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Saturday, February 17, 2007

"A New American Book Review?"

TNR Online has a fascinating discussion from various contributors sparked by Jeffrey Herf's call for a new American review of books.  Herf argues that "most of our major book reviews are failing to inform a non-specialist but sophisticated audience about American scholarship."  The Times doesn't have the space or time or, often, inclination.  TNR does a good job but lacks the space to do very much of it.  The New York Review of Books is by now "known for its leftish and left-liberal politics as much as for its serious book reviewing" -- or, to add to the NYRB pileup from another contributor to the dialogue, it "locked in an ideology from the early 1970s and gave a pulpit to a clique of alpha males from which they could impose their idiosyncratic theories and beat back new ideas they didn't like."  So Herf argues that there is room, and need, for a new book review that does a serious job of translating serious books for a serious but non-specialist audience.  I'm all in favor of this one; sign me up!  The discussion is good and interesting and worth reading.

A couple of additional thoughts.  First, one might have expected the blogosphere to fill some of this gap, since it makes low-cost publishing available rather than have to depend on a dwindling subscriber base of "sophisticated non-experts."  Maybe it has filled the gap, even if I'm not aware that it has; it's a big Net out there.  In the legal realm, though, I'm not sure this has taken place.  Of course Larry Solum does yeoman work every Saturday picking a book of the week, but these are generally notices and descriptions, not reviews.  And many of the standard lawprofblogs I read, including this one, don't do much by way of book reviewing, and then often are more likely to discuss popular press books.  When we do, the discussion often isn't that in-depth, and often is somewhat embarrassingly positive; witness the general and short-lived excitement online about Jan Crawford Greenburg's merely serviceable book.  Not to be indelicate, but I can't help but wonder whether both the tendency to focus on books published by popular presses, and the generally positive spin, have something to do with the fact that we bloggers sometimes get advance copies for free, and that the presses that are most active in sending us these copies tend to be the popular presses.  I admit that I would like to see the university presses, which generally send out fewer review copies, be more active in sending forthcoming academic books to lawblogs like this one, where these books might be previewed and discussed for a generally relevant, interested, and select audience.  Of course, given what I've said, we should then assume a corresponding obligation to actually provide a good read and thoughtful discussion of these books, rather than sticking them on our shelves and providing a cursory ten-word blurb on the blog.  One may also hope that we could then draw the authors into the discussion.  Of course, there are examples of this; witness the discussion of Covering by various folks, including the author, on this blog last year.  (But note that Covering itself was a popular press book.)  Let's see some more of it.

Second, if you're looking for thoughtful discussions of academic books that are at least somewhat translated to reach a sophisticated but sometimes non-expert audience, let me stick up for that battered old institution: the law review.  It can be no secret that the back-of-the-book writing in law reviews is often sharper, more direct and less bloated than the extended tenure pieces at the front of the book, and we have book reviews in large measure to thank for this.  (Along with the slowly growing rise of the "essay.")  They are not a substitute for the book itself (are they?), but they are often an excellent and economical presentation of the views of the reviewer, and are often the best sheer reading in the issue.    

Posted by Paul Horwitz on February 17, 2007 at 10:39 AM in Books | Permalink


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Posted by: alin | May 28, 2007 6:19:37 AM

In retrospect I think "merely serviceable" is a little harsh. My major complaints, such as they are, are that 1) the writing genuinely is merely serviceable, and that tends to influence my view of the book, although it shouldn't detract from her reporting, and 2) I think the book got exaggerated praise on the blogosphere when it came out (perhaps, although they didn't say so, precisely for the reason you suggest -- that it gives greater weight and clarity to conservative positions?), which may have caused me to lean a little too far in the opposite direction. I take your point about her giving a more accurate description of conservative positions seriously. Perhaps because I simply fill in those gaps myself when reading, I didn't find that this factor elevated the book from okayness to greatness for me, but it is a valid source of praise. Of books in a similar genre, I think Ethan Bronner's book on Bork does a fairly good job of describing conservative positions, and a great job of giving Bork's background, but it's been a while since I read it; as an overall job of reporting the inside story, combined with decent writing, I thought David Savage's book Turning Right did a better job, although again it's been a while since I read it. And I would note -- not that you say otherwise! -- that while the book does a decent job of describing conservative positions, I found some of the book's descriptions of how jurisprudential concerns filter through the political environment of the White House dispiriting (Bill Kelley notwithstanding; I gladly leave him out of it). In particular, some of the Buchanan and other Reagan-era White House memos struck me as shedding a dim light on the prospects for serious consideration of judges in the selection process, as did some of the bases on which various contenders for judicial posts were disqualified ('He used the word Griswold. Sure, he was referring to National Lampoon's Vacation, but still -- off with his head!'). I'm sure similarly sophomoric memos could be found emanating from Democratic White Houses, so this isn't a targeted criticism; and of course, Greenburg is to be credited for reporting on these issues.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Feb 24, 2007 11:06:20 AM

Paul -- a quibble: I thought the new Greenburg book was more than "merely serviceable," and certainly thought it was better than what those with the Supreme Court beat usually write. Besides the backstories for the Roberts and Alito nominations, what I appreciated was the way Greenburg -- and here, I think, she improves dramatically on the genre -- describes "conservative" positions, arguments, and concerns in a way that "conservatives" actually recognize, and could even endorse. This is, I think, real "value added." For what it's worth.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Feb 23, 2007 3:52:16 PM

I second Matt here. I routinely save NDPR reviews to remind me what books I need to read. I think the NYRB is wonderful, the problem not being an obvious political bias but its drawing upon a largely predictable pool of reviewers and having an East Coast orientation/ethos. I also enjoy the London Review of Books. The Times Literary Supplement is simply a shadow of its former self, although now and again it has reviews that should not be missed. Law and Politics Book Review is quite helpful too. And there's Book Forum. And Boston Review. Oh, and the new Legal History blog has short reviews worth reading. Well, for me, that's just about enough (as it includes more specialized publications in my area of training that include book reviews) to keep up on. I don't really see the 'need' (the filling of some conspicuous void) for a new book review of the sort proposed, but if it helps spread information about good books, let's have it.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Feb 18, 2007 12:44:09 AM

It's basically only for philosophy books but the Notre Dame Philosophical Review, is a truly excellent sourse for reviews of philosophy books- a new review nearly every week day of a wide variety of philosophy books by top-notch reviewers, all for free. It's quite a service put together by Gary Gutting and others at Notre Dame

Posted by: Matt | Feb 18, 2007 12:17:46 AM

The Claremont Review of Books is really excellent; it's contributors are generally some flavor of conservative, but even when I disagree, almost every review is intereseting.

Posted by: David Bernstein | Feb 17, 2007 11:55:37 AM

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