Book reviews have been an essential component of Social Forces since its inception. As early as its second issue in 1923, Social Forces began publishing reviews of scholarly monographs on a wide range of topics, subfields, and methodologies. One hundred years later, the journal reviews between 75 and 100 scholarly books per year and relies on a distinguished international community of reviewers to write thoughtful reflections about the latest social scientific books.
As we mark Social Forces’ centennial, we have the opportunity—and perhaps the responsibility—to take stock of the last 100 years of book reviews, examine how the genre has transformed over time, and revisit the purpose of the book review. We say responsibility because while the practice of reviewing books is almost as old as sociology itself,1 that practice has changed over time and currently seems to be facing a kind of identity crisis. To wit, a panel aptly titled “The Dying (?) Art of the Book Review” at the recent 2022 Eastern Sociological Society meetings reportedly only had one audience member in attendance (Oeur 2022), suggesting a broader lack of vibrancy within the discipline vis-à-vis the genre as a whole.
The challenges facing the book review are likely driven by several factors, not the least of which is an important paradox: authors, especially at junior stages, are strongly encouraged to get their books reviewed by prestigious researchers, but writing book reviews is often not itself viewed as a prestigious endeavor, at least for scholars at research-intensive institutions (Kidd 2022). It is therefore taking longer to find willing reviewers for books—an outcome made worse by the growth in the overall burden of peer review and the persistence of the global COVID-19 pandemic. Some prospective reviewers even question the purpose of the book review, wondering if it is meant to be little more than a marketing tactic for publishers to sell more books. To be sure, some of these sentiments extend beyond the academy and into the broader realm of literary critique as a whole, with one Harper’s Bazaar critic recently lamenting how “the basic imperatives of the review—analysis and evaluation—are being abandoned in favor of a nodding routine of recommendation” (Lorentzen 2019). At the same time, academic reviews are both necessary and useful to readers, many of whom rely on them to keep abreast of new developments in the field. They can also help prompt important conversations in the discipline about emerging knowledge.
Thus, in this essay, we, as the current and some of the previous book review editors at Social Forces, examine the role of book reviews in the production of scholarly knowledge by looking back at how the genre has evolved over the last 100 years in the journal and offer suggestions to help reinvigorate the book review in light of its current identity crisis within sociology and beyond.
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