It is a commonplace that nobody reads any more – the Web has put a stop to all that. I googled “Has the Internet destroyed reading?” and got 378 million hits, including (among many others) Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (2010).
So why do reviews continue to appear, if nobody is going to read the work in question? And it seems that not only do people not read scholarly books, they don’t read reviews about them either (of which more below).
You could argue that literary periodicals, the chief home of the book review, have never had high sales. I remember reading the wonderfully titled The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters (1969), by John Gross, and its very title suggested the decline of the amateur reviewers. But reviews still survive, and in the most unlikely places. While reviews for the general reader seem to be in decline, reviews for and by scholars seem to be flourishing
I thought I might find an answer in that rarest of species, a book about the practice of book reviewing. But the world described by author Phillipa Chong in her Inside the Critics’ Circle (2020) did not appear to explain why academics review books.
In the arts and humanities, reviewing still appears to flourish, in the scholarly journal. Most journals in the arts and social sciences include book reviews. Here is an example, picked at random from a recent issue of French Studies:
It turns out this issue of the journal contains no fewer than 52 book reviews. French Studies is published quarterly, so this makes over 200 reviews per year. Stranger still, the reviews are hidden behind the subscription paywall, so if you wanted to read the above review, about a book recommended for those “first encountering Montaigne”, you would have to pay €41, or $52, for the privilege.
Clearly nobody is going to pay that kind of money to read a single review, so who are these reviews for? They are written by academics working in an institution, but typically, they do not appear in the list of publications by that author in the institution staff webpage listing their publications, and I guess such reviews have only marginal status (if any) when academics are periodically reviewed to see what kind of funding their department will be given in coming years.
If the text is not written to be read, it must be written because the writer feels there is some purpose to it. Perhaps reviews might form part of the scholarly process, in one or both of two ways: for writing, and for reading.
Firstly, writing. Perhaps scholars write reviews before moving on to their own writing. It is well known how French directors in the 1950s and 60s moved towards making films after spending several years writing about them:
At Cahier du cinema in the 1950s, Truffaut and his colleagues – people like Éric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol and Jean-Luc Godard – they are writing about the films they like and don’t like. They like neorealist films and American genre films. You can just imagine them saying, “We can do better than that,” and then they did do it.Julian Cornell interviewed on The Take
Alternatively, or additionally, perhaps academics see reviews as a fundamental part of the scholarly process: the reading and discovery stage. Pierre Bayard is close to capturing in his book How to Talk about Books you haven’t read what I think might be a widely followed methodology for academics to keep up to date; but unfortunately, Bayard is too interested in writing a coffee-table diversion than carrying out a serious study. One reason you can talk about books you haven’t read is because you’ve read the review. Perhaps reading the reviews is the way that ideas about books are circulated.
It might not, be such a flippant idea. Academics read the reviews, perhaps, to see which approaches are in fashion and out of fashion, something that might not be picked up from the text itself. Of course, such signposts are usually quite discreetly hidden within the body of the review. Here is one, from a recent TLS, a review by Michael Sherborne of several books about H G Wells. For one author, Wells
becomes the exemplar of a radically different kind of modernism, “broader and more capacious”, one which anticipates the needs of writers in the globalized, pluralist, interconnected, ecologically conscious twenty-first century. This ingenious recasting of Wells as a dissident modernist seems likely to prove influential.
Do I need to read any more? Can I mention this idea at parties? Is this how reviews work in the scholarly process?