How to Review Science Books

To be a scientist is, among other things, to be a reviewer, for without the review process science would have no greater claim to truth than any other way of knowing. While peer review does not ensure that science's grasp of reality will always be firm, it does at least serve as a sort of collective feedback mechanism, minimizing spasms of error or prejudice that can lead isolated researchers astray.

By | March 23, 1987

To be a scientist is, among other things, to be a reviewer, for without the review process science would have no greater claim to truth than any other way of knowing. While peer review does not ensure that science's grasp of reality will always be firm, it does at least serve as a sort of collective feedback mechanism, minimizing spasms of error or prejudice that can lead isolated researchers astray. Realizing this, most scientists accept the task of reviewing proposals and manuscripts for publication, some viewing it as a necessary communal service, others relishing the occasional opportunity to quash a harebrained idea or join battle with a professional rival.

Writing reviews of scientific books is, in this sense, just another form of peer review, yet it is often more than that. A critique of a project proposal or a paper is usually technical and schematic; it never goes outside a small audience of grant officers or colleagues; its function is administrative. A book review, on the other hand, is a literary effort in its own right, and its readership extends beyond a small circle of specialists; its function is to inform a larger public.

Reviewing another's textbook or monograph in a professional journal offers the opportunity to give a personal overview of one's own ideas on the subject. Writing in a popular magazine gives one a forum to educate, provoke, even amuse. In addition, writing reviews is a painless and relatively direct way to break into print.

Yet how does one go about becoming a book reviewer? In a word: volunteer. There are thousands of science-related books published each year, and hundreds of journals and magazines that carry signed reviews. These include not just specialty journals, but also magazines aimed at educators, at scientists and educated laymen, and even the book review sections of some newspapers.

Review editors, who are in many cases not scientists themselves, refer books to researchers suggested to them by other contributors to the magazine, sometimes by a board of editors. Occasionally an editor will send a book to an established public figure, a major authority. But there are only a limited number of hours in a research scientist's day, and only a limited stock of Carl Sagans and B.F. Skinners. As a practical matter, editors, who usually have more books than reviewers, look not for scientists with high name recognition, but for thoughtful readers who can write well.

If that describes you (and you may not know it until you try), it is up to you to let book review editors know you exist. Sometimes this can be done through colleagues who are themselves contributors to the publication. But you can also do it yourself. Send a letter of inquiry, in your best literary style, stating your interests and areas of expertise. More often than not, you'll be given an opportunity to try your skills on whatever appropriate volume the review editor has accumulated on his groaning shelf. Often an editor will send along a copy of the table of contents or the jacket notes so that you can get some idea of whether the book interests you.

The first book offered you may not be exactly the one you have in mind, but unfamiliar ideas and novel approaches can provide seminal material for an essay, even if the book itself seems weak. Some magazines publish regular lists of books received. In these cases, it doesn't hurt to express interest in a particular volume or two (particularly if you've wanted to read it but can't afford to buy it yourself.), but don't count on getting your choice of assignments until you've established yourself as a reliable contributor. Avoid submitting a finished manuscript until you are asked to do so: most publications in my experience do not welcome unsolicited book reviews.

Taking Notes

Once you receive a book for review, what you do with it is a matter of individual style. I tend to skim a book very quickly at first. Then I settle in with a lined pad and a cup of chamomile tea, noting quotable quotes, major themes and debatable points as I go along. Keeping all the notes on a single sheet of paper, rather than putting them in the margins, makes it easier to assemble a concise review when I finally sit down at the keyboard to compose. Some publications, especially popular magazines, have a staff of "fact checkers" who verify dates, figures, and quotations, and who may call you to account before your review is printed. I keep a careful list of page references as I go along to facilitate the process.

How you actually organize the review depends on where it's to be published. Review editors invariably send along a sheet of guidelines that will give you some idea of what they are looking for. Some journals expect a summary of the contents of the book, with only a few sentences on its high and low points. Some want a review to convey the flavor of the book without explicitly presenting its contents. Most want some sort of sober evaluation of what the author was trying to do, and how well he or she accomplished it.

The length of a review, to some extent, dictates the approach one can take. A short review, 300 words or so, can only touch on the high points of the book. If you are clever, you can evoke the quality of the work with a well-chosen quote or a few pithy sentences. In a longer review, you can devote more space to the author's text itself, and you can discourse on what the work teaches, how it compares with other books, where it fits into the current state of the art. In some cases you may be able to review several related works in a single comparative essay.

Naturally, the audience for the review is important, too. If you are writing a review of Cosmological Dimensions of Axion String Dynamics for the Meta-Astrophysical Journal, your comments can be highly technical and your criticisms as recondite as you choose. On the other hand, if you are reviewing The Secret Life of Charles Darwin for Popular Paleontology magazine, you will want to spend some time considering how to make its message understandable to a reader who may have had little prior knowledge of the field.

Writing a judicious review takes some restraint. If it's a good book, you have to resist becoming effusive. Few books merit masterpiece status; few will alter the course of Western intellectual history. Simply set out what you like about the book with plenty of enthusiasm, but use superlatives only when appropriate.

Negative Reviews

Writing a negative review, in my experience, is quite a bit harder. Restraint stretches to the limit after several hundred pages of annoying prose, error-riddled exposition, or flabby logic. It sometimes takes real effort to avoid writing "One wonders not only why such drivel was ever written, but why, once written, it was ever published!" or "This book proves only that the brain of an insect can survive in the body of a human." But remember, you only want to warn away the unsuspecting or inexperienced. Too much abuse and readers may suspect your motive is to humiliate the author, not to critique the text. In a good review of a bad book one need only point out "shortcomings," "failures" or "bothersome features." Verbal carpet-bombing is seldom called for.

The best way to learn the trade, of course, is to practice it, submitting one's efforts to the red pencils of editors and learning from their comments. Some journals edit their submissions more heavily than others, but don't expect to have your text printed verbatim. Review editors are as sensitive to how their readers will respond as they are to the scientific reliability of the author. In popular science magazines in particular, style is important; working on book reviews in these publications is a good way to learn to write for a general audience.

Alas, a list of published reviews may never amount to much in the eyes of an employer, a dean or an academic personnel committee. Nor can it line one's pockets with gold—some popular magazines pay for reviews, but at the typical rate of $100 per review, you would have to write two or three each week to reach the U.S. minimum wage level. Writing reviews is an occupation for those who like to read and to write, and whose mark of success is a wall full of books, not a Bigelow on the floor.

Marschall reviews books for The Scientist and writes
the "Books in Brief" column for The Sciences. He is
a professor of physics, and director of the observatory, at
Gettysburg College. He is currently a visiting scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian
Center for Astrophysics, 60 Garden St., Cambridge, MA 02138.

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