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Saturday, May 28, 2011

What is the purpose of reviews?

Since one of my methodological commandments is to "read more", I also wrote several book-reviews. Writing helps me think in a clearer way and encourages me in reading more.
However, I cannot overlook the fact that I have received many review-offers also because most of the well-known Sanskrit scholars are too busy to write just a simple review. Hence, their younger colleagues and students are asked to write on their behalf. Younger scholars, however, might tend to be more indulgent, since they might be afraid of attacking a senior colleague. Or, they might tend to be less indulgent with scholars belonging to a different "school" but not with the ones belonging to their own one.
This is human and might also have some positive effects. If only one first considers this preliminary question: What is the use of reviews?
In my opinion, reviews are written for the sake of readers and authors and one of the reasons why contemporary Indological studies are in need of improvement is that their weak points are not consistently pointed out by acute reviewers. I understand that one might not want to ruin one's academic career from the very beginning, but one can surely find a way to both avoid being too harsh and make one's point in a persuasive way.
If they just praise their objects, reviews may loose their social and ethical significance. Hence, I suggest that one should avoid personal criticisms and have as many interesting remarks as possible, so that the bare data could speak. In this way, reviews may also become interesting in their own right and not just a sub-genre.
Good luck with your reviews!

What strategies do you adopt?
As for my commandment of reading more, read here. As for my other methodological commandments, see here.


Jayarava said...

I tend not to write many reviews, but coincidentally I just did one. I think the main reason to do reviews is to get free books!

I did find it difficult to criticise my colleague's book, but I felt I had to say something about it that was critical. I tried to balance it out with praise because I knew that the audience would not notice the flaws I was seeing, and probably wouldn't care anyway. Luckily I don't have a career to harm, though I hope my colleague is not upset with me!

I think personal remarks in a book review would be out of place. I want to know about the book, not the author.

I imagine that a young academic could also help their career with insightful but carefully worded reviews.

A problem with Indology is also that the specialist can rarely find anyone who knows the subject well enough to write a good critique of the work.

elisa freschi said...

Dear Jayarava,
thanks for your comment. I have three points to add:

1. I guess my poor knowledge of English mislead me. I did not mean to say that one should avoid criticisms about the author's personality —this I thought of as obvious. I rather meant to say that —if one tries to avoid being too harsh— I would suggest to avoid telling one's personal opinion and let the data speak. Something like: "The book is about X. Y and Z are very relevant to X and the book does not mention them", rather than "I did not like the book's incompleteness".

2. As for your review, you repeat several times that your concerns are different than the author's ones. Generally speaking, I think that a good strategy in such cases is to explain how the flaw one notices harms even the author's concerns (as you do when you say that even V's target reader will be puzzled by transliterations which do not match the ones she will find in the Canon's translations).

3. I am not sure I completely agree with your last point. Books cannot be written just for oneself. Hence, even if I am less an expert about X than the author, she *must* be able to make X accessible to me (if only we share some basic presupposals, such as knowledge of Sanskrit, basic acquaintance with Sanskrit philosophy, etc.). For instance, whenever she mentions something she has not the time to explain, but that she needs to use, she should tell her reader where she can learn more about it. What do you think?

Jayarava said...

Hi Elisa

On your last point, yes. A book is a form of communication - someone should tell academics this! I suspect that scholars write books for all kinds of reasons, and for some communication is actually pretty low on the list.

I had in mind Johannes Bronkhorst's book Greater Magadha. Huge book, packed with evidence and assertions based on that evidence. But the evidence comes from so many different sources, and the arguments draw on 100's of other published sources - ad his lifetime of research and publication. How does one even begin to critique it? If Bronkhorst is correct then Late Vedic Indian history to date has been wrong, and we must tell a different story.

The reviews I've seen were, like: "wow this is a massive and erudite book" - for 1500 words without any attempt to critique it. As best people could describe the book. No one mentioned, for instance, Bronkhorst's habit of telling you his conclusion first and then presenting the evidence (something a friend pointed out). Perhaps the scholarly response will take a few years as people follow up the threads?

I'm reminded of an anecdote about Arthur Eddington. Not along after he observed the transit of Venus and showed one of Einstein's predictions about the interaction of light and matter to be correct, a journalist said to him: "Dr Eddington, it is said that you are one of only three people who understand Einstein's Theory of Relativity."

Eddington paused for a long moment, scratched his chin, and finally said: "I'm just trying to think who the other one is."

elisa freschi said...

Dear Jayarava,

Johannes Bronkhorst is a "free" genius and aims high. In this sense, his work is thought-provoking and it might be difficult for people who do small-ranged research to criticize such wider outlooks. Still, I have also read only enthusiastic reviews which did not add anything at all to my understanding of the book.

Anonymous said...

Re: "Younger scholars, however, might tend to be more indulgent, since they might be afraid of attacking a senior colleague."

Quote: The legacy of the now-retired generation's enmities is a basic fact of life for anyone working on Theravāda Buddhism in the 21st century. None of us can ignore it; all of us live with it. Even when I was living in Vientiane (as far removed from any PhD program as could be imagined) this would routinely be the first subject that professors would want to advise me on when they first met with me (i.e., they would hasten to impart their view of who hated whom and why). […]
The invidious divisions that have separated this tiny discipline into a series of even smaller camps (each sharpening its knives against the others) provides a bleak portrait of human nature.
I have heard reflections on this subject both from J.M. Mason and from A.K. Warder; I have heard such reflections from Buddhist monks who spend more time in caves than in universities, and I have heard them from careerist PhD candidates, who have no plans of ever meditating in a cave. This problem is much the same amongst scholars who are openly religious and amongst those who are avowedly secular; in my experience, those who call themselves secular often turn out to be "true believers" in a religion of their own devising. Close quote.

elisa freschi said...

True but sad, especially if you consider the fact that this strategy (originally devised in order to secure a place in the academia) will probably anyway be vain.

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