Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Art, Craft, and Obligation of Reviewing a Book

Like many of the readers of the Legal History Blog, I’m not currently working on my own research right now—I’m reading other people’s written work and saying what I think about it. Whether grading papers in a freshman seminar or writing a letter for tenure or promotion, evaluating the work of others is the most important thing that we do. And no one really teaches us how to do it.

One of the most useful articles I’ve ever read is the essay, “The Art of Reviewing,” published by historian Bruce Mazlish in February 2001 in Perspectives, the magazine of the American Historical Association. (Full disclosure: not long after first reading the essay, I became Bruce’s colleague at MIT.) This essay should be required reading for graduate and law students—and for seasoned reviewers who need a refresher course. His most valuable piece of advice? “The first requirement is actually to read the book.”

The standard brief book review is one of the hardest genres in which to work, but while it’s easy to complain that nothing significant can be said in 700 words, remember that Abraham Lincoln managed to express a few memorable ideas at Gettysburg, and he clocked in at 256, depending on whether you think “battle field” is one word or two.