elements of a good book review


I’ve been publishing academic book reviews since 2015. Among genres of scholarly writing, I find this one requires special care. Unless you have permission from the journal to write a review essay, in which case the essay will likely be subject to peer review, you don’t have room to expand on your points. Reviews in my field run from 750 to 2000 words, depending on the venue. You must also consider the readership of the journal, which might range from nonspecialists interested in the topic of the book, who need a general orientation, all the way to experts in the subfield, for whom even a minor error in your review could seem glaring. Finally, while accurately summarizing another scholar’s views goes into the larger academic genres, in a book review it is the whole game. If you don’t do that well, it won’t be a helpful review.

Why publish reviews? If your own book is receiving reviews–and if you are fortunate enough to be paid a salary to do this work–it is fair to give back. It’s a public form of peer review. Plus, the book and the journal can signal your established expertise on a topic, or your intention to move into a new subfield. It’s characteristic of book reviews that the “questions left unanswered” or “areas for further nuance” in the eyes of a reviewer tend to be ones that the reviewer her/himself is actively pursuing. And taking on a review can be the push you need to read an academic book cover-to-cover, an experience I have always found edifying.

While journals usually commission reviews, a process that can entrench institutional and social hierarchies, you may put yourself forward as a reviewer. Many journals consider unsolicited book reviews, and many will publish reviews by PhD candidates. Simply explain who you are and what qualifies you to review the book.

Successful book reviews share certain features, typically in this order:

  1. Introduction. This places the book in some larger context, one more immediately recognizable to the journal’s readers. Common contexts are a problem, a text, a field, and the author’s career.
  2. Description. It’s amazing to me how many book reviews skip this part. In order to appreciate all the other elements of the review, the reader needs to know the book’s structure, the titles of the chapters, and a summary of the book’s argument. The goal is to state the author’s ideas in terms the author would approve. This is a good place to include quotations from the book that, in your estimation, epitomize the author’s approach.
  3. Synthesis. It is understood that there is too much in an academic monograph or, especially, an edited collection for a review to transmit every analytical move. You must choose a path through the material. You are obliged to mention any idea important enough to be the focus of a chapter or perhaps a long section of a chapter, but anything below that level is up to you. At this point in the review, you may be making connections between the author’s ideas that the author does not explicitly make. (If so, be clear about that.)
  4. Evaluation. You have been asked to write this review because you have expertise relevant to evaluating the book’s arguments. Do they hold water? What are their implications for study of this text or period or problem? What is their institutional or intellectual context? How does the book stack up against previous books on similar topics? This is the part of the review that will command readers’ attention, since it will be most different from other reviews of the same book. Resist the twin temptations of a book review, which are not to evaluate at all (often we have a weakness for neutrality early in our careers, for pragmatic reasons), or else to be thoroughly negative (generally senior-scholar behavior). Throughout elements 2-4, the reader should be able to reconstruct from your prose what the author was aiming at, and why, even if you feel the author has not achieved it. Because the review is so much shorter than the book, it must be representative: avoid nitpicking.
  5. Conclusion. Regardless of any criticisms you have leveled at the book, end with some praise or, if you cannot muster praise (!), a prediction that the book’s impact on the field will be positive.

histories of time

Poole, Kristen, and Owen Williams, eds. Early Modern Histories of Time: The Periodizations of Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019.

Early Modern Histories of Time, ed. Kristen Poole and Owen Williams

The University of Pennsylvania Press released this edited collection ten days ago. I’ve been reading through it since then in preparation to send off the final version of my second book (also to be published by Penn Press). I recognize that the book isn’t “for” me, someone who primarily studies medieval literature. Nonetheless, I think I’ve worked in and across these two fields and on this topic long enough to earn an opinion.

Early Modern Histories of Time should be seen as part of a periodization industry in English studies that began c. 2005 and is now on the downswing. All fifteen essays (except one, which could be summarized: “I am a very clever close reader”) have something to offer beyond the particular examples given. I’ll exercise the prerogative of a blog post and won’t mention all fifteen.

