Why do we write book reviews?

While preparing his latest book review for Ancient World Magazine, Joshua Hall found himself asking the question, “Why do we do it?”

Joshua R. Hall

The academic book review is a type of publication that I am unsure is widely known outside of academia. Popular culture has reviewers of its own whose columns can be found in every newspaper and many magazines, so it should not be much of a surprise that professional knowledge-makers do it, too. But I think there are subtle differences.

When I was still in graduate school, it was instilled in me that writing book reviews was a form of professional service. We do it to let others know our thoughts on new scholarship, including both praise and criticism. Reviews also let other practitioners in the field know that the volume under review exists! Of course, this is less significant in the age of the Internet, but it is still relevant to a certain extent.

Throughout my short career in academia (and peri-academic work), the service aspect of this exercise was always prominent in my thinking. Reviewing for certain publications certainly does seem like it is a service. For example, the scholars who review books for both the Journal of Roman Studies and the Journal of Hellenic Studies do it with the knowledge that they will not get to keep the book. These are returned to the joint library of the societies which is housed in Senate House, in London.

Other academic publications allow reviewers to retain the books that they write about. Bryn Mawr Classical Review (BMCR), perhaps the most prolific reviews publication in the field of ancient studies, is one of them. In this case, are we still performing a service?

I think that the answer is still yes, even though reviewers are compensated for their review with the book. But, at least in the case of BMCR, I think that the service goes deeper. It is open-access, allowing anyone to read the reviews they publish. As readers of Ancient World Magazine will know, we are passionate about open-access and making the ancient world accessible to all.

It is for this reason that we also publish book reviews. If you look back through our articles, you will see that the three members of the editorial team (Josho, Matt, and myself) have all written reviews for Ancient World Magazine.

On one level, we write these for the same reason that we would write reviews for academic publications. It gives us the opportunity to let others know about our views on a new book, letting out some of our own ideas on the topic at the same time. In this way, book reviews are a form of scholarship in their own right. They are one of the various forms in which academic dialogue takes place.

But, at least for me, reviewing books for Ancient World Magazine has another level of purpose. Because much of our readership comes from outside of academia (or at least from outside of the disciplines around “classics”), I feel that our reviews open up the world of academic literature to a wider audience. They are written to be accessible, eschewing academic jargon to the extent possible and generally including more details about context than an academic review would probably include. This lets readers stay informed of current discussions and debates within academic circles while not having to commit to the amount of reading that usually requires.

This is done with the explicit knowledge that many of our readers will not have access to the books we review. The volumes that we have thus far reviewed, and those which are “in the pipeline”, are predominantly scholarly books, often carrying with them a fairly hefty price tag. Unless they have access to a research library, general readers will probably not have them in their hands to read for themselves.

Thus, we endeavour to let our readers experience these books through our reviews. In a very small way, this is a means of making access to new research more egalitarian. Although some argumentative details do not appear in the review, a clear picture of what is being said by the author(s) is given.

Of course, this is not a substitute for reading the book itself. Indeed, the widely-read nature of Ancient World Magazine means that we are almost certainly helping make a few sales for publishers. This, I believe, is also an important aspect of our reviews being aimed at a general audience: we are helping inform people about new publications that may otherwise slip by their radar.

I sincerely hope that you, our readers, find our book reviews to be enjoyable and informative. We do what we do for you and take your opinions to heart. If you like reading our reviews, and our other articles, please let us know by sharing them on social media. If you think that we could be doing something better, whether this is a change in style of our book reviews or our content articles, please get in touch! I would also encourage you to check out Bryn Mawr Classical Review, which also publishes open-access book reviews that may be of interest!