The New Art of Reviewing Books

A little while ago Bryan Garner mourned the lost art of reviewing books in his ABA Journal column. Book reviews have all but disappeared from bar journals and law reviews, regrettably.

That column stuck with me. It’s true that book reviews are all but extinct in our profession. But that seems odd to me for two reasons. One, writing about books sounds like great fun to me, and I can’t be the only one. And two, I see other kinds of reviews—of smartphones, laptops, software, cars, and so on—all over the Internet. The review has its place alongside the listicle as bread-and-butter infotainment. Reviews in general are alive and better than ever.

Of course, these reviews are of a different genera than scholarly book reviews. The review Garner misses comes from an erudite pen, is infused with wit, and is itself a literary work. It describes the book’s content, assesses its importance, and judges whether it makes good on its promises. It helps other professionals decide if the book is worth their time.

I’m all for that.

But if book reviews are to make a comeback in the legal profession, it won’t be in print. It will be online. The old scholarly review will have to adapt to a new environment.

The online environment is good for timeliness and accessibility, but admittedly poor for quality. Because quality is no longer a given, a good review must now go beyond a scholarly assessment of the work’s contribution to the profession. A good review will take a page from technology blogs: it will evaluate the practical qualities of design, usefulness, and value.

  • Is the book written well? It it written in plain English, interesting, and easy to understand?
  • Is the book designed well? Does it have good typography and is it easy to read?
  • Is the book organized well? Are its headings descriptive and helpful, or multitudinous and unclear? Does it use a sensible citation scheme that is unobtrusive but accurate? Does it have a good table of contents, table of authorities, index, and so on?
  • If the book is electronic, is it quick to access and easy to refer to? Does it have useful features? Are hyperlinks done well? Does it print well?
  • How does this book compare to others on the same subject matter or at the same price point?
  • Overall, is this book worth a lawyer’s time and money?

Perhaps book reviews must make their home online because books themselves are—legal treatises and reference works especially. When works are published differently, reviews of published works must change also. Physical books are not dead—heaven forbid—but even they are changing under the pressure of an online world.

I hope to try my hand at reviewing books before too long.

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