Naturally I paid special attention to the one medieval literature expert, James Simpson (“Trans-Reformation English Literary History”). In his characteristically clear and polemical prose, Simpson synthesizes one of the main planks of his research agenda, the analysis of literature, religion, and politics across the English Reformation. His critique of the resolutely synchronic frames of reference for medievalist and early modernist historicist scholarship, 1970-2000, is spot-on. I don’t agree with Simpson’s premise that religion and politics are more consequential for (English literary) history than other dimensions of human experience, but at least he feels the need to argue the point out loud. By prioritizing the same two domains that historically generated the medieval/modern break, Simpson leaves himself no choice but to accept the break on new terms. The inversion of the narrative of modernity, as opposed to its displacement or replacement, was both a feature and a limitation of Simpson’s Reform and Cultural Revolution. Here he concludes with an optimistically “synergetic” (100) vision of medievalist and early modernist collaboration.

The essay that most impressed me was the one by Mihoko Suzuki (“Did the English Seventeenth Century Really End at 1660? Subaltern Perspectives on the Continuing Impact of the English Civil Wars”). Opposing the division of the English seventeenth century at 1660, Suzuki weaves together comparative political history (English / Japanese); women’s studies / subaltern studies; ideology critique; and, again in a comparative mood, a takedown of “Renaissance.” Amazingly, or predictably, this is the volume’s only extended discussion of that all-consuming narrative category. Suzuki’s is an essay I will be glad to cite in my book, which ends c. 1650 but has no investment in halving the seventeenth century (or in renaissances).

Another standout essay is by Natasha Korda (“Much Ado about Ruffs: Laundry Time in the Feminist Counter-Archives”). I studied Shakespeare with Korda in college. Her essay identifies a dissenting form of periodization in the feminine labor behind Elizabethan ruffs. There was a (to me) surprising depth and breadth of evidence for this claim. The essay ends with a fantastic reading of the centrality of ruffs to Virginia Woolf’s literary imagination.

Ethan H. Shagan’s essay (“Periodization and the Secular”) is medievalist-friendly. Shagan argues that secularism is not the opposite of religion, as narratives of secularization maintain, but a development internal to the relationship between (Christian) religion and (Western) society. This argument neutralizes one of the most popular criteria for the dismissal of the medieval past, that it was an age of superstition, succeeded by an age of reason. Shagan’s ecclesiological history chimes with Simpson’s–as does an insightful postscript on Shakespeare as prophet of twenty-first-century “postsecularism” in the contribution by Julia Reinhard Lupton (“Periodic Shakespeare,” 210-12).

Despite what I interpret as good intentions, the collection has a problem of scope, of which the editors are aware. The book explores periodization concepts “indigenous” to early modernity, but structurally it takes early modernity for granted. This would be an issue in a book in any subfield; it’s particularly vexatious coming from early modernists, since “Renaissance” / “early modern” is the period of European history that habitually claims to have invented periodization. (The eighteenth century has a better claim, for it was then that periodization became standardized, totalized, and institutionalized, according to Davis.) The claim for a “birth of the past” in early modernity is a durable one, always made at the expense of a supposedly anachronistic Middle Ages.* While the editors and some of the contributors acknowledge what has been left out, most are content to imply that the Middle Ages had no “indigenous” periodizations, that the project of this volume is uniquely possible for post-1500 English literature and culture. But it isn’t.

Gordon Teskey (“The Period Concept and Seventeenth-Century Poetry”) gorgeously describes the experience of working in a period through the historically apt metaphor of the inner surface of a sphere. Yet Teskey betrays no sense that there might be anything wrong with being trapped inside a sphere. “We could not do research without periods. And of course we could not–at least until recently–organize a curriculum without periods” (150), he writes, repeating the most common defense of periodization, the defense from inevitability. But of course we could! Before the 1830s, we did (Underwood). There are too many moments in this volume in which the contributors treat periodization in the disciplinary present as a mere “mathematical convenience” before pivoting to the historical texts and topics that interest them. The result is a shortchanging of the ostensible payoff of this exercise. One gets the impression that early modernity possessed nuanced, multifarious, politically labile periodizations, while early modernists possess. . .the early modern, period. In this regard I’d contrast this book with Cole and Smith, a majority-medievalist effort that both explores the medieval period’s self-periodizations and challenges its retroactive construction as a period in the first place. An honorable exception is the essay by Heather Dubrow (“Space Travel: Spatiality and/or Temporality in the Study of Periodization”), which criticizes “early modern” both on historical grounds and “in terms of the professional domains we inhabit today” (258). Only Dubrow expresses the point that the intellectual content of literary periods depends on the social logic of disciplinary formation (cf. Underwood).

