How Not to Do a Book Review (or How to Avoid the Real Work of Reviewing Books)

I’m always amused when a reviewer points out minor typos and inaccuracies in a book and then pats themselves on the back as if they’ve destroyed the main argument of the book. My point for bringing this up is at the end of the post.

Yes, it’s sloppy scholarship to get information like dates and names wrong. Sometimes the errors are so egregious as to render an entire work suspect. (For example, I once heard a lecture in which the speaker kept referring to “George Wesley” and “John Whitefield.” He obviously did not know what he was talking about; and not just because he kept calling them the wrong names.) But most of the time, this is not the case and we can give the author the benefit of the doubt.

In scholarly writing, such mistakes are inexcusable. But sometimes these errors are not the result of sloppy scholarship but sloppy editing, sloppy proofing, sloppy printing, etc. Sometimes the fact-checkers are just plain wrong. There are so many steps between the manuscript and the finished product that we have to give author the benefit of the doubt except when it comes to outright plagiarism.

You also have to consider that such historical “fact” is often not as easy as we’d like to think.

For example, do we date the Canons of Dort at 1610, because that’s when the council responsible for them convened and that is the date given to the council, or do we date them at 1618 because that’s when they were actually published? (I usually see 1610 but often they are dated 1618.) It’s easy to see how one could become the other in editing, printing, etc. And really, either is accurate depending on how you look at it.

Names are also a problem sometimes because there was often no standard convention for names until well into the twentieth century (as anyone who’s done their genealogy knows). Especially when dealing with historical figures of minor historical note the problem gets worse. Theology is my area of expertise and many theologians could be cited by more than one name. For example, John Calvin was Jean Cauvin in his native French but published his Latin Institutes under his Latin name, Johannes Calvinus. He’s so well known we probably wouldn’t get confused there (but that’s assuming the editor, fact-checker, and proofer knows as much as the scholar does). With minor personages, however, it’s very easy to get confused. When you have a Guillaume and a William with limited writings and history it can get even more confusing.

My point is this: Just because you point out some factual errors: a date that’s a little off, a name misspelled, or some other minor error isn’t the same as answering the guys argument. It’s sloppy scholarship, yes, but pointing out that the guy wrote 1613 instead of 1614 or anglicized the name Guillaume to William doesn’t destroy his overall argument.

Pointing out what amounts to possible typos or printer’s mistakes doesn’t mean you’ve answered the author’s argument. If it makes you feel better to point out errors, then by all means go ahead, but at some point, you’ll actually have to interact with the author’s arguments if you’re going to review the book. So quit pointing out typos and actually engage the author and his arguments or quit reviewing books.

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About Michael R. Jones

Pastor and PhD candidate writing on Paul's theology of suffering.
This entry was posted in Book Review, Books and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to How Not to Do a Book Review (or How to Avoid the Real Work of Reviewing Books)

  1. Terry Lange says:

    How about all of the inaccuracies in the Gail Riplinger books that you found? Those would be interesting to see. They were just honest mistakes but really sloppy “scholarship”

    • I’ve often wondered if they were honest mistakes. I had occasion to go back through portions of Riplinger recently and some of her “mistakes” were so sloppy as to discredit her entire work (much like the George Wesley example). Other errors were so egregious I can’t believe anyone would make such a “mistake,” such as block-quotes that apparently do not exist outside of Riplinger’s own book! I hate to question someone’s motives but I have a hard time avoiding the conclusion that the end justified the means with her. She and her ilk have shown before that they’re willing to lie when the truth just won’t do.

    • That is a good idea for a post or series of posts. It would definitely bring some traffic! I’ll be sure to credit you with the idea!

    • Tim W. says:

      Hello Terry! I think she is a liar and a fraud. I had some precious people in my church get hung up on her . Sad! How ya been?
      Sailin’ Whalen

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