, go read the whole thing. I could have selected any one of 10 passages as examples of his wrath against Peck’s, but try this one:
Peck devotes more than 30 contemptuous pages to Sven Birkerts, for the street crime and mortal sin of generosity in literary criticism. Think of it: with a whole world of worthy targets — Rupert Murdoch, Michael Eisner, Donald Trump, Conrad Black, Eli Manning, Shell Oil, Clear Channel, Condé Nast — he mugs a man who has spent the last quarter of a century staying poor by reviewing other people’s books, who has read more widely, warmly and deeply than the vampire bat fastened to his carotid, who should be commended rather than ridiculed for a willingness to take on a review of a new translation of Mandelstam’s journals, and who, even though he wrote a regrettably mixed review of a book of mine in these pages, deserves far better from the community of letters, if there is one, than Peck’s bumptious heehaw: ”With friends like this, literature needs an enema.”
Even review venues exchange criticism about their mission and even their differing take on the same book as in the recent, public spat between the New York Review of Books and the LA Review of Books. And there’s no point in trying to differentiate the tenor of reviews in scholarly journals from those in the more widely circulated venues such as the TLS, NYT, the NYRB and the LARB. Some lament the lack of vigor and rigor in reviews, while others counsel temperance, generosity and the reality of a review’s potential impact on careers.
A lot of this misses the point. Book reviewing is the best kind of thinking work, or at least in almost a dozen years as a book review editor that’s what I tried to sell to reviewers as the primary benefit of their labors. Reading is never passive. The act of reading is always an exchange between text and reader; as a reviewer, you read with the outcome of that exchange more explicitly in mind. Particularly for non-fiction reviewers, attentive to the prose, evidentiary foundation and argument of a book, reviewing can be the most rewarding way to read. So, what’s in it for the reader of the review? The review extends the conversation between book and reviewer to include the review reader. And when they tell two friends… it’s geometric. That’s why the best of the genre doesn’t only tell you why you should want to read the book, but why you should read the review.
There is an art to reviewing, as Leonard’s stylish and witty take-down of Peck suggests. But there is also craft. The shortest reviews have a structure of necessity: get in and out fast. Review essays, though it’s not always apparent to their reader, have an important structure, too. One of the best reviews I’ve read in years is Annette Gordon-Reed’s review in the January 19 NYRB of Robert Parkinson’s The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution (2016). Full disclosure, Parkinson’s is an Omohundro Institute book published with our partners at the University of North Carolina Press, so I probably read the review a little more closely than most.
This review, “The Captive Aliens Who Remain our Shame” is a model of the form. What makes this such a powerful review? Gordon-Reed compels the reader to care about the work the author accomplishes. Parkinson’s is a long book (742 pages), but in 3500 words she exposes the book’s infrastructure of evidence and argument, and more importantly she connects it both to scholarly debates and to larger public social and political concerns.
A forensic analysis of Gordon-Reed’s review offers some important lessons beyond the basics. Parkinson’s book is about the ways that, from the very beginning of the Revolution, Patriot leaders made a concerted decision, reflected strongly in newspapers, to construe and to twin their new enemy, the British, with African Americans and Native Americans. The way to win a war was to create “common cause,” which meant finding first an “us” and then a “them”. Common cause among enough white colonists to overcome their longstanding connection to and affinity for Britain was produced in large measure, Parkinson argues, through identifying common enemies, and no scapegoat was more alluring or more effective than racial and ethnic others. In the course of this three-sentence summary I’ve flattened out a rich, multi-dimensional and deeply researched account of how political ambitions and communication technology harnessed racism in the service of the nation’s founding. Gordon-Reed contends that “it will be impossible to think seriously about the American Revolutionary War — or the revolutionaries — without reference to this book’s prodigious research, wholly unsentimental perspective, and bracing analysis.” But she persuades the reader of the review that this is so, not by walking us through the (long) book, but by illustrating its importance.