It’s axiomatic that any arbitrarily selected segment of history will both resemble the preceding centuries and resemble the subsequent ones. The choice of whether to bracket the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries with what came before or with what came after is just that, a motivated choice. The overview essay by Tim Harris (“Periodizing the Early Modern: The Historian’s View”) clarifies this point. The problem with “early modernity” in literary studies is that its arbitrariness has been lost to consciousness, submerged in the distribution of professional labor. Neither medievalists nor early modernists are obliged to think about the boundary line in the normal course of their professional duties, except when teaching a survey of British literature or (this happened in my grad program) when a “Medieval and Renaissance” colloquium splits up. The situation is not as drastic in history departments, in which period and area are dueling organizational principles. Historians can pick up and put down periods with greater equanimity. It’s telling that the other two contributors with expertise in the Middle Ages, apart from Simpson, are a historian (Euan Cameron, “How Early Modern Church Historians Defined Periods in History”) and an archaeologist (Kate Giles, “Time and Place in Shakespeare’s Stratford-upon-Avon”). The problem with literary periodizations, and “early modern” above all, is that they are sticky.

This book won’t unstick them, much as it yearns to. But probably no book could do that. All in all, Early Modern Histories of Time has some uncommonly good thinking about literature and temporality.


*Zachary Sayre Schiffman, author of The Birth of the Past (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011), blurbed this book. There is a cottage industry in Renaissance studies of monographs dedicated to pursuing this same claim. Munro proves it’s possible to discuss early modern historicism without leaning on a cardboard replica of the Middle Ages. (Many medieval European authors were intensely interested in the alterity of the past! There were whole poems, narratives, sermons, and theological quandaries about it!)

further reading

Cole, Andrew, and D. Vance Smith, eds. The Legitimacy of the Middle Ages: On the Unwritten History of Theory. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.

Davis, Kathleen. Periodization and Sovereignty: How Ideas of Feudalism and Secularization Govern the Politics of Time. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008.

Munro, Lucy. Archaic Style in English Literature, 1590-1674. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Simpson, James. Reform and Cultural Revolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Underwood, Ted. Why Literary Periods Mattered: Historical Contrast and the Prestige of English Studies. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013.

on liking Chaucer

First, some background. I began reading medieval English poetry the summer after high school (a failed attempt at my parents’ copy of Chaucer). What attracted me initially was the linguistic challenge:

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
. . .

I sensed that Middle English belonged to me as an English speaker, that no one else could claim an upper hand in it except by dint of the same sort of study I was putting in. This was even truer of Old English, the language of Beowulf. There are words in Old English whose meanings are simply unknown. More than dead liturgical languages like Latin or Sanskrit, Old English is a lost language. That appealed to me. At the end of college, I decided to become a medievalist.

This was my preprofessional formation. I linger over it because the issue of who the Middle Ages are for is politically fraught. There has rightly been a movement to decolonize medieval studies, still an overwhelmingly white field. It is Eurocentric by definition, since the sequence ancient-medieval-modern originated in European historiography.

In graduate school, I learned that medieval literature was related to the places in which it was made. Chaucer spoke for London and the royal court. Most other writing in English was “provincial,” a catch-all term and often pejorative. I studied this literature long before setting foot in England, so that my mental map of the country was drawn out of a reading of the literature. I was once challenged at a conference on my definition of “southern” for tenth-century England. My definition conflicted with modern UK regional nomenclature. On reflection, I was glad the issue came up. It’s an issue of different social trajectories in the academy. My own perspective made me receptive to weird, dislocational arguments like that of Nicholas Howe (a Yale PhD from the New York metro area, like me), who theorized that the capital city of early medieval England was Rome.

