BMCR has entered its twenty-fifth year, quietly, a few weeks ago. In that time we have published over 10,000 reviews, that is to say, more reviews than any of us could have read books in that time. Once a few years ago I formed the resolution at least to read every BMCR review for twelve months; by about March I had settled for at least opening and scanning briefly every review and even that proved to be a noticeable effort. I depend, and I suspect others do, for the “current awareness” of our reviews for a significant part of my ability to keep up with scholarship not central to my own current and prospective work.
We have worked hard to make our reviews as useful as possible. We impose word limits to ensure that reviews are concise enough to be useful; we have a Stakhanovite discipline of submission and editing to ensure that reviews are timely; we offer guidelines for the content of reviews that are not always, we admit, followed to the letter; and we expect high standards of integrity from our reviewers and editors and take action to remedy defects when, for example, conflicts of interest remain unresolved when a review has been published.
So what should we reasonably expect of a book review in this journal? Clarity, for one thing, the same clarity we expect in students’ written work. Readers should come away with a clear and vivid sense of the book, its scope, its ambition, its method, and its intended audience. Its contents should be usefully epitomized, without descent into punishing detail. (Not every reviewed collection of articles needs what can become an analytical table of contents.)
Readers should also have an equally clear sense of the professional judgment of the reviewer on the utility and excellences of the book and the grounds for such a judgment. Such judgment is inevitably in some sense exemplary, where the interest is not exclusively in what Smedley thinks of the book but what a reasonable and learned Smedley could think of the book. What debate will the book arouse and how will it engage other scholars working in the field? What should the non-specialist know to situate this study of Thucydides in the larger landscape of relevant work? I don’t need a reviewer to tell me whether a book is worth reading so much as I need to come away feeling comfortable and confident about making my own decision, if it is indeed one that I might wish to read, and feeling usefully and professionally informed, if it is one that lies beyond my proximate ken.
These expectations have their flip side, of course. What should I expect not to find in a review? Billingsgate and bad manners, for starters; disrespect for honorable effort; ideology in place of thought; self-presentation obtruding over a clear view of the book and its achievements; critique in detail so far out of balance that it becomes nit-picking. It might be a good rule that the worse the book might unfortunately turn out to be, the calmer and kinder should be the review. And of course we should review the book as written, not the book the reviewer would like to see written or would have written.
Not all our reviews achieve these high standards and we work to learn from our misfires (Aesch. Ag. 177). But for the holiday season, we could do worse than thank the centuries of reviewers who have achieved them so consistently and thank no less ardently those of our readers who have shared with us their disappointment when we do not hit our marks. Every reader should take a glance now and then at the long and distinguished honor roll of our Editorial Board, whose unselfish work is a real contribution to our profession for which they receive precious little thanks or recognition.