Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Philosophy Book Review Tips?

I'm reviewing a book for the first time; do any philosophers have tips on how to plan/organize/read/etc.? This is all new to me, and I'd welcome any advice from veterans on how to proceed. Do you like to take notes along the way? Should I plan on reading cover-to-cover more than once? How do you decide what to focus on?


  1. I feel I should have more to say about this, since I used to do several book reviews. But I don't actually have many big tips.

    The first thing I'd say is that you should read the book cover-to-cover before committing much time to working through any one detail. It's a really frequent experience (of mine at least) to think there's a big problem at point A, plan on making it the centrepiece of the review, and then seeing that it is talked about at length at point B.

    If you can get the big argument of the book into some kind of structured form, that's great. A lot of philosophy books have the form "Here is an argument why we need a theory from class C to solve such-and-such problem, and here is why my theory is the best theory in class C." If the book does have that form, identifying the C, and the problem (and the positive theory!) is very helpful for a reader.

    The other thing to think about while reading, and something that I think really distinguishes the best reviews, is think about what's not in the book, but should have been. (This is a pet peeve of mine about contemporary philosophy; there's not nearly enough attention paid to what people don't say. Sometimes there will be several things that you think the author should have paid more attention to. (See Georges Rey's review of Eduoard Machery's book in NDPR last week for one example of this.) In some cases, I suspect not the case you're talking about(!), the author will know a lot about one area of philosophy, but not a lot about related areas of philosophy, or related areas of non-philosophy. That's a very useful thing to talk about in a review. After all, if the author has this blind spot, often the author's readers will too.

  2. I've written a lot of reviews over the years and I like doing it. I agree with Brian that you have to try and get to the heart of the book rather than just pick holes in everything or anything the author says. Obvious really but it's funny how many reviewers don't do it.

    The other thing I would say is -- books can be really annoying, and reviewing can be really time-consuming, but don't give into the temptation to say something spiteful or bitchy, because you feel you are wasting your time. I have done that in the past with books I have found very irritating or frustrating and I really regret it. It may have been amusing at the time, but you have to think of the effect on the author. People may have enjoyed Colin McGinn's view of Ted Honderich but everyone knows he shouldn't have done it!