A Tough Review

Yesterday I completed a review of a new book on the battle of the Crater for the Journal of Southern History.  It was one of the most difficult book reviews I’ve had to write in recent years, in large part, because I could find nothing positive to say about it.  No doubt, the fact that I wrote it for an academic journal shaped my assessment of the book.  I had to critique the formal argument (to the extent that there is one) along with an analysis of how the study contributes to our understanding of the Civil War and fits into the relevant historiography.  Throughout the review I was conscious that I was writing for fellow historians and not a general audience.  This is not to suggest that a reviewer does not have an obligation to offer an honest critique for a non-academic audience, but clearly their interests diverge at some point.  I should note that most of my points would have been included regardless of venue.  Given the dearth of studies on the Crater the book at least provides a basic overview of the important figures involved as well as the planning and execution of the mine along with the flow of battle.  I have no doubt that for most general readers their interest in the battle ends here.

The most difficult part of a negative review is that it falls far from my feelings of admiration for anyone who can complete a book-length work of history – even if I don’t have anything positive to say about it.  I have found it very difficult to muster the kind of focus necessary to finish my own book project on the Crater.  It takes a certain ability to isolate one’s self for long periods of time and to block out potential distractions.  I am not very good at this as I love to play my bass guitar, browse blogs, watch bad television, and hang out with the wife whenever possible.  So, if you happen to be the recipient of a negative review by me know that you have my utmost respect for your accomplishment.

6 comments… add one
  • It can be hard to write a proper review of a poor book. I have a bad book on my desk right now that I am supposed to be reviewing for Montana magazine. I had a great but cruel opening paragraph written and my wife saw it and said “Now what if you meet this poor person at a conference?” So the book sits there while I try to figure out how to say bad things nicely.

    On the other hand, even my initial review wasn’t this bad:
    http://www.ucl.ac.uk/~uctytho/McGinnReview.html

    Reply
  • Kevin,

    One of my favorite authors of fiction has written that he cannot respond to “fan mail” any more, because if he did, he’d never have time to write books, which is why he supposed he was so popular in the first place. He has a point. His comment came to mind after reading your post, especially where you remarked how you “found it very difficult to muster the kind of focus necessary to finish my own book project on the Crater. It takes a certain ability to isolate one’s self for long periods of time and to block out potential distractions.”

    Like you, I also run a blog, though it’s been up and running not nearly as long as yours has. Nevertheless, I’m sensing that the time and thought energy I devote to it has taken away from the energy needed to research and write articles, books, etc. I’m wondering how you feel about this. Do you think that your excellent blog has been a distraction from other scholarly projects?

    Perhaps other authors who maintain blogs can comment as well.

    Paul Taylor

    Reply
  • Larry, — Luckily I don’t have to worry about meeting the author at an academic conference.

    Paul, — Great question. I have no doubt that this blog has worked to distract or take away time from other writing projects. And I have no problem admitting that I’ve struggled at times trying to maintain the proper balance. On the other hand, this blog has attracted the attention of a wide range of people and it has resulted in speaking engagements as well as additional writing opportunities. My suggestion is to those out there who struggle with this particular issue is to ask the hard question of what is more valuable. In my case I am convinced that my blogging is a form of educational outreach. Even for those who vehemently disagree with my postings I hope they can at least see it as worthy of serious thought. If that means fewer magazine articles than so be it. Blogging has a certain amount of intrinsic value that I am not willing to give up at this point. Thanks for giving me a chance to share this as this line of thought is going to fit into a talk that I was invited to give by the Society for Civil War Historians on blogging and the Civil War at next year’s meeting of the Southern Historical Association in New Orleans.

    Reply
  • Larry, — By the way thanks for the link to the McGinn review. When I was a graduate student in philosophy I read quite a bit of McGinn’s work on the philosophy of mind as well as Honderich on free will. This takes the negative review to an entirely new and disturbing level.

    Reply
  • Actually, I think it is a good rule of thumb to write a book review as if you might just run into the person who wrote the book. Heck, I’ve run into Geoffrey Perret and John Simon, who’ve been catty with me, and have been the targets of my barbs in return. Simon, BTW, is far better able to roll with the punches, although maybe he knows that in my case he has no choice.

    I tend to be a reactive reviewer when it comes to these sorts of things, in that I take my tone in part from the author’s tone. I found the author of one biography of Henry Adams to be particularly obnoxious, and so I ended the review rather sharply: “Henry Adams once likened biography to murder. Now we know what he meant.”

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  • Hi Brooks, — All I can say is that I hope my critique can be understood as falling within the contours of what an academic review is supposed to accomplish. Perhaps I will have a better perspective once my own study is released and I have to read reviews of my work.

    Reply

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