Why even bother writing scholarly reviews?
Advertisement for Olivetti Typewriters, illustrated by Ernesto Pirovano
Is the time spent reviewing other people’s books more important than writing your own stuff, making your own contributions?
One of my graduate-student friends has published a number of book reviews, the assignments often passed along by his adviser and other professors. They tell him it’s good for him to write reviews. I think what would be good for him is to finish his dissertation. Or work on his own journal articles. Even if you’re a starving graduate student, there’s no such thing as a free book: The commitment to write a review is much greater than just the time you spend reading the book. Any review you dash off is going to be consigned to mediocrity.
Universities have changed very little in the hundreds of years they’ve been around, and professors have changed perhaps even less. The historians Anthony T. Grafton and James Grossman have started an important and overdue conversation about the future of graduate education—a conversation that continued at the recent convention of the Modern Language Association and has also been taking place at campuses throughout the country. As the two historians pointed out, many scholars are simply doing what they’ve always done, training their students to be mini-me versions of themselves. At best, the rest of the world laughs. At worst, well, others have done a good job of laying out the consequences of continuing business as usual in higher education.
You can call me anti-intellectual, or anti-academic, write me off as a grouchy philistine who suffers post-traumatic-stress disorder from reading too many revised dissertations.
But the truth is: I’m weary of the piles of mediocre, post-hole-filling projects. I’m ready to say goodbye to a large percentage of monographs, and ready to be done with reviews of them. I’m hoping for big changes in higher education and scholarship.
If the current climate in publishing and academe requires that scholars be ambitious and accessible, that they write clearly (if not simply) for more than the 15 people in a sub-sub-subfield, then professors will have an opportunity to become engaged in American cultural, social, and political life in meaningful ways. The monograph and book-review sausage factories are not, I think, the best use of our collective cerebral resources. It’s better to write one good article than to review 20 books, and even better to write one good book.