Writing a book review for a collected volume is a tricky and often perilous undertaking for the young book reviewer. A book by a single author allows you to concentrate on the overall argument, while a multi-authored book offers a different agenda with each chapter, and it is normally impossible to give each chapter the kind of in-depth analysis that it deserves within the review’s word count. (Plus, add the more cynical, if the book deserves a stinker of a review and you write such a review, you’ve just alienated multiple members of your profession rather than one.)
Despite knowing of the difficulties this sort of project presents, I recently finished writing a review of a collected volume of essays, a Blackwell Companion, for Scholia. I’ll let the review speak for itself when it’s eventually published, but I wanted to think a little bit about the process of writing for a Companion or Collected Volume, as it’s worth talking about effective strategies for approaching this task. There seem to be two approaches to reviewing a multi-author volume. The first is to list each chapter and make a brief comment on its content. This has the advantage of being comprehensive, but does tend to be rather dull and plodding as a form of writing (and I’ve written that kind of review before now myself). It’s also not particularly feasible for the Blackwell Companion style of book, which often has thirty plus chapters. The second approach takes a more holistic view of the volume and its stated purpose, which most volume editors will now explicitly address in the general introduction. This sort of review looks at what the volume aims to do and whether it’s managed to do it; it acknowledges that, inevitably, some contributions will be stronger than others; and it tries to sum up the nature of a book which by definition will mainly be used by people who dip in and out of it.
It probably won’t surprise you to learn that I tried to write the second type of review, not least because one-line summaries of 32 chapters would be incredibly dull to read and not very helpful in communicating whether the book is any good or not. For that is the key purpose of an academic book review – to tell the reader of the review whether this volume might help them in their research.
As I wrote, I found that I was kicking myself for thinking that of course this would be an easy job and I would have it swiftly over and done with, not least because writing a book review is a bit of an academic Dark Art – people read between the lines to see what you actually thought of the book, and my problem is that I don’t think dupliciously enough to proof my own writing for that kind of inference. I also discovered that I’d left all sorts of things out of the first draft, like an explanation of how the chapters were divided up, a discussion of why I was mentioning selected chapters rather than all of them, and any kind of methodological analysis. This last was particularly tricky for me, because while I can normally talk about how I do my research or how other people do their research, I tend to fall down at discussing this in technical terms.
I also got a bit carried away with things I found interesting personally as opposed to things that I found interesting as an academic. One thing that really struck me was how passionately the various contributors were arguing their corners, and I put that into the review as ‘here is an interesting thing!’. Of course, telling people that the volume is written with passion isn’t as important as discussing other macro issues, so that bit has been cut – not because I don’t think it, but because it doesn’t quite fit with the genre of the academic book review.
So, what would I say the big things are that I’ve learnt from this experience? Well, be a bit more cautious about taking on a collected volume (thus speaks the voice of experience), but besides that. Don’t think you can let the table of contents do the work of describing how the volume is structured and what it contains for you; you need to explain that to the reader. Don’t forget to include information about which chapters you’re discussing and which you aren’t. Don’t try to be reserved and formal, which, alas, the style of my first draft uncharacteristically appeared to aim for; if you are enthusiastic about the book, let your enthusiasm show. And above all, get other people to read your review before you submit it, just to make sure that you are saying what you think you’re saying!