I wish book reviews in science journals were more like TLS or LRB book reviews

Many science journals (e.g., Nature, Science, Ecology, Quarterly Review of Biology, TREE) publish book reviews. Which I mostly don’t find very interesting or useful (your mileage may vary). With the exception of some reviews in Science and Nature and very occasional reviews elsewhere, book reviews in the journals I follow tend to just summarize books, with only brief evaluative comments from the reviewers. That doesn’t help me. It’s too redundant with the book’s table of contents, or with a quick flip through the book at the publisher’s ESA meeting booth (again, your mileage may vary).

What I would find much more interesting and useful would be book reviews like those in the Times Literary Supplement or the London Review of Books. Not so much straight book reviews as essays inspired by one or more books. Essays that use the books as a jumping-off point to talk about some broader issue. For instance, pretty much any good new science book provides occasion to talk about where the field has been, where it’s at, and where it’s going.

There’s precedent for this in other disciplines, such as sociology (which is where I stole this idea from). And it’s how Meghan and I try to write our book reviews, though our blog posts are far from polished essays.

At a guess, I bet the main obstacle would be finding reviewers who want to write such reviews. It’s much easier and quicker for a reviewer to just summarize a book and give only brief evaluative comments. But there are some reviewers who will do it, as evidenced by the fact that some book reviews in Nature and Science read like LRB and TLS pieces.

What do you think? Would you read an equivalent of the LRB or TLS for ecology, or perhaps for some broader field such as biology or science as a whole? I would read the heck out of that!

8 thoughts on “I wish book reviews in science journals were more like TLS or LRB book reviews

  1. Take a look at the book reviews in Frontiers of Biogeography, which I used to edit (since taken over by Sal Keith). As an LRB subscriber I was very keen to set up a section that allowed for long-form, discursive book reviews, including of multiple books simultaneously. You can judge for yourself whether it has been successful: https://escholarship.org/uc/fb

    I didn’t have a great deal of trouble finding reviewers; the promise of a free hardback book in the post appears to be too tempting for many to resist. I also gave contributors three months before I started hassling them for copy. The two main challenges were (a) people who took the books but never wrote anything in return, and (b) a great reluctance to write negative reviews, even when the contributor felt that the book was truly awful and others should be warned away from it.

    Would many people read a journal dedicated to such articles? I doubt it. There are already journals that only publish reviews, and the added detail of those reviews being linked to a particular book wouldn’t make much difference to their scientific value. Personally I like the idea but I can’t imagine sitting down with a copy to read it. Not while I have a backlog of LRB issues to get through!

    • I am simultaneously pleased and embarrassed to learn that the thing I wanted already exists. 🙂

      Not surprised that it’s hard to find people willing to write negative reviews.

  2. I do agree with your outline of why most book reviews in science journals aren’t very inspiring, and what would be more interesting. But sending out a circular with the incentive of a free book doesn’t feel likely to elicit the sort of essays you want. Perhaps it would work better if editors were to develop a shortlist of people who had something they wanted to say “about where the field has been, where it’s at, and where it’s going”, and then to use new books as the occasion for invited essays? (My guess is this is more or less how it works for Times Lit Supp.)

    Sounds like a good topic for some sort of evening discussion at meetings. Maybe the history section might be interested, too?

  3. Agree. Probably no other source has had more influence on the way I think than the book “reviews” in NYRB, which aren’t really reviews but essays on ideas and culture. Lewontin’s long string of essays from the 80s and 90s were brilliant (and I’ve mentioned one here at least once before). Frederick Crews’ essays on Freud and False memory (4 reviews, which need to be read together) were amazing. And of course, Oliver Sacks blew me away with his humanity (and his writing). Damn, I need a compilation of these…so much good reading.

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