On Book Reviews

By Walter B. Shurden

I subscribe to The New York Review of Books. I adore it. But I do good to read one article, at most two, of each of the 20 issues each year. The articles are long. The small font is for millennials. The content is often esoteric and out of my league. And the NYRB is a clumsy little newspaper hard to hold. On top of all that, I have no earthly idea how to “file” the old issues. Throwing them in the recycle seems a mortal sin, like throwing a new book away. Ugh!

However, it is quite impressive to have copies lying around the house in conspicuous places when people visit. Apart from that transparent pretense, an authentic footnote to my education lives here.

When I entered theological seminary in 1958, (that’s 63 years ago), I ran headlong into the requirement of writing a “critical book review.” The most fruitful assignment ever required of me, it was far more helpful than writing a term paper. Term papers are often little more than exercises in academic bricklaying, piling one footnote on top of another with no critical acumen required. Learning to write insightful critical book reviews enables one to write good term papers, theses and dissertations.

At my seminary in 1958, they craved “critical.” I discovered by means of an ugly grade that a simple summary of the book was not what they had in mind. Nor did “critical” mean nastiness or negativity. Although “what” the author said, was very, very important, my charge was to fillet the book judiciously: “how” was it said; “why” was it said; “who ought to read” what was said; “when” was it said; “what was right and wrong” about what was said; “what was left unsaid;” and “who had said something like this or the opposite of this.”

I searched, but no inerrant template existed of correct critical questions to ask of the book. The critical aspect of the review depended altogether on the nature of the book. I believe that when seminary is done correctly, a lawyer’s schooling has absolutely nothing over a good theological education. Both have prosecutorial dimensions. Each must learn to speak clearly and read critically, to ask creative, critical and analytical questions of a text or a person.

I became so attracted to the idea of a “critical book review” that I rode it like a hobby horse. I began to spend time, maybe hours, on the second level of the seminary library, reading book reviews from major theological, ethical and historical journals. It was for me, and still is, great fun and exceedingly educational.

And then one day, bam! I realized that I had to critique the reviewer of the book as well as the journal in which he reviewed the book. Then the entire exercise really became critical. Perspectives and points of view came into focus: that of the journals, that of the reviewers of the books, and that of the authors of the books.

Why these words about a “critical book review”? Because I recently read in the NYRB a fascinating review of what appears to be an interesting book I have not read. The reviewer tantalized. She caused me to want to read the book, maybe the best sign of a good review.  But she also challenged. Did she do right by the author? Did she write a review of a book that the author did not write, pitching her interests instead? I came away as interested in her comments as in the contents of the book itself.

I probably will neither read the book nor critique the critic of the book. But now I know a bit about the book and one person’s take on the book. If you come to my place and have read the book, I’m armed with questions for you— questions about the author and the book and questions about the reviewer and the review. And my education, like that Energizer Bunny, keeps going on and on and on.

— Walter B. Shurden is Minister at Large at Mercer University and lives with his wife, Kay, in Macon, Georgia.

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