I read the review as accomplishing this task in part through careful organization. In much the way that a poem of 12 lines organized into alternating couplets and quatrains will read differently than the same 12 lines grouped into 4 tercets, the visual structure as well as the organization of ideas in prose composition highlights thematic development. Eight sections include paragraphs in this pattern: 3-3-3-3-3-4-5-3. The key here is the discrete focus of each section, and the echo of the first emphasized by returning to the three-paragraph format in the last after an increase in depth and detail in the second to last and penultimate sections.
Gordon-Reed doesn’t mention Parkinson’s book at all until the seventh paragraph. Rather, she opens the review with a three-paragraph section that casts the widest possible frame: what does it mean to be an American? How does “a commitment to a set of ideals famously set down by the country’s founders” square with our increasingly detailed and sophisticated understanding of “the way most of them saw and treated Native Americans and African-Americans?” Consequentially for contemporary Americans, “there is every reason to believe that the basic contours of the country’s treacherous racial landscape were fashioned early on in our history.” The next three paragraphs move from the historical and abstract to the present and on the ground: “technology now brings the problem home in urgent and visceral ways….encounters between blacks and police officers, captured on smart phones [are] revealing to the world what African Americans and other people of color have been saying for years: the Constitution does not work for black people as it works for whites.”
In the heart of the essay Gordon-Reed uses three three-paragraph sections to summarize Parkinson’s argument, ground it in the secondary literature on the Revolutionary war and politics, and explain how revolutionary leaders consciously created this “common cause.” In the last instance, for example, she shows why creating “common cause” was an eighteenth-century concern and well understood as an important first step in any kind of movement. She then discusses how John Adams was both long a preeminent voice articulating the source and nature of the revolution’s coherence by invoking a revolution that was primarily “in the minds of the people” and that came about because “thirteen clocks were made to strike together,” and key to obscuring the hard, violent work of setting an “us” against a “them.”
Then two successively longer sections illuminate that work. The revolution’s leaders, Gordon-Reed quotes Parkinson as arguing, “needed a new script to animate a new kind of resistance. They needed war stories.” And here is where she leads the reader through the significance of Parkinson’s work in the thousands of revolutionary-era newspapers from Georgia to Maine and into western Virginia. “Patriot leaders helped spread the racially based narrative of a common cause through newspapers, the ‘most advanced method of communication of the age.’” While newspapers excoriated skulking Indians and treacherously disloyal slaves, they never wrote about Native allies or African American patriots. They found ways to accommodate and rehabilitate German Hessians who fought as mercenaries for the British, but never so any Native Americans or African Americans.
The review’s final section returns to the major themes with which it opens. The Patriots “could not undo what they had done in marking blacks and Indians “as alien” and “unfit to fully belong as members of the new republic.” Gordon-Reed notes that Parkinson calls out “he” and “we” as the most significant words in the Declaration of Independence. This was the delineation between Britain/ the king and the new Americans. As proxies for the former, Indians and slaves could never be part of the latter. Gordon-Reed ends with a challenge. “The course of American history shows that the Declaration is alive. Seeing the document’s pronouncements about equality and happiness as living and important – as our best guide to progress — offers the best chance we have of vanquishing the continuing effects of the mischief Parkinson so ably descries in his very important book.”
Part of what Leonard demonstrated was that it can be a lot of word fun to write a negative review. Writing an appreciative review can be harder. Either way, reviews have to be fair. Not for the sake of a book’s author, but for the review’s readers. Readers don’t benefit from a review that gushes or eviscerates without a clear explication of a work’s successes or failure. And last, a review needs to take a book on its own terms. It’s not useful to lament the book that wasn’t written, at least not without reviewing the one that was.
The most effective review brings readers — those who have read or might read the book, but often those who have not and may not — into a broader, informed conversation about the topics the book addresses. To engage these readers a review does not need to make an overt connection to contemporary events, but it does have to persuade readers who might not thrill to every detail that the larger issues are significant. A review of a book about Roman gladiators need not reach for a connection to boxing, for example, but the public performance of violence and dominance is obviously resonant. The genre of the book review has the capacity to expand intellectual communities in distinctive ways; it’s worth reviewing and reviewing well.