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On Reviewing and Being Reviewed

In his Longman-History Today awards lecture, David Cannadine considers the art, craft and psychology of the historical book review.

As anyone knows who has tried their hand sufficiently at both activities, it is a great deal easier to review books on history than it is to write them. Even the most turgid and mediocre volume about the past is likely to show traces of expertise, curiosity, stamina, empathy and creativity – qualities that are sometimes conspicuously lacking in reviews and reviewers. But since reviews are quick, short and cheap whereas books are by comparison slow, long and expensive, they are often thought to exert an influence out of all proportion to their length and merit. Such, at least, are the opinions of literary editors, publishers and authors – and of many reviewers themselves. Of course, they would say that, wouldn’t they? But whether they are right or wrong, it cannot be denied that, for the best part of 200 years, since the launching of the Edinburgh Review in 1802, history reviews have been an integral part of the public and academic culture of Britain. Whether we know or like it or not, those of us who turn our hands to this task are scribbling in a line of succession which, however uncertainly and intermittently, reaches back to the young Macaulay, who first made his public reputation as a coruscating writer in the 1820s.

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