I’ve been making a concerted effort recently to clear my backlog of books to review. I know I’m not alone in excitedly volunteering to read a new title and write about it, only to then drag my feet when it comes to actually doing it. Somehow the delight in getting a complimentary copy of a book we want to read anyway (and is usually pretty pricey) fades enormously once said book joins the pile of other books on the corner of our desk.
So I made a plan and I got stuck in, systematically working on the outstanding (and largely overdue) reviews. Actually reading the book was the number one task. And do you know what? I really enjoyed it. The first couple I had to do were great books and there was something very satisfying about being able to make quick progress on a job, rather than it taking years. The first review even came out whilst I was working on the second! It was all jolly and I was beginning to feel a tad smug with myself until…you knew there was an until, didn’t you?! Until I got to the final book in the pile. By the end of its introduction, I was irked by it. The tone, the writing style, the structure (or apparent lack thereof) – all served to irritate me. I couldn’t put my finger on why, but there was a certain arrogance that made me see red, particularly how the author talked about other historians (and especially historians who happened to be women, it seemed).
My reaction was so strong that by the second chapter I was reading it with an eye to try and find things I liked. I struggled. Even the good examples seemed lost, overshadowed by what I perceived to be other flaws. From the micro to the macro, all I could come up with were criticisms. I didn’t know what to do. I talked about it with colleagues, I discussed it with friends. How can one review a book that one can’t stand? I knew whatever I produced would sound adversarial because it would be so critical, and that is not my style. Nor is it fair; the book is about a fascinating topic and someone else may be able to find positive features that passed me by. The latter thought won the day when I seriously reviewed my options about what to do with it. Unlike its author, I do not believe that my opinion is the only one that is valid. Thus I am returning the book to the reviews editor who I obtained it from. This seems like the right and fair thing to do as another scholar may produce a more balanced assessment; either that or have more courage to speak out as to its flaws. It will at least bring them joy when they open the envelope, as all books to be reviewed do for that moment. And I have the joy of having cleared my backlog. No reviews left lurking! Now what should I volunteer to read next?!