Why I promote book reviews

Book reviews are time consuming and are usually read and shared less than other blog content-so why bother with them?

Book reviews have been one pillar of my blog since I started Aidnography in September 2010. I recently received a few comments about my reviews, particularly whether it is ‘worth’ writing them in an era of fast social media trends and various discussions about the future of books in a digital age in general and in academia more particularly. I actually wrote about some of these issues as early as 2011:
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In addition to simply saying that I enjoy reading books and consider myself very fortunate that this activity is (a small) part of my paid full-time employment, I want to structure my reflections along four themes: the stamina of books, the relationship between books and my research, the changing nature of (academic) publishing and my resistance against overpriced edited anthologies.

Books are here to stay

As long as academic systems promote people to the position of ‘Readers’ and lectures are literally translated into ‘Readings’ (the German ‘Vorlesung’ or Swedish ‘Förläsning’), we are reminded that engaging with written material has always been an essential part of academia. Add an increased pressure from the evaluation and impact authorities around the world and the lower cost of on-demand publishing, for example, and it should become clear that books will stick around for a bit longer. This is particular true for traditional monographs that provide a bigger canvas than journal articles, are an essential part of an academic CV and a powerful connector between students, publishers, teachers and researchers. In a multidisciplinary, applied field like communication and development there is also an element where books connect with audiences outside academia, although I still would like to conduct an ethnography of reading habits of development professionals outside academia...

Reading and reviewing books as research

As much fun as reading and reviewing books is, it becomes more relevant when it is attached to research.
I am working on an article on aid worker autobiographies as a new and emerging literary genre, so reading those books is actually part of my ‘field research’; like publishing research on development blogging, it is always motivating to combine my blog writing with seemingly more ‘impactful’ publications outside this forum.

Book reviews in the age of open access
With the exception of the LSE Review of Books blog and Allegra Lab’s regular reviews, I do not find enough accessible reviews on subjects I am interested in and I want to promote good practice within my very limited power of a small blog.
The ultimate irony in book reviewing to me is when reviews in academic journals, still an important and traditional outlet for them, are hidden behind paywalls-often controlled by the same company. So when you click on such a review as an academic outsider you are asked to pay for the it just like you would for any other article. Unless this practice changes I will neither review books for traditional academic journals nor will I promote this practice in any way.

The power of not reviewing

W
hile relevance (especially for a broader audience of my blog) is my primary concern for the books I choose to review I also like to promote independent publishers that continue to publish excellent critical and affordable products.

Which brings me to my final point: The other day I came across an edited anthology of a friend. The well-known global academic publishers charges 106 Euros (plus shipping) for a book comprising about 140 pages! This is not just wrong, it will also reduce the number of sold copies to probably 47 libraries and institutions and one individual buyer around the world.
I published a book chapter in an expensive anthology a few years ago and another in a much more accessible collection and I would refrain from doing the former again. It is hiding your writing behind a ISBN number and unless you share a pre-print version of the chapter, it will be an entry for your CV only. These anthologies are often time-consuming for the editor(s) and cheap to produce for publishers, but they will lose importance in academia with a focus on engaging long-reads or peer-reviewed articles. Research confirms that book chapters are less quoted than articles.

The joys of being your own book review editor
At the end of the day, as with almost all the writing on Aidnography, my reviews are driven by curiosity and actual interest in the content. I do not review and promote books for the sake of the author and/or publisher, but I will also not author a set of reviewing guidelines and reserve the right to a certain amount of randomness what gets reviewed when and how.

Appreciating the hard work that colleagues have put into their books always benefits the wider academic community, reminding us of the importance of critical writing, independent publishers and communicating the importance and power of books to a wider audience.

Comments

  1. Great ideas, Tobias... I wonder if you have written somewhere yours "step by step" for doing reviews ;-) . I would really appreciate reading them!

    ReplyDelete

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