*

I teach Chaucer every other year to undergraduates, and I have a professional obligation to like him. It’s an obligation that’s taken some years to fulfill. I dutifully published an essay on him in graduate school in the Chaucer Review, connecting the Friar’s Tale to medieval forest bureaucracy—a topic that interested me more than Chaucer, at the time. The essay was intended to prove to potential employers that I could “do” Chaucer. One reader wrote that the historical dimension of the essay was stronger than the literary one. It was probably supposed to be an insult. But it was true.

I found Chaucer’s writing smug. I could feel the author winking at the reader through his characters. His stories were too comfortable being stories. The Canterbury Tales were poetic in form, but their style reminded me of modern novels and reminded me why I did not choose to study modern novels. Chaucer was so urban (at least to this rural reader), but his urbanness was deflected, almost never present on the surface of the work itself. You had to go to grad school to learn about it.

It has taken me years to place Chaucer to my satisfaction. My first book gave him only a cameo appearance. That book was more concerned with bridging the subfields of Old English and Middle English, which parted ways in the nineteenth century. In my second book, I have a trio of chapters that plugs Chaucer back into a literary context that makes sense to me. I realized what I really disliked was the gravitational pull he exerts on late medieval English studies. Instead of seeing Chaucer as (I think) he was, an initially insignificant sliver of his literary world, the field treats him as a benchmark for other writing in English. This remains the case whether he is read as prototypically English or, more recently, as a minor French or Italian writer. The field looks back on Chaucer through fifteenth-century goggles, for it was then that he became a benchmark. I teach Chaucer as an aberration, intentionally deflating students’ expectations about studying “the Father of English Poetry.”

My book puts Chaucer back in his place through the histories of English meters. Chaucer was a great innovator in this area. He invented the iambic pentameter. But Chaucer’s invention had a minimal impact prior to c. 1450. That’s a missed connection of half a century after the poet’s death. I wanted to write scholarship that recovered the weirdness of pentameter prior to that moment of mainstreaming.

Part of my reconciliation to Chaucer involved deeper study of his pre-CanterburyTales writing, the dream visions: the Romaunt of the RoseDeath of Blanche the Duchess,* House of Fame, Parliament of Fowls, and Legend of Good Women. Less commonly taught than the Canterbury Tales, these poems are less novelistic, more ‘medieval.’ The first three are in iambic tetrameter. They show us a Chaucer who has not yet had the pentameter idea.

The other missing piece fell into place when I read William Langland’s Piers Plowman. Langland provides vital context for reading Chaucer. You would almost think the two men belonged to different worlds. Their poems belong to different orders of reality.** Chaucer is a ubiquitous London bureaucrat, Langland a shadowy western cleric. But Langland lived in London, as well. His poem has a doubleness of place that corresponds to a certain flatness I detect in parts of Chaucer. Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrimage is a pretext for stories; for Langland, being in transit is the main thing. The House of Fame, my favorite of Chaucer’s poems, is not coincidentally the work of Chaucer that shows most clearly (we think) the influence of Piers Plowman. Langland, the “provincial” author, provincializes Chaucer. Piers Plowman thematizes that which Chaucer can’t or won’t say about himself.

I’m writing this blog post to record the chain of events that, over time and through many discussions with my students, has generated my take on Chaucer. My book simply unspools this take as achieved knowledge, but perhaps there’s value or interest in the personal backstory.

It’s OK not to like the texts you study or teach. Sometimes there’s something to be learned, about the text or about yourself, from sitting with dislike.


*Known today under the title The Book of the Duchess. But see Ellis.
**Bourdieu’s field theory has been helping me sort out the relationship between social placement and literary style in my research into early English poetry. The term “social trajectory” is Bourdieu’s.

further reading

Bourdieu, Pierre, and Randal Johnson, ed. The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

Ellis, Steve. “The Death of the Book of the Duchess.” Chaucer Review 29 (1995): 249-58.

Grady, Frank. “Chaucer Reading Langland: The House of Fame.” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 18 (1996): 3–23.

what was periodization?

Davis Periodization and Sovereignty

I’m teaching a graduate seminar called Periodization. We have been reading critical and theoretical texts addressing the content, history, and politics of the periods in which English literature is conventionally studied. These include medieval, early modern, Romantic, Victorian, antebellum American, post-1945, and so on.

Midway through the semester, one of my students pointed out that an awful lot of our texts are from the late 2000s and early 2010s.

