Alberto Mingardi  

An excellent book review

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Writing a good book review is not an easy job. I've been writing book reviews regularly, for some years now. I am also a big consumer of book reviews. I suspect it is so because I am very grateful to this particular literary genre: my interest in classical liberalism was awakened by a book review, namely the review of the Italian translation of David Friedman's "The Machinery of Freedom". The author happened to be Sergio Ricossa, an outstanding economist and a brave fighter for economic liberty in Italy back when Keynesians were the right-wing of academia. Though I read it some 17 years ago, I do still remember the article: it was delightfully witty, as the book itself is.
The book reviewer has a substantial responsibility: her piece will be, more often than not, the only contact the reader has with a particular book. You need both to present an author's arguments fairly, and to make your case on why a book is relevant - or is not. Sometimes book reviews degenerate into opinion pieces, as the writer takes a book as a convenient excuse to make her cause for or against a particular policy / set of ideas / scholar. These are typically bad book reviews. But bad book reviews are also those in which the reviewers aim to present all the major arguments advanced by the reviewed author. This is a daunting and almost impossible task, if the book has any substance. The reviewer needs to provide her reader with a glimpse, the scent of the arguments; she needs not explain or demolish all the author's points; she needs to do a good service to the reader, providing some basic information on the reviewed book (whom was it written for? is the language accessible? should it be read cover to cover or can it be consulted from time to time? what kind of debates is it engaged with?) but also offering a sense of the style, tone, and argument of the book. You should not finish a book review thinking that you agree or you don't agree with the author's thesis. You should finish a book review having realized whether you do or don't want to get engaged with the author's thesis, i.e. to read the reviewed book.
Sometimes you stumble upon outstanding pieces (as you know, for example David Henderson is a fantastic book reviewer). An example is this book review of George H. Smith's "The System of Liberty" written by Henry Clark for the Library of Law and Liberty. Smith's book is a remarkable contribution to the history of classical liberal ideas. Clark does a very good job in presenting Smith's arguments and central thesis, and strikes the right chords. By reading it, you'll get a good sense of what Smith's book is about, and you'll recognise if it is a book you may be interested in reading, either because you agree or because you believe it's worth disagreeing with it, or if simply its arguments do not matter to you at all.
Everybody has books that consider important and cherished. But do some of you remember the reviews that allowed you to get to know these very works? Everybody has favourite books - but do you have a favourite book review too?

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COMMENTS (5 to date)
David R. Henderson writes:

Thanks for your kind compliment, Alberto. You have motivated me to give my thoughts on book reviews, probably later today.

David Friedman writes:

I don't suppose you could point me at Ricossa's review of my book, preferably somewhere online? I never saw it.

The review I liked was Buchanan's, because it pointed out a problem with my argument—which I have tried to deal with in the new material for the third edition, currently webbed as drafts on my web page.

Mark V Anderson writes:

I can't say I have a favorite book review, but I am very happy that there are many book reviews out there. I buy almost all my non-fiction on and I always read the book reviews before I decide to buy. There are many bad reviews, but if there are enough reviews one can usually filter out the wheat from the chaff. I would never rely on one review to make a determination, because even those that attempt to be fair in their reviews don't always succeed.

I have also written several book reviews myself on Amazon. I consider that to be a community service, since it doesn't do me any good. I do attempt to write fair reviews in the manner that Alberto outlines above.

Alberto Mingardi writes:

@DavidFriedman: I am afraid the review appeared when "L'ingranaggio della libertà" was published by Liberilibri, that is in 1997. It is not available on line, then (Italian papers did not think, at the time, that the web was their future). It might be that I conserved a copy - I used to cut nice book reviews out of daily papers and magazine, and save them with the book. I'll check next time I'll visit my parents.

@Mark V Anderson: I do completely agree Amazon book reviews are of increasing importance. Many are not very informative, as the writers want to show their agreement or disagreement with the author above anything else. But some are excellent and reading them, one after the other, is a very good way to gather information on books. Once again, Amazon's genius lays in mimicking on line the sort of word of mouth process that often makes the fortune of a book - and in improving it. From an author's perspective, I think Amazon's book reviews are a wonderful way to have the pulse of the reaction your work is arousing in readers. Personally, some of the best reviews I've read on Amazon were not book reviews but music cd reviews, suggesting to buy this or that recording of a certain opera. They saved me time and allowed me to go straight to some very remarkable executions.

Shane L writes:

I almost always enjoy the book reviews in The National Interest magazine, usually about history or foreign policy books. They tend to be quite in-depth and informative; even if I never read the book I learn a lot about history from reading them. They are written by experts in the field who can challenge or praise the author. Here is an example, a review of published diaries of foreign policy giant George F. Kennan:

Fascinating and easy to read.

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