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.