Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover (Quote)

How does the reader decide if a history book is worth their time?

Impartial reviewer: Woman Reading, by Lovis Corinth, 1888.It’s a challenge to pick the next history book to read. Bookshops are filled with enthusiastic recommendations and well-intentioned championship, but there can also be a measure of chicanery. How can you tell the one from the other?

Historians provide endorsements for each other’s books. This is all above board and proper, in the nature of scholarly patronage. Endorsements are designed to give the curious potential reader a yardstick by which to measure the book in their hands, trusting in the authority and honesty of the one endorsing it. Accepting that a publisher may have extracted or shortened the judgement, readers accept implicitly that the endorser has read the book in full and given their genuine, informed opinion.

This isn’t always the case. There are some serial endorsers, whose praise can be found on everything; one wonders if they have truly read all the books they commend. There are some tit-for-tat endorsers: if you find that author A highly recommends author B’s books, check and see if author B recommends A’s books, too, perhaps even repeatedly. If so, listen to the alarm bells ringing out, ‘ne-po-tis-m’. Then there are comments, which, upon reading, appear to bear no resemblance to the text: if it feels like a standard line of hyperbole that could be put on any book, beware. If it passes all these tests, however, it is probably an endorsement on which you can rely.

In the film and art worlds, there are critics who impartially review movies and exhibitions. Not so in history. There are no historical critics, only fellow practitioners. It is with great joy that a historian favourably reviews another’s book and good reviews are easy to spot: they lavish praise, they give the author’s publishers plentiful bons mots to plaster on the back of the book, they unstintingly engage with the strengths and even minor weaknesses of the work. How delightful it is as a reviewer to receive a book that one can praise without scruple.

But this isn’t always the case and few reviews of bad books demonstrate the bracing honesty of the film reviewer or art critic. In part this is often simple and empathetic kindness. Reviewers know the author might read the review and can imagine how each brutally honest word might be felt as a cruelty. Or it’s simple humility: there’s no point rehearsing a book’s every infelicity, contradiction, error or omission except to show off the reviewer’s learning. But there’s also another consideration: just as in the 17th century, if you thought your neighbour a witch, the best course of action was not to provoke her (or him). So too runs the rule about reviewing your fellow historian. A reviewing historian knows that his or her turn will surely come: damn and be damned. Therefore, instead of doing what the poet Sir Thomas Wyatt famously refused to do, sometimes reviewers feign; they ‘cloak the truth for praise without desert’.

How then do you know if a reviewer disliked a book and isn’t saying so? They’ll spend quite a lot of time retelling the story of the book. They’ll hide their criticisms several paragraphs in. They’ll say what the author did without commending it. They’ll fail to give the author the tasty, quotable morsel for their cover. They’ll damn with faint praise.

None of this is as bad, however, as the damning review: one written by an author with a dog in the race – a rival seeking to discredit their competition. A few years back a famous historian was unmasked as dropping poisoned little reviews onto the Amazon book pages of his peers. No one should stoop so low.

Ultimately, you, the reader, must be willing to assess a book on its strengths and weaknesses. You are best placed to judge whether its writing engaged you or sent you to sleep and whether its substance is fresh and original, or borrowed and well-worn. You can also decide whether its conclusions are drawn on the basis of convincing evidence or assertions are made without support, whether the argument makes sense and whether the book provides a critical apparatus that upholds its accountability. The only impartial reviewers of history books are the readers themselves.

Suzannah Lipscomb is Reader in Early Modern History at the University of Roehampton and author of The Voices of Nîmes: Women, Sex and Marriage in Early Modern Languedoc (Oxford, forthcoming).

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