The Changing Nature of Scholarly and Professional Reviewing

Reviewing new publications has been a staple of professions and scholarly disciplines for a very long time. We have come to rely upon these reviews as a means of staying current with our fields and as a way of pursuing other personal interests. Careers have been made or dashed by reviews by peers and great scholarly debates have been waged, sometimes for decades, via reviews. Avid readers of outlets like The New York Review of Books, like myself, will spend as much time reading the letter responses to reviews as the reviews themselves.

We seem to learn how to do reviews by mimicking what we have read of reviews in our areas, following the templates and requirements provided by journals publishing reviews, and through trial and error. For something with such consequences, this can seem like a slapdash process. Now, it may be that the availability of the Web and online publishing might finally have begun to transform reviewing, as reported on by Jeffrey J. Williams, “Empire of Letters: Tom Lutz and the ‘Los Angeles Review of Books’ Set Out to Crete a New Model of Literary Review,” The Chronicle Review, January 8, 2016, B7-B9.

Williams considers how the LARB is trying to create a new style of reviewing, with “writing that was more personal, sometimes impressionistic, and more lively than typical academic fare.” The LARB has created a variety of other Web sites, a book club, print quarterly, blog, and weekly radio show in order to achieve this. The “LARB beckons a new model of a literary review, not tied to a newspaper or based in a university but creating its own autonomous space, like a nonprofit gallery or museum, supported by a mix of donors, grants, ads, and memberships, and drawing a diverse audience. It is the kind of idea that makes you wonder why no one had done it before.”

All of this has been led by Lutz, an English professor, who once taught creative writing and who has done research in literary history. He is what we now generally call a public scholar, a form of scholar once heralded, now lamented because of a perceived decline in influence, and still hoped for in terms of a resurgence. As Williams notes, “The review tills the uneven ground between the selective and the inclusive, the conventional journal and the blog, the academic and the general reader. While it has developed a public presence . . . it draws many academic writers and readers, often graduate students. It also reaches educated readers and subaudiences for its various features, for instance in law and in the entertainment industry.” Developing a broad readership is a goal that seems, even now, to rattle some academics, while engaging and challenging others.

I refer readers to this recent essay because it relates to one of the purposes of this blog, to review, in more personal and engaging ways, what is being researched and written about archives and the academy, my two areas of interest. I have been trying to write such reviews for nearly four decades, occasionally with some success. I am convinced that blogs like this and what the LABR is doing may be the best venue for such activity.

We can look elsewhere to ascertain why reviewing is important and probably needs to evolve. Just about every one who considers improving writing states that it starts by being a good reader. This is one reason why we have many essay collections by writers and scholars who include their reviews. Reviewing books is always more art than science, but it is useful to examine them because they often contain observations both about reading and writing and the intersection between the two. Mikita Brottman, The Solitary Vice: Against Reading (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2008), reminds us about the tremendous growth in books about reading and its importance to us in developing a sense of who we are or want to become. Jacques Bonnet, Phantoms on the Bookshelves, trans. Siân Reynolds (New York: Overlook Press, 2012), likewise reminds us of the importance of our personal libraries and what they tell us about ourselves; “To lose one’s books is to lose one’s past,” Bonnet writes (p. 112).

We also have professional book reviewers who have assembled essays, examples, and memoirs about what they do and how they learned to become readers. Michael Dirda, in his Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2006) presents his lessons about reading and its importance: “We turn to books in the hope of better understanding ourselves and better engaging with the meaning of our experiences” (p. xv). He also has given us a memoir about growing up in the 1950s and 1960s and his early adventures with reading in his An Open Book: Coming of Age in the Heartland (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 2003). Finally, Michael Dirda gathers together his best review essays from his Washington Post Book World contributions and other venues in Readings: Essays and Literary Entertainments (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000) and Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books (New York: Pegasus Books, 2015). He writes about everything from vacation reading to children’s books. At one point he ponders his ideal environment for writing: “I own a real dictionary stand and would like to add a library cart and a revolving bookcase. Most of all, I daydream about possessing enormous wealth so that I could employ a personal librarian, someone to catalogue my books properly, answer my correspondence, delicately bring to my attention one or two choice items coming up for auction at Sotheby’s. I could, of course, wear a velvet smoking jacket at my desk, take breakfast in the conservatory, and in the late afternoon go for long walks on graveled paths” (Readings, p. 30). In the more recent collection of columns, Dirda provides an explanation for the importance of physical books: “Books don’t just furnish a room. A personal library is a reflection of who you are and who you want to be, of what you value and what you desire, of how much you know and how much you’d like to know . . . . Digital texts are all well and good, but books on shelves are a presence in your life. As such, they become a part of your day-to-day existence, remind you, chastising you, calling to you. Plus, book collecting is, hands down, the greatest pastime in the world” (Browsings, p. 233).

All of this suggests why I increasingly think about myself, in my dotage, as a reader, first and foremost. By this, I mean someone who reads critically, searching for insights and ideas about my own research and teaching areas wherever I can find them. We tend in our current information age to read superficially, browsing really, if we read at all. Even in our universities, reading, in the real sense of the word, seems to be on the decline. Maintaining a blog such as this is an effort to reach out and argue why reading is essential, intimately connect to teaching and research.

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