Crowdsourcing academic book reviews

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.

6 replies on “Crowdsourcing academic book reviews”

I dunno–how useful, really, do you find type comments to be? They seem pertinent largely if you’ve already read the thing, and can then measure your response against others.
Even many published reviews look a whole lot more like book reports than actual reviews, to me. Hmm.
Many blogs include scattered essays that are very good as reviews–honest, questioning, praising or critiquing as the spirit moves without as much of (though some, of course) of the political concerns that soften and dilute reviews published in academic journals. Perhaps even simply finding a way to bring these together would be good.
In any case, I certainly agree that following the traditional path of waiting on the publisher to provide a copy and so forth isn’t what’s wanted. On the other hand, sifting through endless blogs to discover the occasional terrific review essay just isn’t going to happen.
Probably, we need to stop thinking in terms of shelves, though.


You make a good point about Amazon reviews. They are certainly hit or miss. I guess my point is that we might develop an academic genre of book review-comments that shared with Amazon comments some of the following characteristics:
-they are relatively short (though they wouldn’t be required to be short)
-they’re generally informal, at least in comparison with traditional book reviews
-they don’t require the traditional apparatus of editors, review copies, and so on.
However, I also like your idea of aggregating blog posts. The question is, as you say, how to bring them together. If you could get everyone to agree to using particular and especially unique technorati tags that might do it. At least it would be a start.


Yeah, that’s exactly it, Alex–a way to pull together the various review essays (of books, but also of essays, and maybe of conference presentations, too) that crop up in blogs from time to time, but without pulling in the entirety of any of those blogs.
Ah, but I grow a little weary of trying to find the rhythm in of any of it. Somehow, despite all of the twitters and widgets, the social networks and blogs, the feeds and badges, everything feels terribly disconnected to me.
CompPile is one thing that brings Writing resources together in a very nice way, which is why I can so easily envision a book review resource residing and growing there, but then another part of me simply despairs over there being so very many resources available, already, that one is sure to have a time of it just deciding how to sort through those, determine their usefulness, figure out which to follow, etc.
The more we have the less we have, it sometimes seems. I’m still a fan of lists and boards (and also group blogs or wikis) that bring together many people and their shared resources and collective expertise in one readily accessible space. The recent WPA-L reviews of Downs and Wardle’s essay are one example.
I’m a blog curmudgeon, you know. I love them, on some levels, and want to love them for making spaces where so much terrific writing thrives, but then I hate them, too, and see them as a fragmenting influence, especially in instances like this, where a resource that would benefit many ends up being inaccessible largely because there are so many blogs that instead of being semi-public, they end up semi-private.
If that makes sense.


Well, like my home here in central NY, my blog is “centrally isolated.” Though I must say that if you google “new media rhetoric,” you’ll find me at the top. May not be many folks interested in the topic, but those who are can’t help but find me.
On the other hand, I see your point. In fact, I was just thinking today about how “media convergence” only works in conjunction with divergence, with distribution. So I agree with your point about fragmentation.
Perhaps these technologies enhance fragmentation, but I am more inclined to see these networks as enabling an existing fragmentation that would otherwise be occluded. For instance, I wouldn’t have posted this message on WPA. First it’s way too long. Second, at best it would just lead to a rehearsal of arguments about “web 2.0” or whatever.
My point is that WPA is a community to which I feel only partly attached. Sometimes I’ll offer a comment there, but it’s not really a place where I feel a sense of belonging. The same is pretty much true for TechRhet as well.
So when I read messages on those lists, I have a sense of fragmentation. I think to myself that I don’t really belong in the community.
However I do belong out here, in the central isolation of cyberspace, tangentially and temporarily connected by links, tags, and search results with others writing about similar things. Having never fully escaped my Deleuzian influences, I prefer the nomadism of the cyber desert to working in the field.


Blogs are just tree houses, you know. Generally speaking, I love virtual tree houses. Used to have one on Connections MOO, long ago–Kafkaz’s virtual Tree House, Bowling Alley, and Mind Gym. (And, as it turns out, type “Kafkaz” into Google, and my tree house is first. So, there is a way into the treehouse, but one would need to know the secret handshake, and would need to want to visit, neither of which, I suspect, are very common phenomenon.)
What’s odd, I think, is to find this resurgence of the arboreal among those who otherwise so strongly identify themselves with the rhizomatic.
I’m fond of TechRhet–since I was its first listmom, and actually named the thing–but I feel just as much at home, perhaps even more so, on WPA-L, even though I’m not a WPA, and a generous assessment would be to call me a “scholar at large.” (“Academic gadfly” would be the less generous, but very possibly more accurate, take.)
I suppose I automatically feel part of any community that focuses on writing and the teaching thereof, but the distribution of treehouses never feels much like a community to me, obligatory blogrolls notwithstanding.
Also, though I’m gamely twittering (and why don’t more folks see “twit” as the actual root word there, I ask you?), I suspect I’m constitutionally incapable of warming up to that, much. Microblogging. Hah! The basic advantage there would seem to be that if one has little to say, at least one doesn’t feel compelled to say it at length. The disadvantage is that it invites one to say very little all too often, though blessedly briefly.
Curmudgeon. That’s me.


I get your point at twittering. It’s one of those things I’m trying to figure out. I suppose b/c I don’t have a large or dispersed social network (nor a strong desire to create one), twittering doesn’t make so much sense. Still I could see using twitter to say, “hey, look at this cool site,” or something like that.
Blogs as tree houses makes a degree of sense, but what you’re commenting on there is one articulation of a blog’s database rather than the materiality of the blog data itself, stored on a networked drive somewhere. I experience my blog as a kind of entity, as a corpus, but the typical vistor comes to me by Google or following a trackback from another site. They are just passing along.
For example:
In this TED talk, Jonathan Harris talks about research he’s done in which he collects all the blog posts that include the phrase “I feel” and then analyzes the various feelings. It’s interesting. I won’t go into detail here except to say that this is an example of how blogs are not arboreal, even though they may be tree houses. A blog may be organized to appear tree-like, but unlike a tree, a blog’s appearance can shift. It’s data can be mined and repurposed.
Indeed, trees are not arboreal; that is to say that trees do not function according to the tree-like epistemology D&G describe in relation to the rhizome.
Nevertheless, it’s a good question to ask: why type of community is the blogosphere? Does it operate like a traditional community in which member-ship is assigned through the commonality of traits? Perhaps sometimes it does, or at least such communities can be asserted. This perhaps what is weakly suggested by the blogroll.


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