Some highlights:

Ahead of the curve were David Aers’s “A Whisper in the Ear of Early Modernists,” in Culture and History, 1350-1600 (1992); William A. Green’s very helpful overview essay, “Periodization in European and World History” (1992); the collection The Challenge of Periodization, edited by Lawrence Besserman (1996); and Dipesh Chakrabarty’s Provincializing Europe (2000; reprinted 2007), which frames the problem of periodization within the paradox of the European specificity of the general concepts operant in historical scholarship. Green and Chakrabarty are historians like Le Goff, and historians have a longer history of discussing this topic. Green’s title echoes Dietrich Gerhard’s “Periodization in European History” (1956). Aers and Besserman, like Simpson, Davis, and Le Goff, represent medieval studies, which for obvious reasons has led the conversation on periodization.

This is also specifically a University of Pennsylvania phenomenon. David Wallace, Margreta de Grazia, and Ania Loomba, who teach in the English department there, were all involved in the JMEMS cluster. University of Pennsylvania Press published Davis’s book.

I was in graduate school in 2009-2014, so perhaps the chronological clumping in my syllabus is partly attributable to my formative reading during those years. But I think something more than that is going on. As a field, we appear to be exiting a phase of intense scrutiny of periodization. Not much literary scholarship worrying out loud about this topic had existed before 2000, and perhaps not much will appear after 2020. Somewhere in the late 2000s, periodization even became trendy, which is the only explanation for the English Institute’s decision to focus on it in 2008.

What’s surreal about this pattern of research production in literary studies is that “periodization” has come and gone without any appreciable effect on English department curricula or hiring practices–the intransigence of which has become a trope in our writing on periodization (as in this blog post itself). We have noticed the chronological boxes we’re working in, but we have largely stayed inside the boxes. There are two honorable exceptions: queer theory, and American studies insofar as it operates as an area studies.

What was “periodization” (2002-2015) about, if it wasn’t about revising our institutions or improving our scholarly practice? Underwood’s book can help. Writing at the tail end of the “periodization” phenomenon, Underwood argues that defenses of periodization aren’t really defenses of periodization. They are defenses of a social institution, of a particular attitude to the past that has been very prestigious in literary studies since (he claims) the 1840s, and for which the traditional periods have always felt like unusually suitable vehicles. This seems right to me. Evidently, in the 2000s and early 2010s literary scholars became a bit more comfortable publicly challenging these social institutions–but not comfortable enough to change them in any way!

Jameson writes, “We cannot not periodize” (29). But Davis writes, “In an important sense, we cannot periodize the past” (5).

I’m not sure where to go from here. I have always been interested in this topic, which strikes at the heart of historical study. There’s a contradiction inherent in our belatedness as readers, our desire for an encounter with a past that obviously did not understand itself to be past. My first book was on poetic meter and Old English/Middle English periodization. I’m writing a second book about meter and medieval/modern periodization. The political and institutional problems involved with traditional period categories haven’t gone anywhere, and so I’ll risk being the only person in the room still talking about periodization in the 2020s.

review of Underwood

I recently read Ted Underwood’s Why Literary Periods Mattered: Historical Contrast and the Prestige of English Studies (Stanford, 2013) with my PhD seminar. The book never received a review in a medieval studies journal, as far as I know. However, the book seems to me as relevant as ever. So I wrote a review for medievalists, to appear in English Studies. Here’s how it begins:

underwood

Any medievalist who has read Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819) can attest to a strange experience. The novel depicts a twelfth-century English society riven by the legacy of the Norman Conquest (1066). The old chestnuts of nineteenth-century medievalism–language as identity, history as racial conflict, oral poetry as political protest–are all already here, but expressed by characters named Wamba, Athelstane, Reginald Front-de-Bœuf. It is disorienting to encounter zombie ideas in a novel that predates the hiring of the first professor of English literature, in 1828.

Ted Underwood’s book is not on most medievalists’ radar. It is a literary and institutional history centered on the early nineteenth century. Yet its arguments about the formation of English studies return again and again to the teaching and literary representation of the Middle Ages. More even than its author indicates, this book demonstrates the foundational importance of medievalism to the discipline of English.

Scott is the hero, or villain, of the book. […]