Ted Savas v. Imaginary Academic Historians (Round 2)

Ted Savas can’t seem to let things go. Now he is upset that I don’t consider reader feedback on the Amazon page for his new book on John Bell Hood to constitute a “real review.”

PS: Someone might let Levin know that some “real reviews” on the Hood book have appeared on Amazon.

Sorry, but I am looking for a little something that goes beyond paraphrasing the dust jacket to actually evaluating the interpretive structure of the book itself. I don’t care whether that takes place in an academic journal, popular magazine or even a blog post. I also don’t care whether the author is a Ph.D in history or a high school dropout.

My original post and Ted’s response have touched off another round of this utterly useless debate about whether a Ph.D constitutes a necessary condition for being considered a historian. What is with this guy’s obsession with academia and what exactly does it have to do with me? I don’t even have a Ph.D in history. Apparently, my interest in a more formal review is evidence of a broader problem.

Lo and behold, a reader posted THIS OPINION on Amazon recently. I wonder whether this qualifies as a “real review” in the mind of those who follow such things? I am assuming the poster is a real reader. (Eric Wittenberg shot me a note that he knows “Dan” and he is a serious CW student. If memory serves, Eric has written a few books and has actually had some of them evaluated in “real reviews.”) I am thus assuming that “Dan” thinks, breathes, reads, evaluates, checks sources, and reaches conclusions. Or is this simply an opinion tossed up by one of the great unwashed because it did not originate from one of the holy esteemed publications of academia or flow from one who pontificates armed with a Ph.D.?  (The publishing stories I could share with you gleaned behind the scenes on this score would keep you from wasting some of your money on a college education.)

What does it say about our society when the head of a publishing house devoted to the study of history questions the value of a college education. I assume that most of Savas’s authors not only have a college education, but place great value in having done so. What exactly do Ted’s “publishing stories” have to do with the value of education anyway? I am sure his stories transcend those involving academics.

I have a number of Savas books on my shelves going back to the 1990s. In recent years I’ve read Lance Herdegen’s regimental study of the Iron Brigade [BTW, this book made my “Best of 2012″ list.] Darrell Collins’s biography of Robert E. Rodes and Brian Matthew Jordan’s study of the South Mountain Campaign. All are quite good. Brian is close to finishing a Ph.D in history from Yale. I assume that did not constitute a reason to reject Brian’s manuscript. How did we get from my questioning a dust jacket blurb to the implication that academic historians ought to function as the official gatekeepers of any kind of historical writing – even reviews?

Let’s get real for a moment. This is a purely manufactured cultural battleground conjured up by Ted Savas. In my experience it reveals very little about how the history profession and broader historical community interact, especially in the area of Civil War studies. If there is a battle to be fought it’s the one that many of us are engaged day in day out. It’s the one that I am getting ready to fight next week in my classroom.  I’ve never questioned the value of what Ted Savas does. Not once.

Ultimately, I assume that both of us share the same hope that what we do will ultimately excite and enrich the general public’s interest in history.

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22 comments… add one

  • R. Alex Raines Aug 26, 2013

    Wow. I am fairly disappointed to read Mr. Savas’ ad hominem about you. Its uncalled for and its not really what your article said. And, the reality is, it doesn’t matter who wrote the Civil War book, does it? It could be a novelist or a painter or a lawyer or a historian, as long as the work is intellectually rigorous and the text is well supported.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 26, 2013

      That’s exactly right.

  • acwresearcher Aug 26, 2013

    In my estimation, if more history books were subjected to proper peer review, we’d have fewer fiascos like David Barton’s The Jefferson Lies! I believe that is your argument and support it wholeheartedly and am not a university-trained historian either. It’s just good educational sense. The interpretation of facts must stand up to scrutiny or it becomes a whole different category of literature.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 26, 2013

      I don’t even understand why Savas made such a big deal to begin with. He knew exactly what I was saying. Amazon commentary does not constitute a formal review. I suspect they don’t make it to the paperback versions.

      • acwresearcher Aug 26, 2013

        From what I’ve seen, they start all over with the paperback release. So, unless a reader goes back and adds his/her review to the paperback title offering, it won’t. Occasionally, there may be a link to the hardcover page, but only if the hardcover is still in print.

