The Art of Reviewing Books

For a number of years, I have been reviewing books for two different organizations, the Washington Independent Review of Books and the Internet Review of Books. I discovered early on that reviewing is an art in itself that requires both humility and impartiality.

The purpose of a review is to tip off readers about a new book coming on the market so that they can decide whether to invest the time and money required to consume the new work. That means that I, as a reviewer, can’t assume that my biases are the same as those of my readers. In fact, I have to try to judge the book I’m reviewing with no biases at all.

So I have to portray fairly the essence of the book, point out its most important features, ideally offer some quotes that demonstrate what the book is up to, compare it to other volumes in its genre, and offer a recommendation.

I don’t write reviews recommending against a book. If I don’t think well of a book, I simply don’t review it. Fortunately, because of the wide range of subject matter in books given to me for review over the years, I can view a book against a broad background and judge its quality fairly. I find few books so unlikeable that I won’t review them.

That said, as the two organizations that supply me books well know, I specialize in works about Vietnam and warfare, two subjects I am all too well acquainted with. Through the years, I have reviewed at least a dozen books on Vietnam and many more on combat. I favor narratives that pull no punches in describing the savagery of the battlefield and the grisly deaths that result. Typical of a book I admired for its frankness about combat was Mark Treanor’s A Quiet Cadence (Naval Institute Press, 2020).

The reason that impartiality is required of a reviewer may be obvious, but maybe the obligation to stay humble is less evident. Book reviewers, myself included, are authors. The ever-present temptation in reading another’s work is to draw comparison’s with one’s own in hopes of boosting one’s own sense of superiority. But the reviewer’s job is to read from the point of view of the reader, not that of the writer. That demands a humble approach—my task is to help, not to dominate.

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