Which reviews did you like more?

If I leave aside the ones I liked primarily because I was interested in the topic, the first ones which come to my mind are:

  • André Padoux’ review of Hindu Tantrism (by Sanjukta Gupta, Derk Jan Hoens, Teun Goudriaan), review published in 1981
  • John Taber’s review (called Much ado about nothing, 2001) of B. Kellner’s Nichts bleibt nichts and his review of Franco’s Dharmakīrti on Compassion and Rebirth(called Dharmakīrti against Physicalism, 2003)
  • Simon Brodbeck’s review of Ch. Framarin’s Desire and motivation in Indian philosophy, 2010
  • Robert Leach’s review of A.Nicholson’s Unifying Hinduism (also discussed on this blog, here), 2011

The common feature in all these reviews is that they are critical in an intelligent way. They do not impose on the reader useless lists of typos or of similar minor points, rather, they engage with the text and see its points of strength and, through them, its weaknesses. They are also critical in a constructive, non demolishing way. They do not aim at the demolition of the book or of its author, but at its enhancement. They, I imagine, did good to the author and to his/her readers. (What do Chris and Andrew think, if they want to share it?) Yet, critical reviews are often feared. Some journals (e.g., the JAOS) especially warn reviewers asking them to avoid critical reviews. The Dissertation Reviews website forbids them. I am all for a ban of useless critical reviews, filled with ad hominem attacks or list of minor mistakes. But don’t we in this way run the risk to end up with uniformly favorable reviews, ones which do not allow readers to distinguish between good and bad works? Last, as an author myself, I fear not being read much more than I fear critical reviews written by people who engaged with my work.
Do you agree? If so, why don’t we think of lunching a “honest reviews” section on this blog? In my opinion, the featured reviews would need to be

  1. critical (no discount here)
  2. dedicated to important works (it is neither fun nor useful to criticise books that are just worthless)

Hopefully, 2. should make authors happy to have their works dealt with here, albeit in a critical way.
What do you think? Which reviews would you like to read or write here? And which reviews did you like more?
More on my ideal reviews, with further remarks about Amod Lele’s ones, can be read here

About elisa freschi

My long-term program is to make "Indian Philosophy" part of "Philosophy". You can follow me also on my personal blog: elisafreschi.com, on Academia, on Amazon, etc.

5 thoughts on “Which reviews did you like more?

  1. i have to admit: i am generally interested in reviews that address the larger arguments of a book, but since these arguments often take hundreds of pages to develop, it may be tough for a reviewer to address them in a satisfactory way. (and of course, many books don’t have an argument at all.) tieken’s review of pollock’s language of the gods is a good attempt to present a complex issue from an alternative point of view. however, one of my favorite reviews is ziolkowski’s of gumbrecht’s error and the academic self: it lists a large number of errors, oversights, and lapses, which add up to a larger message about how scholarship ought to be done, and (in this respect engaging with the book’s argument) what the proper work of philological scholarship is.

    • thanks Andrew! It will take me some time to read the reviews you mention, but you made me curious enough to do it. Meanwhile: what do you think of the idea of having a section of “honest reviews” here?

  2. The review of Chris Framarin’s book is by my old grad-student friend Malcolm Keating. And it is a good one.

    I entirely agree with your (and CS Lewis’) reflections on over-critical reviews. But that said, I do think that on rare occasion, a severe review is called for, when it targets the work of someone who is doing a job of professional academic bluffing (and it does happen sometimes, as we all know).

    Still, I while thinking of this I am reminded of two things. One is a quote attributed to Mark Twain: “People who are brutally honest like the brutality more than the honesty.” The other is the definition of self-discipline in speech in the Gita, which includes anudvegakaraM vAkyaM satyaM priya-hitaM ca. (I don’t have diacritics here, sorry.) Self-disciplined speech is indeed truthful, and yet done in a way that is not unpleasant, and does not needlessly disturb someone’s mind. I know that my disposition (perhaps being an east-coast person, but most likely just being an uncultivated person!) has often been to think that if I have the truth, then I can just barge ahead. But one can speak the truth in a way that is still humane.

    I know someone who dealt with this when once reviewing a pretty weak book about an under-discussed philosopher. He wrote it in such a way to primarily introduce the readers to the thinker and his historical concerns, and really treating the book under discussion secondarily, as noteworthy and praiseworthy for calling attention to the thinker in question, but not really serving some purposes that we may expect of it. It’s one way to avoid simply demolishing a weak book, and still having something positive, and one would hope, helpful to say.

    A good review becomes a complement piece to the original work, minimally a short precis with some serious engagement. I subscribe to email versions of the Notre Dame Philosophical reviews (http://ndpr.nd.edu/recent-reviews/), and it is a nice way to keep up with much literature that, sadly, I won’t have time to read in detail.

    I like your idea of honest reviews.

    • Matthew, thanks for pointing to Malcolm’s review (I really meant Simon Brodbeck’s one, but I am sure this one will be very interesting too, by now I can only access its beginning from JSTOR), and to the Notre Dame reviews.
      As for your other point, I tend to be more merciful when the book has been authored by someone who was still very young/did not work in an institution where one can suppose s/he had a library at her or disposal/did not have peers to discuss with and so on. I hesitate less to criticise people who have no excuses (especially in the case of people who have taken the “easy way” to write, by doing not enough research and recycling old prejudices). But I still think that M. Twain’s quote applies and that one should be aware of this risk!

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