The Art of Reviewing
Bruce Mazlish's advice to reviewers ("The Art of Reviewing," Perspectives, February 2001) is generally sound and helpful. But it is not enough for reviewers to be thorough, objective, and open about their own points of view. Critiquing a book, whether published or in manuscript, also requires an examination of the author's referencesthe scholarly apparatus displayed in footnotes and bibliographythe very foundation on which the work is based, testimony to its integrity and reliability.
Let me provide two examples from my own experience as a prepublication reviewer. In one case, I scrutinized the translation made of a French study dealing with 19th-century society. Although the translator had satisfactorily rendered the book into English, he neglected to verify the author's sources. When I did so, I was astonished to discover numerous errors: incorrect titles for books cited, inaccurate page references, and garbled quotations. The substantial list of necessary corrections I suggested caused the press that solicited my opinion not to publish the book.
In another case, a manuscript dealing with a figure prominent during the French Revolution was submitted to me for review. Out of curiosity I compared the text with an obscure study of the same individual mentioned in the author's own bibliography. I soon realized how much of the manuscript had been "borrowed" from the older work. (Plagiarism, it may be said, is the highest tribute one historian can pay to another.) Originally a doctoral dissertation, it had somehow escaped serious scrutiny by the author's thesis adviser and other readers. Again, my severe comments dissuaded the press from publishing it.
A reviewer's opinion of a work may well be personal, even subjective. However, a critical examination of an author's sources, time-consuming and painstaking as it might be, offers one certain way of determining the merits of a scholarly publication.
Montana State University
Bruce Mazlish does the New York Times Book Review a grave injustice. He accuses the editors of "often" failing in elementary tasks. He blames them by implication for "an erratic choice of reviewers" and "ill-informed" reviews of a "dumbed-down selection of books." He says they exercise power with "little responsibility" and suggests they need his recommended seminar on how to write book reviews.
None of these accusations is justified. On the contrary, in my long labor as a reviewer, I have found the editors of the New York Times Book Review to be exemplary. They run careful checks to make sure that reviewers are not only qualified but also unprejudiced by any prior relations with the authors of books reviewed. They check every reference or close allusion a reviewer makes to the text of work under review, to ensure that no author is misquoted or traduced. Members of the AHA, most of whom are writers and reviewers, can appreciate how important such checks are, since misrepresentation by reviewers is one of the curses of academic life. Reviews the Times has commissioned from me have all been of scholarly works by academic historians, chosen by the editors not for their presumed popularity but for the importance of the subjects dealt with or the interest of the contents of the book. Standards of copyediting in the New York Times Book Review are exceptionally rigorous and, by the usual standards of the American press, editorial interventions are thoughtful and helpful and are always referred to the writer. Readers of reviews in the Times can rely on them in these respectswhich, unfortunately, is more than can be said for most academic journals. The Times has exceptional resources of staff and funds to devote to the Book Review: the fact that they invest them so heavily and so freely is evidence of the high priority the paper gives to books. They should be commended for it.
University of London
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