Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Vanishing Book Review: Prof. Levinson Sees What's Missing

Sherman Oaks, California

Knife Tricks publishes a lot of book reviews. Law reviews don't. Here's why.

I write lots of book reviews because I read a lot of books. I can't think of a more pleasant use of time than reading, although people who enjoy being spouses or parents would probably disagree.

A good book review isn't a synopsis. A review can sparkle and, at the same time, barely mention the book.

To me, the best book reviews are essays about an idea, usually an idea addressed by the book, but not necessarily so. It's enough that the book evokes the idea. It would be strange if a review of Antonia Fraser's Marie Antoinette: The Journey talked at length about the resistance and execution of Tupac Amaru but, handled with intelligence and verve, the review could be a fascinating discussion of ideas that link the two doomed royals.

A review can also be a visceral reaction. Gene Siskel once said in the context of film criticism that his reviews are journalistic accounts of his reaction; Siskel's sparring partner Roger Ebert added that a review should include enough detail to allow members of the audience to determine if they would like the film, even if the critic did not.

And a review can be a short cut. No one has time to read all the books they want; no one has time to read all the books they own. So reviews are an intellectually acceptable cheat sheet. A character in Whit Stillman's Metropolitan said it best: "I don't read novels. I prefer good literary criticism. That way you get both the novelists' ideas as well as the critics' thinking."

Professional academics lean heavily on book reviews. It's impossible to keep up with all the publications in a field or sub-field, so reviews allow an academic to select which books are worth the time to read in full. Reviews also allow scholars to stretch their wings; chances are, an expert on the European Black Death will only read about Dravidian kingship in a review, but every bit of cross-pollination helps. For these reasons, many academic journals, such as The American Historical Review, are composed principally of book reviews.

So I was surprised to learn that law reviews -- the scholarly publications in which law professors publish their work -- shy away from book reviews. In a recent essay, University of Texas law professor Sanford Levinson bemoaned the decreasing space that law reviews accord book reviews.

Some of the top law reviews -- Columbia, Duke, Georgetown, New York University, UCLA, William and Mary -- do not regularly publish any book reviews. Many publish one or two a year. The Michigan Law Review publishes an annual compendium of book reviews, but its size has been shrinking across the decades.

Why? If anything, the legal professoriate is more burdened with To Read lists than other disciplines. In addition to academic scholarship and lay publications, law professors also have stay abreast of what legislators and judges are doing. It's a lot of work, and book reviews would be useful in culling the workload.

Prof. Levinson has a number of hypotheses:

Indifference from student editors. Law reviews are edited by law students, who often don't see the value of book reviews.

Tenure considerations Although a well-written book review may take a considerable amount of time to research and write, tenure committees do not see book reviews as important publications. Ambitious young scholars therefore avoid the format.

Book-length manuscripts. It's more prestigious for a law professor to publish a lengthy article in a law review than to publish the same manuscript as a stand-alone book. This consumes limited pages and editorial resources that could otherwise be devoted to book reviews.

Prof. Levinson's suggestion is to create a new journal, or web page, devoted to reviews of academic books. I'd contribute.

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Anonymous Zeiss said...

Henry Cornelius' movie "I Am a Camera" (1955) was given a one line review by the US critic Walter Kerr: "Me no Leica".
Gotta love that.

6:50 PM  

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