To Read Cover to Cover or Not? The Ethics of Reviewing Books

To Read Cover to Cover or Not? The Ethics of Reviewing Books January 26, 2012

I recently received an inquiry about the expectations of book reviewers – are you meant to read the book under examination in full? Perhaps to some the answer is self-evident (“yes!”), and I follow this practice in general, but there are some exceptions.

Here are some factors to consider.
A. Is the book a reference work (like a dictionary)? If I were asked to review a new translation of the Babylonian Talmud, I don’t think I would be expected to read it in full. So, what do you do? For dictionaries, I try to read a good  representative sample (if there are 1000 articles, I try to read, let’s say, 50-75).
B. If the book is a commentary, this fits somewhat into the reference category, but it really depends. Commentaries that are short (let’s say 500 pages or less), I tend to read in full. For really long commentaries (like Reumann’s Philippians), I read the introduction in full and very carefully, and then I chose 10-20 key passages (esp. controversial ones) that I read carefully.
C. Textbooks – again, if it is short, I would suggest reading it in full. If it is a very lengthy one, I might, again, read a very good representative sample.
D. Part of the matter has to do with the reviewing journal – for a very short review (100 words, let’s say), you are not expected to give a heavily critical analysis. So, for a long reference work, you are probably not expected to read the whole work in full. For a major journal, and if you are doing a longer review (let’s say 1500 words), it is expected, I think, that you will look it over with a very close eye. You may have to raise this question to your editor, if it is unclear. I don’t think this kind of question will be taken with offense if the book is obviously very long and is a reference work.
E. Some books naturally require a thorough read, even if it is long (Campbell’s DoG comes to mind!). So, monographs pretty much depend on a word-for-word read.
Let me say this, though I tend to err on the side of reading the whole book, if I already have a good sense for the argument or content of a chapter, I am able to read it quite fast (not “skimming,” just reading that requires little processing). Also, the more you read (well), the faster your reading speed becomes, I have noticed.
Thoughts? What are your professional book reviewing practices?

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