        Aside from that, as a publisher of history books, why shoot himself in the foot like that? For me, were I nearing completion of some of my own research and ready to publish, he would be the last resort. I want my work to meet with scrutiny of a trained eye. That’s what has always made my writing better at all levels.

        • Brooks D. Simpson Aug 27, 2013

          Here’s a better way to get what Kevin’s saying: no publisher puts a review from Amazon on a dust jacket or a paperback edition.

  • Ben Allen Aug 26, 2013

    Mr. Savas reminds me of Mr. Zuckerberg. I like the company he helps to run (I almost bought Wittenberg’s study of the cavalry battles on the Union right flank at Gettysburg, which was published by Savas Beattie, about a week ago at a Barnes & Noble), but I increasingly dislike the individual. He is like an angry adolescent who misconstrues everything that lacks or seems to lack bias in his favor and who usually talks before he thinks. “Wasting” money on a college education: that was said by a graduate of the University of Iowa College of Law (With Distinction), who uses this wasteful education to this day as a college professor. Perhaps this is an indication of insecurity. Perhaps he is suffering from psychological scars academic elitists gave him, rendering him unable to anything that even sounds critical. Maybe he is simply sensitive to criticism, or anything that sounds like it. If that’s the case, he needs thicker skin. As for his anger, it is only hurting him, particularly his credibility as a historian. His emotion obviously predominates in his personality; the best historians, while trying not to exclude emotion altogether, do their utmost to ensure that reason is at least its equal. Therefore, he needs anger management therapy.

  • Total Aug 26, 2013

    I’m pretty sure that “real reviews” are done by people who put their full names forward.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 27, 2013

      Ted is confusing reader feedback with a review, regardless of whether it is positive or negative. I suspect he knows this.

  • Barb Gannon Aug 27, 2013

    What is REALLY hysterical is the anti-intellectualism on the part of a book seller. Really who is this vast audience of people who buy your books who are not educated in some way?

    • Kevin Levin Aug 27, 2013

      That is the most appalling (dare I say, embarrassing) part of all this.

  • Patrick Young Aug 27, 2013

    I guess there is always the meta discussion of whether there will be traditional book reviews in the future as newspapers phase them out. That leaves blogger book reviews, which can be interesting but often seem a little too personal, or reviews in academic journals. The problem with the journals is they are a good guide to what was published a year and a half ago. The blogger reviews are more like blurbs than they are like the New York Review of Books or the Times Book Review that i grew up with.

    I distrust most amazon reviews because they are completely unvetted and often anonymous. I usually suspect that the author or a competitor are behind the reviews when there are only a few posted.

    I purchase 20-50 books each year, so this is a major part of my discretionary budget. The Times reviews maybe 5 Civil War books a year in its declining book review space.

    I like the fact that the Civil War Monitor posts reviews on its web site so I can make purchasing decisions in real time.

    As for Kevin’s inadvertent involvement in Ted Savas’s marketing campaign, what can I say? I hope no one get’s hurt.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 27, 2013

      The Civil War Monitor is a great place for thoughtful book reviews as is Andrew Wagenhoffer’s Civil War Books and Authors blog.

      As for Kevin’s inadvertent involvement in Ted Savas’s marketing campaign, what can I say? I hope no one get’s hurt.

      If it is I suspect it will backfire. At some point these posts will rank higher on a Google search for his name. Beyond that I think Savas is doing damage to his company and casting a shadow on his many fine authors. One of them should reign him in.

      • Terry Johnston Aug 27, 2013

        Thanks Patrick and Kevin for the kind words about the Monitor’s digital reviews. We determined from the start that we didn’t want to run reviews in the print magazine, where limited space would (as it does in so many other publications) almost certainly result in shorter, cursory pieces. Running reviews on our website means there are no space / word count limitations, and we’ve found that, as a result, our reviewers are penning more thoughtful takes on various titles.

        I also want to second Kevin in acknowledging the work Drew does at his site. He’s been doing it for a long time now, and it’s consistently top-notch.

