For more than one year, almost every two months, I enjoy writing a book review. Most of the books I am interested in cover the main issues I am focused on in my daily lectures; there are books on political science, history of Central and Eastern Europe, foreign affairs and identity, ethnic minorities and tolerance.
It usually takes me a maximum of two weeks to read a book, during which I take my notes, and look eventually for further documentation and build my critical background. Unless it is a very difficult book, in a maximum of three or four hours I am done with the final writing: the presentation of the subject, the introduction of the details about the author(s) and the quality of the writing, the main thesis and the critical considerations. Also, at the end of my contribution, I should not forget to mention my personal recommendation about the opportunity to read or not read that particular book.
From the point of view of academic relevance, I am convinced that articles may be more important for my CV than my short notes about the books I enjoy reading. Not too many people read what other people think about books, preferring instead to read them themselves and make their own opinions. The recommendations may work but, with some particular exceptions outlined in dedicated publications, such as the New York Review of Books, who really remembers the author of a book review? Even the name is usually written in small letters.
An article will be preferred because it may introduce original ideas that can induce change in the way we look at things. And, from this point of view, some may ask: What can you change, for instance, with a book review? Unless the book is very badly written or plants the seeds of a revolution in the domain, you cannot change too much with a story about other people’s words. You had better start writing your own book. Well, from this point of view, writing book reviews may be a very helpful exercise in practicing your book writing skills.
But, despite all these logical considerations, I should reinforce my initial statement: I fully enjoy writing book reviews. It might be a sign of mental laziness, as obviously it is easier to read and write about what you are reading than to build an argument for a fully original article and carefully document a certain issue. To write an article, I need a longer amount of time for the documentation and actual writing. After the submission, I also must wait for the decision of the peer review process and sometimes, I need to make new and radical changes before the final publication is approved.
What I really enjoy when I am writing a book review is the independence of my words: I am alone with my point of view and able to freely express my opinions.
The peer review approach is equally critical in the final decision regarding the publication opportunity of a book review, but until now, the feed-back I have received addressed mostly some considerations of style instead of requests for radical reevaluations of my article. Openly speaking, at least once I considered that the opinions expressed at the end of the peer-review process disregarded my basic right of articulating my point of view. Right or good, as long as it is exposed in a coherent and logical way, the opinion is yours and you should be free to assume the full risk of expressing it.
I do not want to insist too much, but this may be one of the reasons I love writing book reviews. What are we, as academics and humans in general, without the freedom to express our points of view? Maybe I will focus the next months on writing a new book as well. My words need to find their way somehow.
Ana Dinescu is a regular contributor to University of Venus and a journalist for ten years for Romanian daily newspapers and is currently a communications consultant, living in Berlin.