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Monday, July 13, 2009

Levinson on the Vanishing Book Review

Along with my friend Al Brophy (writing at the Faculty Lounge), I've beat the drum quite often here lamenting the relative paucity of book reviews in student-edited law reviews and arguing that student editors should be aware of and remedy this deficit.  I'm happy to say that Sanford Levinson has added his voice on this issue in a forceful way.  Levinson has an essay in the current issue of the Texas Law Review (not yet available online) called "The Vanishing Book Review in Student-Edited Law Reviews and Potential Responses."  His essay shows that the numbers are clear on this question: leading law reviews have distinctly cut back on the number of reviews they are running and the length of those reviews.  In some cases, it may be a relative fluke; I am told that next year's Michigan Law Review books issue should be longer than this year's very short one.  But the overall trend is evident.

Here are some reasons we should care about this, some of them drawn specifically from Levinson and some from things that Al, Sandy, or I have written.  1) Like Sandy, some of us in the legal academy "have always paid special attention to book reviews," and miss their presence.  2) A substantial amount of significant work in the legal academic field is (and this may be increasing) in book form, and book reviews help track and synthesize these developments.  Legal scholarship should not move on parallel tracks, with relatively important books not getting the attention they deserve in the periodical literature.  3) Book reviews can be both interesting and valuable projects for the review authors, notwithstanding the usual law review (and tenure committee) bias in favor of leading articles.  Levinson notes that many of his first major works were actually book reviews.  Whether or not that could be possible today, it ought to be.  Those reviews were important works regardless of whether they were leading articles or not.  We should care about substance here, not form, and book reviews can be substantively very strong indeed.  (Tenure committees, this means you!)  Meanwhile, reviews can offer valuable opportunities for relatively junior scholars, or scholars at less highly ranked schools, to break into the high-ranked law review world, and conversely for those law reviews to find new talent.  4) Even in the post-Westlaw world, a good issue of a law review can have an arc in which pieces of various lengths and genres make the whole issue worth reading as a book.  Book reviews can be a part of that arc, and they can be better written, more readable, and more incisive (because they omit a good deal of throat-clearing) than leading articles.  5) While law reviews are understandably concerned about citation counts, they must know that most articles are just not cited much, and it is also the case that some book reviews are, including some of Levinson's own work.

Levinson writes that it may just be "whistling past the graveyard to hope for a reversal of [this] trend."  He offers two possible solutions, the first of which I wholly endorse: law students should more frequently write books instead of notes and comments (and, presumably, be given credit for doing so).  He also suggests that we might create new forums for book reviews.  That's fine with me, but I'm not done whistling yet.  I keep hoping law review editors, perhaps after reading people like Brophy and Levinson, might gain an increased interest in running serious book reviews in their journals.  While a book review journal might indeed be a fine thing, some reviews ought to be read widely in the legal academy.  I'm glad Levinson is adding his voice on this question, and I hope law review faculty advisors will encourage their student editors to think about it as well.  Moreover, regardless of the tenure-worth question, I hope more profs can be convinced to write in this valuable and underused genre.

Posted by Paul Horwitz on July 13, 2009 at 12:12 PM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


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Thanks for the clarification, Paul- that's what I'd though you'd probably meant, but wanted to make sure. As for me, I think that some enterprising law school should set up something along the lines of the wonderful Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews , and perhaps treat membership on it like membership on one of their law reviews. The NDPR has, fairly quickly, become quite well respected and is one of the most desirable places to have a book reviewed for a philosopher. Partly this is due to the excellent editorial board, but it seems at least conceivable that something similar could be set up by a law school.

Posted by: Matt | Jul 14, 2009 9:30:04 AM

Prof. Steven Smith has a lengthy and interesting book review of Prof. Greenawalt's Establishment and Fairness in the latest issue of the Harvard Law Review. I miss book reviews like this.

Posted by: Anna | Jul 14, 2009 3:40:15 AM

I agree.

Posted by: Tamara Piety | Jul 13, 2009 3:40:24 PM

Aren't blogs increasingly taking over the function of writing short book reviews? Most major newspapers have dropped their book sections, and even the NYT book section has been shortened.

On the other hand, it would seem that law journals have a comparative advantage when it comes to long reviews -- or essay reviews -- of 5000 words or more. Such reviews make important contributions beyond simply evaluating and recommending books. Rather, they allow scholarly engagement with the author and subject, and they are unlikely to be published elsewhere.

Posted by: Steven Lubet | Jul 13, 2009 2:09:47 PM

Matt, I did indeed mean that students should write book reviews, not books. And I agree that there is room for both review essays or long reviews and short reviews.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Jul 13, 2009 1:55:36 PM

I largely agree with this Paul, and with Al's remarks on the topic elsewhere. One quick clarification: You wrote (referring to Levinson), law students should more frequently write books instead of notes and comments Did you mean "write more book reviews instead of notes..."? Or is Levinson actually encouraging students to write books? That seems excessive to me, though of course many law review articles, including student notes, are often the size of a small book. But more book reviews by students might be good.

The other thing I might note is that many book reviews in law reviews are very long by normal review standards, more like what would, in philosophy, be called "Critical notices" or the like. (The Texas Law Review publishes many very nice reviews like this.) These are often very useful, and I'm glad to see them. The can make substantive intellectual contributions. But I'd think there should be some room for more standard sized (2-3 page) reviews, too, of the sort that make up the back part of journals like Ethics. These are of course usually not as substantive, but still play an important role.

Posted by: Matt | Jul 13, 2009 12:50:58 PM

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