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The Five Types of Academic Book Reviews

Introduction

It may be helpful to explain that most academic reviews tend to follow one of the following five strategies or patterns. The reason is that academics have a lot to lose by writing a negative review about one of their colleagues.

Common Strategies

1. The Summarizer

The summarizer simply tells you what the book is about, but does not evaluate the quality of the book. The summarizer will use words such as newintriguinginteresting, or detailed, to give the appearance of providing a critique. However, this reviewer plays it safe by avoiding any qualitative assessment. This may be because the reviewer is not an expert in the field or because he or she is too scared to make a judgment.

2. The Sycophant

The sycophant continually flatters the author, using words such as groundbreakingbrillianttour de force, and so on. Any criticism is limited to a brief comment or two about minor details (the odd typo, the size of the font, etc.).

3, The Sandwich Artist

The sandwich artist wants to criticize, but does not want to offend. His solution is to create what may crudely be termed a shit sandwich. All the criticism is sandwiched between a generally positive introduction and conclusion. He’ll finish his introduction with something like Generally speaking, then, this is an important piece of scholarship, only to tear the book to pieces in the middle paragraphs. Then he’ll transition to the conclusion with a line such as These minor quibbles aside, this is a tremendous addition to our knowledge of X.

4. The Honest, yet Tactful Appraiser

The best approach, and the one we recommend, is to be honest and to show that you care. Convey that you are genuinely interested in the author’s ideas. Don’t just keep harping on those subjects that you’ve been studying. Explain how the world looks from the author’s point of view. Be generous when you do criticize, and don’t nitpick over the details. Demonstrate to the reader why this book matters, or if it’s a lousy volume, put it down gently.

5. The Scornful Pedant

Some reviewers always feel the need to prove that their own expertise is greater than the author’s. They seem to take any new book in their field of study as a personal affront. How dare somebody suggest a new perspective! You can recognize a scornful pedant by his mean-spirited tone and excessive nitpicking. Pedants tend to go off on tangents, prefer to talk about their own hobby horses, and enjoy putting others down.