This is the best of times. This is the worst of times. I am speaking, to be clear, of the book-publishing industry. Somewhere between half-a-million to one million new books are published in the U.S. each year. This is about as many new books as the entire human population of the state of Wyoming. And since the humans in Wyoming greatly outnumber the moose and the bears (who knew? I didn’t! But so quoth Dr. Google, so it must be true), the number of new books appearing each year far outstrips them. So, anyway, a lot of new books come into the world each year. And then there are old books, some older than others—the ones who’ve had a couple of thousand years to age to perfection are some of my absolute favorites.
This unfathomably mind-blowing multitude of books adds up to the situation Joel J Miller summarized in a poignant essay a year ago: just think of “All the Books You’ll Never Read.” We are creatures defined by our finitude, and the realization of just how few books we’ll be able to get through in a lifetime hits that home quite sharply. There are, mathematically speaking, many more books we would love to read than we could ever have time to pick up. Furthermore, the sheer number of books, old and new, that are out there makes it likely that there are some truly wonderful books that we would have loved to read—had we known of their existence.
This is a rather depressing thought, one to give us the ultimate FOMO, but there’s a silver lining. By publishing two book review essays each week, Joel J Miller himself shows a path forward: book reviews can play an invaluable role in making readers aware of books that might be of interest for them; for books we don’t have time to read, we can at least gain some insights from a good review of a book. As a graduate student, I confess, I leaned quite heavily on book reviews—especially of academic books in German—to get the main point without the investment of hours or days. If you’ve ever had to slog through academic German, you understand. I hear it’s quite an ordeal even for academics who are German. What hope is there for the rest of us?
Reviews can have different goals in mind, nevertheless. Academic book reviews, for instance, serve to evaluate the book’s scholarly contributions to the field. There is also the expectation that an academic book review will rarely (if ever) be laudatory. You must find at least something to critique! Non-academic reviews, on the other hand, reflect on the book’s contributions to larger conversations in our society; they invite readers into a conversation with the book and with larger cultural trends. The book, in these reviews, is not the sole star of the show, and ripping it apart is not generally the goal—except for the very rare cases when the book is really, really bad, in which case it is the goal. A supporting cast of other books and ideas is brought on stage to provide clarity and depth. And this is very much the approach we envision for reviews here at Current.
Philosophy for Selecting Books for Review
Several clichés can be true all at once. We review books that spark joy. There is a method to the madness. And yet, also, this selection process is not an exact science. We cannot be all things to all people.
So what do we review? The selection of books has been eclectic: history, politics, religion, popular culture, fiction and literary studies, occasional memoir. We review some titles that are more strictly academic, but we mostly lean on those that at least straddle the divide between academic and popular audiences. Our first ever poetry reviews will run later this spring.
The books we select for review reflect the interests of the editors—how could they not? And so, thematically, I can note several areas of notable strength. First, evangelical history and politics and, more broadly, American history and politics. Catholic history is quite an area of strength as well, on a related note here. Second, we have included extensive coverage of the Ukraine war, both in our regular feature essays and blog posts, and in our reviews. Third, I want to note our interest in reviewing some of the best new fiction—both in English and (occasionally) in other languages, including new fiction from Eastern Europe. On a related note, we have run a number of reviews of literary studies—books on how to read and process information well. Finally, we have published a number of reviews and other essays on sex-realist feminism and related topics—family, marriage, child-rearing.
This is not an exhaustive list, but I am just highlighting several trends that, in some cases, simply materialized without our quite intending to make them into trends.
We are looking forward to our first ever Spring Books Issue—coming in the first week of April! A whole week of fantastic reviews of really good books by our best writers.
Main Guidelines for Current Book Reviews
In the Current forum on the value of book reviews a year ago, seasoned book reviewers and/or editors John Wilson, James Romm, Timothy Larsen, and Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn highlighted the importance of book reviews as “tending a tradition” and “a form of commentary upon which many of our greatest goods depend.” Finally, “book reviews are good for promoting healthy democratic discourse. We as a society can have better and more peaceful conversations about even the most divisive and controversial of topics, if we center these conversations around good books.”
“Tending a tradition,” I admit, is a lofty yet nebulous sort of guideline. And so, as with other publications, perhaps the best approach here is to show rather than tell. If you are reviewing for us for the first time, I invite you to peruse our reviews to see how other reviewers have achieved this.
But I will add more about tone and general approach to writing. A good review, first and foremost, is interesting. In his book Write Better, long-time IVP editor Andrew Le Peau brings out the similarities between great fiction writing and the best non-fiction. Good prose, put simply, should always sparkle, delight, entice. This applies, I am convinced, no less to a good book review than to a masterful novel.
Let me put it another way. If your book review is not something that your non-expert friends or aunt or cousin would want to read with pleasure, maybe rethink your approach.
Length and Formatting Guidelines
Please keep your review under 1,500 words. Special dispensations may be granted for extra length on a case-by-case basis.
If you have reviewed for us in the past, you may be wondering at this point: wasn’t the limit 2,000 words? Yes, it was. After some extensive reflection, however, we have decided that most reviews of 2,000 words would be even better reviews if they were 1,500 words. A shorter review tends to be more focused; the argument comes through more clearly. Besides, our readers are used to our feature essays being around 1,200 words in length, and we would like to bring reviews a little bit closer to that range.
Finally, please note that we do not run footnotes or parenthetical citations. You are welcome to quote (sparingly), and please put your quotations in quotation marks. Any references should be embedded as hyperlinks. For examples, again, please look at other reviews we have run.
A good review, like a good essay of any sort, will stay with the reader for a while. The conversation that started with the review will continue…