        • Kevin Levin Aug 27, 2013

          Your “real reviews” are as good as anything you will find in a journal. :-)

  • Christopher Coleman Aug 27, 2013

    First off, I reserve judgment about Stephen Hood’s book until I actually read it. That being said, if Mr. Savas has a bone to pick with academia, why is he directing his aim at a blogger and not an academic journal/association. They are not numerous, but they do exist. Of course, the thing about academic journals is that so few people read them that creating a dust up there will gain one very little public attention. Perhaps you should take Ted Savas’ jihad against you as a kind of left handed compliment: that he thinks picking a fight with you over the book will attract attention. I don’t know.

    Whether Amazon reader reviews are true reviews is, I think, something of a murky area. There are a number of people who devote quite a bit of time reviewing books on Amazon, and if one goes by sheer volume (as Amazon does) then I guess one could consider them full time reviewers. Some also blog. Of course we live in an age of “reality” television, where amateur performers substitute to highly talented professional ones and manage to generate big ratings nonetheless, and this may simply be part of the same cultural phenomena.

    My impression of the Hood book is that it is more argumentative essay than narrative history, but that is not necessarily bad. I am just dubious that, aside from dotting the I’s and crossing the t’s that there is that much one can do to fundamentally rewrite the books on Hood and the Autumn Campaign; we shall see. If Messrs Hood and Savas, by generating some controversy (however artificial), draw more attention to the western theatre of war and especially the Autumn Campaign, I personally think that would be a good thing. Of course, the basic fact remains that Hood LOST the campaign and in so doing sealed the fate of the Confederacy. Worst of all–he lost to a Virginian!

    • Kevin Levin Aug 27, 2013

      For the record, let’s be clear that this has absolutely nothing to do with the content of the Hood book. My original post was about the description on the dust jacket and that alone. I have not read the book. Ted Savas chose to make it about something much more.

      I am not going to get into a debate about Amazon reviews. I suspect that my referring to a “real review” was clear to most people. Again, Savas chose to make it about something more. He chose to use it to slide into another one of his irrational rants about academia with me as its poster boy.

      If this is part of his publicity campaign than I anticipate that he will be sorely disappointed in the long run. One commenter above has already mentioned that he passed over a Savas title at his local bookstore owing to his commentary.

    • Jimmy Dick Aug 27, 2013

      I have 29 reviews over on Amazon with most of them being history books. Currently at the last check I had 33 helpful votes and 10 negative votes. Eight of the negative votes were from Civil War books. No one left a comment to say why they voted negatively. Oddly enough half of these negative votes are on one book review, that of the Kennedy brother’s classic piece of polemic trash, the South was Right. Apparently you get negative votes when you write thoughtful reviews and don’t embrace the lie that is the Lost Cause.

      I started the Amazon reviews for several reasons with the main one being so that I had a short personal reference in my own database on the book in question. While I freely admit these are not academic book reviews I do feel they are at least good reviews with some thought behind them. I just find it so interesting that the Lost Causers will trash books they haven’t read because they don’t agree with the factual evidence while they just LOVE the trash from a couple of respiratory air technicians.

  • Patrick Young Aug 27, 2013

    BTW, When I looked at the reviews on Amazon, some by people I know online as dedicated Civil War enthusiasts, I noticed that 24 people had given the Hood book the maximum 5 Stars and 3 had given it 4 Stars. No one gave it less than four.

    Doesn’t the fact that the reviewers gave the book the same number of stars they would have given to War and Peace say something about the objectivity and sense of proportionality of even serious and honest amazon reviewers?

    C’mon, could a book on [cough] John Bell Hood really be on par with the greatest works of history and literature?

    • Total Aug 27, 2013

      To be fair on that one, star-ratings are blunt instruments, at best. I might give “War and Peace” 5 stars and the latest John Scalzi sf book 5 stars while still recognizing that the former is a classic and the latter not. Roger Ebert once complained about the “two thumbs up” problem in the same way.

      • Kevin Levin Aug 27, 2013

        It’s the least helpful feature of an Amazon review.

  • Gustav Speed Dec 11, 2013

    “……..Ph.D constitutes a necessary condition for being considered a historian.”

    Wow, I have one in Biochemistry, does that mean I can be an historian too?

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