Figure 1 A typical firewalled review of an academic title

What is the point of book reviews – to be specific, books that potentially

have some kind of academic interest? David Beer, in an interesting LSE Impact blog post (which he actually entitles “In defence of writing book reviews” – something I will return to) argues that for Jaques Derrida and his contemporaries “reviewing books was not a marginal activity … Rather, the book review was central to the practice of knowledge formation, dissemination and debate”.

That’s all well and good, for Derrida, but were the reviews he wrote available for a public readership? Many academic journals contain reviews of relevant new titles, but these reviews are (at least in subscription journals) not seen by the reading public, because of firewalls. Why not? If the function of an academic is to represent a credible level of critical discourse, then should those academic discussions not take place in public?

This could be another benefit of open-access publishing, but even with subscription publishing, what is the justification of making reviews open only to institutional users? The alternative is to rent access to the review for 24 hours at a price of £29 (I’m not joking).

If what David Beer states is correct, why should academics conduct their debates in private? Is the critical status of Derrida so important that it can only be communicated between academics?

Of course, there are other places where reviews can be found. There are a few freely accessible reviewing sites – the Los Angeles Review of Books is one – but for the most part, reviewing periodicals maintain paid websites. This is more justifiable, as these periodicals are run as a commercial operation – and contributors are paid (unlike reviewers in academic journals, who do the review for nothing). Nonetheless, if you are fortunate enough to gain access to the main literary periodicals – the NYRB, the LRB, and the TLS, to list the main English-language ones – what you find may not always be, as David Beer states, “the means by which … debates were forged and where books were unpicked for their explicit or even latent properties and values.” In truth, the quality of reviewing in these periodicals is very patchy: it is frequently opinionated, or worse still, not a review at all (the London Review of Books has frequent reviews where the book ostensibly being discussed is barely mentioned). There are some reviewers who combine informed reviews with an attempt to make the topic accessible to the general reader – Patrick Collinson, Peter Wiseman, and Mary Beard spring to mind.  

As for the daily and weekly national press, coverage of books is so minimal, and the space allotted to reviews so short, that the review is usually barely worth noting.

Just to summarise, what is a book review for? In my opinion:

  1. To establish the credibility of the work reviewed. Can we believe this author? Is the argument well-sourced, and are the conclusions justified from the evidence provided?
  2. Beyond a review of the work itself, a good review will suggest other angles, other ways of dealing with the subject, other aspects of the field that might have been missed. In this way, the review places the author in a context that might not otherwise be visible.

You would think this would all be self-evident. Does David Beer agree? He does, but at the same time, interestingly, he claims that “Book reviews go against the logic of the systems governing research” because “it is hard to find space for them in the relentless flows of academic life”. Since Beer himself states of reviews that “removing them from the research agenda may erode or limit the possibilities for the formation of our own thoughts and ideas”, it would appear he is justifying the need for reviews and at the same time arguing against them “we only have so much time.” I think one of the implications of being an academic is to conduct a debate in public about your subject, or, as Beer puts it, “companionship in thought” (although you might not describe it as companionship when you see academics laying into each other in the letters pages of the LRB and TLS). In the end, Beer argues for the writing of reviews. Unfortunately, he couches his argument in terms of “our work … our research”: in other words, his argument is focused on why we academics should talk to each other … but I’m pretty sure Derrida felt he was not just writing for other academics. And while David Beer entitles his post “in defence of writing book reviews”, could his argument not extend to reading them as well?

Both we the readers, and the academics themselves, benefit from academic reviews. Could we not all participate in something that is a benefit for the academics, but which could also be shared with the public, if the public had access to them?