Who writes book reviews?

maxresdefaultOver the last week I’ve agreed to write two book reviews and also to read the manuscript of another book. For that one, I’m supposed to tell the publisher what would need to be changed about it before it would be publishable. Fortunately none of these reviews are due immediately; the publishers know that if they ask me to do it right away, I’ll know I don’t have time and say no. So they set the deadlines a couple of months out; that way I can pretend I’ll have plenty of time. So I have two months to read the three books and send in my comments on them. (That means I will have finished writing about them before this three-month blog is over, so you can expect to hear more about it!)

Egyptian bee-keepers opening the hives to get the honey, about 2400 BC

It’s a part of an archaeologist’s job that most people probably don’t think about: we spend a lot of time reading other people’s books and writing reviews of them. It’s the same as writing a book report for school, only with more opinions. Usually I read the whole book taking notes as I go along of any particularly good or bad points, where I feel something is missing or something should have been left out. I work on noticing whether marginalized people are fairly represented: women, people of color, people with disabilities or obesity, old people and children. Sometimes I read other articles or books by the same author to get a sense of what is new about this particular book. I might read other recent books on the same subject, too.

Then I put the whole thing down and go for a walk. I outline the review in my head. What are the main points I want to make? What’s the most important thing readers need to know about the book? How can I be supportive of the author? (A book takes years of hard work. Even when I disagree with the main point, there’s always a lot of useful research in them to praise.) When I get home, I use the notes I took to illustrate the outline I wrote, and there’s the review.

Nobody pays me to review other people’s books. It takes horrendous amounts of time. It’s stressful, because it doesn’t make you any friends to criticize other people’s life work.

Can I use this image of honey both to illustrate the bee-keeping article and to suggest how publishers sucker me into reviewing books?

So why do I agree to review books? It’s flattering to be asked, for one thing. it’s fun to get free books in the mail. Some of the books are super interesting, and reviewing forces me to read them all the way through, sometimes several times, very carefully, where if I was just reading for myself I might be tempted to skim. But mostly, I know other people spent time reading my books and articles and reviewing them, so I feel I should pay it forward.

Still it’s unpaid work, and work that women do more than their share of, while men write more of the actual books (that they can get actual money for selling). So I need to try to remember that I should be writing (AND SENDING OFF) my own books and articles and not just reviewing other people’s books. Or maybe I should make it a rule to only review books written by marginalized people? Of course I am far more often offered books written by white men, because they’re way more likely to have opportunities to write books, and publishers are more eager to publish their books.

A wooden model of Egyptians brewing beer and making bread, from a tomb

I won’t name the books I’m reviewing until after I send in the reviews, but I will be posting thoughts and hoping for your comments to help me write them. All three of these books I’ve just agreed to review are about Central Asia. That’s a little weird, because most of the work I’ve done has actually been far away in Spain and North Africa. I didn’t set out to specialize in Central Asia.

But I’ve always been interested in the Roman and Early Medieval economy, and the Silk Road meant that a lot of interesting economic activity happened in Central Asia. In addition, I’ve developed a sense that women had more rights and more power in ancient Central Asia than they did in the Mediterranean, and I’m interested in exploring that. And China is right now trying to rebuild the Silk Road. What can we learn from the first Silk Road about whether this new Silk Road will work? Well, now I’ve definitely talked myself into being interested in reading these books! I hope you’ll be interested in hearing my thoughts, and sharing yours, as I work through them.

Oh, and on Twitter, I’ve reached bee-keeping and beer! Follow me @Quatr_us!

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