The Ethics of Book Reviewing

Nijay Gupta just posted some thoughts in response to an inquiry about book reviewing. The question pertained to the expectation of a reviewer to read a book in full. It seems that Nijay’s practice is very similar to my own. Here’s how I approach the books I review:

Reference Works — I can’t think of a single reference work that I’ve ever read from cover to cover. The reason for picking and choosing which parts to look at is simple: it’s a reference work and I reference it as needed. When I receive a reference work for review, such as a dictionary or encyclopedia, then I read the preface and introduction in full and then select the articles that suit my interests at the time of reviewing. The rationale for this is simple: I try to only review books that I’m interested in and will ultimately benefit my personal studies. So if I receive a reference work for review I actually use it as I would if I had bought it and didn’t need to review it.

Bibles — The way I go about reviewing a Bible depends on the kind of Bible I’m reviewing. Generally I note aesthetic features, my opinion on the translation as an average reader, not as one who knows anything about translation, and then if it’s a study Bible I’ll say something about the notes and articles. But I have yet to read an entire Bible in order to review it. Again, I read the preface and introduction and then all of the major articles and a sampling of the smaller articles. I limit the notes I read to the areas I’m interested in studying at the time.

Commentaries — I use commentaries as reference works so I almost never read them from cover to cover. The same practice applies to commentaries as to other reference works, although I do give commentaries a closer reading given the fact that they’re not a bunch of disparate articles or entries. In other words, it takes a fuller reading of a commentary, than say, a dictionary, to benefit from the contents.

Edited Volumes — For the most part I try to read all of the essays in edited volumes even though the review generally only highlights those I found most noteworthy. There have been plenty of times when I haven’t read all of the essays due to a lack of interest in the particular subject or an essay, or my inability to read the essay because it was composed in a foreign language such as German or French.

Monographs — I read every single page of monographs to include footnotes, endnotes, bibliography, appendices, and indices. In fact, I generally always read appendices no matter what kind of book it is (this includes commentaries and reference books). I even muddle through foreign language quotations in monographs, oftentimes typing them into Google Translate in order to get the gist of what is being said. If there are extended quotations then I just sound the words out and move along.

Textbooks — I try to read textbooks (such as NT introductions and books of the like) in full because I generally only request those I want to use to aid me in my teaching at my church or home Bible study. This requires a close reading although there have been times when I’ve mined the material for what I could use and discarded what I couldn’t.

One thing that Nijay notes is the limitations that come with reviewing books for journals. Journal reviews vary in length from as little as 100 words to as much as 1500 words on average. There are always those times when review articles appear in a journal and can span 12 to 20 pages. The limitation of the review can affect the method one uses in reviewing. Since I post reviews on my blog I’m never constrained. I can write as much or as little as I’d like. I generally like to keep it between 700 to 1500 words although I regularly go over that limit and hardly ever under it. But for me personally, that’s enough space to offer an introduction, summary, praise, critique, conclusion/recommendation.

I think the general ethic that all book reviewers should follow is to give the volume under review a fair and long enough reading to be able to offer a general assessment. This is not merely a summary of the contents, but also an idea of the strengths and weaknesses of the book. Certain books require a full reading to be able to do this sufficiently; other books can be assessed from a healthy sample reading.

One thing that is unforgivable, and all too common among bloggers, is not reading the book at all, or reading the last page of each chapter and pretending to have read it in full. I’m sure we’ve all seen enough fake reviews to choke a goat. The motivation for doing such is easy enough to discern: the faster one “reviews” a book is the faster that they can get more.  I’ve ranted about this in the past so I won’t repeat it here. What I will say is that every book deserves interaction and every reader of reviews deserves to hear genuine thoughts borne from actually reading the books. This can manifest in 100 words or 100,000; that’s really up to the reviewer.


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