[Editor Note: We invited Projit to introduce himself as Isis’s Book Review Editor, effective 1 July 2019. Readers of the Newsletter may wish to refer back to Alexandra (Alix) Hui’s (rhymes with Dewey) and Matt Lavine’s article in the July 2018 Newsletter.]
Let me begin by thanking Alix and Matt for inviting me to be the Book Review Editor for Isis. I first came to truly appreciate the academic book review in the Fall of 1999. It was my first semester as a Master’s student at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. Keen to earn my academic spurs, I had just written a rather precocious and needlessly critical review of an aging classic in the field for a class assignment. My professor, Majid Hayat Siddiqi, called me into his office to talk about the assignment. Instead of going into details about my review, however, he started explaining to me the difficulties of historical research and publication. In his own roundabout way, before I knew it, he had me sympathizing with the travails of would-be authors. At the end of our conversation, which had touched upon many things but not my review per se, he insisted, “you have to appreciate how much it takes to write a book before you review it. It is easy to criticize a book but much more difficult to write one.” I came away that day feeling more than a bit ashamed for having savaged the fading classic. Having now written two books myself, I feel I have a better sense of the challenges, the despair, and the thrills that go into writing an academic book. A good review in my view must always begin with an appreciation of that—an admiration for what has been accomplished and the hurdles that have been overcome.
That said, most academic authors also crave honest feedback. Unfortunately, such feedback has increasingly become as scarce as hen’s teeth. Overworked and over-professionalized as we all are today, we seldom have the time or the candor to give honest, detailed feedback to even our best friends. It seems unfair that after an author has invested so much intellectual and emotional energy into a book, that she still must struggle to find out what her community of peers really thinks about the book. This is why I disagree with many of my good friends who tell me that the age of the standard 800-to-1000-word review has passed. I strongly believe that the review remains a crucial mechanism for the heartfelt appreciation of an author’s achievements, as well as a forum through which to convey our honest feedback including legitimate criticisms. At the risk of sounding hackneyed, doing the book reviews right is our way of continuing to recognize, honor, and participate in the scholarly lives of our intellectual peers.
Today as our field expands both geographically and methodologically, the reviews have become one of the few ways in which we can remain part of a common intellectual community and speak across proliferating silos. Book reviews, for instance, can provide a window for a historian of Chinese astronomy into the history of American cybernetics. It can offer the scholar of German romanticism a chance to assess a piece of information she has found in a book on colonial Iberian science.
This is the reason I agreed to take on this job. But I am also well aware of the challenges that lie ahead. Given the breadth of the field, it is impossible for me or anyone else to know of ideal potential reviewers in every sub-field by themselves. Even if one finds the perfect reviewer, convincing a scholar to make time for writing a review in the midst of a busy schedule would be yet another challenge. These challenges have, perhaps, always been the lot of review editors, but with an expanding, ever more diverse field, they have increased manifold. There is no way to overcome these without craving all your indulgences.
I would also love to hear from you any suggestions that you might have to make the book reviews more pertinent, more useful, and more readable. I am particularly keen on developing conversations across sub-disciplinary specializations, to find points of common interest that might connect a historian of biology with a historian of physics, or a medieval Europeanist with a modern Africanist. My ambition is to think of book reviews as a calling card that will introduce work in one sub-field to another, while still providing feedback that is cogent and informed.
As a scholar educated on two different continents and having taught now on three, I am also keenly aware of the need to speak across academic cultures. And, more importantly, I am committed to conducting such conversations in a serious, respectful, and meaningful way rather than indulging in patronizing tokenisms. Here again, the way books are reviewed, whom they are sent to, and where, can do much. It is simply not enough to review books published in multiple academic niches. We must endeavor to do it in a way that does not reproduce dividing lines and appear tokenistic.
All this might seem like a tall order, but I am hopeful that with all your support and help, we, as a society of peers, might achieve a lot together. I am excited at the road that lies ahead and hope you will join me in both sustaining and growing the book reviews in the years to come.
Projit Bihari Mukharji is an Associate Professor in the History & Sociology of Science department at the University of Pennsylvania. He received his PhD from the University of London and taught in the UK and Canada, before joining UPenn. Mukharji is interested in the interactions between different scientific traditions in modern and early modern South Asia. He has authored two monographs, viz. Nationalizing the Body: The Medical Market, Print and Daktari Medicine (London, 2009) and Doctoring Traditions: Ayurveda, Small Technologies and Braided Sciences (Chicago, 2016). Email: firstname.lastname@example.org