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Book Reviewing in the Sciences: A Conversation

The best book reviews are like well-written letters: clear, witty and thoughtful. And, like letters written by hand, they appear to be in some jeopardy, especially where scientific subjects are concerned. Is it possible to reconceive the uncertain state of science book reviewing as an opportunity for creative change—without abandoning time-tested strategies for writing well-crafted reviews?

To explore this question, American Scientist senior editor Anna Lena Phillips began an email conversation with science writers Carl Zimmer and Phillip Manning, an edited version of which appears below. We welcome readers’ comments, via letter or email or our website.

ALP: In his book about the card catalog, Paper Machines, Markus Krajewski notes that numbering systems for organizing printed materials were “the librarian’s answer to the flood of books” that resulted from the invention of the printing press. The book flood continues unabated, even as writing published in other media increases as well. To navigate these concurrent floods, it seems clear that we need not only ordering tools, such as the Library of Congress’s classification system and the DOI, but continuous sources of meaningful critical writing to inform and guide us in our reading.

As Lynn Worsham wrote recently in the Chronicle of Higher Education, a well-written book review “helps all of us make informed decisions about how to use our time wisely.” This, to my mind, is one of the essential functions reviewing serves: It evaluates and gives a sense of the content of a work (or works), making a little window into the book through which we can efficiently decide whether to climb. If we’re entertained along the way, that’s even better.?

What purposes do you think book reviewing serves in the sciences?

CZ: Reviews about science books can serve as an arena where people can debate important ideas in depth. Recently, Christopher Chabris, a psychologist at Union College, wrote a harsh review of Jonah Lehrer’s new book on creativity, Imagine. But he didn’t just insult Lehrer—he presented an argument about the nature of science and certainty. It’s hard to think of another place where he might have addressed someone else’s ideas at such length before a wide audience.

PM: I agree with the “flood” comment. Although the printed word is supposed to be disappearing, this news has not trickled down to publishers, who are turning out science books in big numbers. The only way the public can sort through these books to find the ones they might want to read is through book reviews—and publications such as Science Book News, my weekly newsletter that lists new books of science.

I review books of popular science for newspapers. I think the reviewer owes those readers a synopsis of the science covered in the book, an explanation of what’s new (if anything) in the book, and an assessment of the quality of the science involved. Is it just repackaged old news? Or is something new? Most importantly, is the science sound? Too many times, book writers will take a sliver of evidence and extend its reach well beyond what the science can support.

And that leads me to what I consider to be the most important part of reviewing, namely deciding on which books to review. I try to pick the ones that offer genuinely new ideas, so the overwhelming majority of my reviews are positive. My only negative reviews are those of less-than-sterling-quality books by authors so important (E. O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins, for instance) that they cannot be ignored.

ALP: I’m a fan of Ange Mlinko’s writing about language for The Nation. What reviewers or publications do you recommend?

PM: I like to read reviews by scientists. I like the reviews in Physics Today and, of course, American Scientist. One problem with such reviews is the reviewers sometimes focus too tightly on minor points where they disagree with the writer, leaving the reader to wonder what the book is really about.

CZ: I like books about biology and the history of science. Newspapers and magazines don’t offer many reviews of books on these subjects, so I supplement them with blogs and journals like Nature.

ALP: What I like most about reading reviews is that they combine two very different pleasures: intellectual rigor and gossip. Those tendencies are captured in the phrase “critical conversation,” which I think describes the reviewing process well.

But that conversation happens at a slower pace than the science-news cycle. It’s a space where ideas and controversies are aired, worked through and moved forward. With many book-review sections shrinking or being outright eliminated, how can we continue to create and promote quality coverage of science books??

CZ: Well, there is this new thing called the Internet. There’s a vigorous, enthusiastic community of reviewers online these days, their numbers supplemented by bloggers who review books from time to time. I think the Internet offers the flexibility for reviewers to find new ways to talk about books. Joanne Manaster has developed a series of YouTube videos in which she talks about science books. After Chabris published his review of Imagine, Lehrer and he had a volley of blog posts to follow up on it.

I’ve been doing some experimenting of my own. I was concerned that no one was reviewing science e-books, which meant that many interesting titles were simply being forgotten. So I launched a site with a number of scientists and science writers, called Download the Universe. It’s one of the most satisfying projects I’ve ever been involved in, and it could not exist without the Internet and other advances in digital technology.

ALP: Blogs really have opened up the possibilities for continuing the discussion that a review begins. Before, the letters page was about the best you could get. Some writers have noted that the blogging world tends to privilege certain voices, however. For instance, as some really interesting discussions at the ScienceOnline conference have explored, women’s numbers are smaller in the blogging world. What are your thoughts about ways to include a wide range of voices in the online conversation?

CZ: I think mindfulness can be quite powerful. Just be aware of how easy it can be to find other voices and to start conversations. Sometimes it just takes a piece of code. At Download the Universe, we try to be mindful that e-book publishing is full of untraditional firms starting up all over the world, along with authors who are self-publishing. We include them in our inventory of books to review.

ALP: Do you see differences in the ways science is communicated in books that are published solely as e-books and books published in print? What new strategies are you seeing that you especially like?

CZ: The best of the e-books are the products of from-the-ground-up thinking. Rather than simply cloning an existing book, the innovative people are making good use of the electronic format. That may mean publishing a great 20,000 word story that’s too short for a traditional book but too long for a magazine feature—something we’re seeing done well by sites such as Byliner and the Atavist. Or that may mean reproducing exquisite facsimilies of Leonardo da Vinci’s lost anatomy notebooks interleaved with interactive graphics showing what we now know about how anatomy works—something that Touch Press has just published.

Unfortunately, a lot of e-books have become victims of the general decline of editorial oversight in publishing. We’re coming across a lot of slick e-books about science that show no signs of being edited at all. Some people think that if they just dump some text into a digital format, magic fairies will transform the content into gold.

ALP: Phil, are you seeing a bigger conversation happening in the wake of reviews you write? Do you participate in online conversations about other reviews?

PM: I get most of my feedback from our local science book club. But it is amusing (and occasionally frightening) to see readers with little science background home in on the most speculative aspects of the books. I think I have heard one conversation too many about the multiverse. Nonetheless, these folks are dedicated readers of science books, and as a writer of such books, I appreciate them!

ALP: I like the chance—and challenge—to organize my thinking about a book. Writing a review requires that I do that work, which I might not make time for otherwise. What do you enjoy most about reviewing?

CZ: Introducing other people to books that thrill me. I don’t like writing negative reviews; I see them more as a duty.

PM: Finding a really new and interesting idea. For instance, some of the work going on today about the origin of altruism fascinates me. Also, the search for the Higgs boson. What if it’s there, just as the standard model predicts? Is that the end of high-energy physics?

ALP: About reading reviews?

CZ: I have to say I love a nasty review, but only if the author really deserves it.

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