An interesting discussion on the WPA list about the dearth of book reviews in rhetoric and composition. There is a general sense, backed by some statistics on the list, that journals in rhet/comp no longer publish as many book reviews as they once did. And though I don’t have stats to back up my next claim, I would guess that the number of books published in our field has not declined; in fact, I would guess the opposite is true, mainly b/c the field has grown in numbers and the pressure to publish has increased over the last 10-20 years. The blame need not fall on the journal editors however, as it’s also the case that we’re not writing book reviews, perhaps because reviews are not particularly valued as academic work.
In any case, several suggested a web book review site, noting sites like bookslut and Education Review. I’ve always like EBR as well. These sites all work in the traditional way. Book Review editors solicit book reviews and the evaluate review article submissions. I support this kind of review writing, and I think it would be great if someone wanted to create a site like this for rhet/comp. However, I don’t think the problem is so much that there isn’t a venue for writing these book reviews. Instead, I just seems, for whatever reason, the folks in our field aren’t interested in writing them.
So maybe there’s an alternate solution, and perhaps it begins with asking this question: why do you (or would you) read an academic book review?
The main value I know I’d get out of a book review is finding out that the book exists! Obviously book reviews are more valuable when they are timely. I want a site that’s going to tell me that a book in my particular area of interest has just been published and tell me where I can purchase the book if I choose. The second thing I need is a basic summary of the text. In short, I need what I can find on Amazon. The only problem with Amazon is that it’s not particularly easy to browse books in our field; they aren’t well-categorized in my opinion. However, the standard info on Amazon comes from the publishers anyway.
In short, a good portion of the information I’m looking for already exists out there, on Amazon, on these publishers’ websites. "All" that has to happen is that someone mine this information and aggregate it on a single site. Then I think you allow users to create accounts and tag the books so that they can be organized in useful ways. Not surprisingly I would also suggest a comment feature to allow users who have read the book to write brief, informal reviews. Maybe you could allow users to rate books like Amazon does or conversely to rate user comments, shifting better rated comments and commenters to the top of the heap.
None of this would eliminate the writing of more formal, traditional reviews. However, I have to ask, what do you think would be more valuable in helping you determine whether a book is relevant to your work and/or a good, worthwhile read? One person’s 500-800 word book review? Or a page with a synopsis, tagged categories, and a dozen 100 word reviews?
Now also think about the labor involved. To get that review written, you have to have an editor who can solicit a reviewer and get a review copy sent to hir. Then s/he has to read the book, and write a review in appropriate academic discourse. Then the review needs to be edited. Compare that with the time it takes to write a 100 word review of a book you just read. You can’t count the time spent reading the book as the informal reader read the book for a different purpose, right? In addition, these informal reviewers can have a conversation about the book, as they often do on Amazon.
So, book reviews are fine. I’ve written one for EBR. I would write one again, but it’s difficult to find time to do it among other writing tasks. I’d have to pick out a book, solicit a book review editor, wait for the book to show up, and then read it and write the review in fairly short notice following the book’s appearance in my mailbox. On the other hand, if I was checking out this fictional site, looking for what new books have been published, and saw one I’d recently read, I might be inclined to whip off a short review or comment. Not too much effort for me, and not worth much on its own, but combined with the hundreds of others doing the same thing, we might produce something more valuable than 800 words languishing on a page on a bookshelf somewhere.