This paper was first presented at BMCR’s 30th anniversary celebration in October 2022.
Anniversary events are natural occasions for reminiscing, and as I began to anticipate BMCR’s milestone thirtieth, many memories surfaced from a period in the ’eighties when its founders, Rick Hamilton and Jim O’Donnell, began to discuss what a book review journal might hope to accomplish on the cusp of the internet age. My office was just down the hall from Jim’s at the time, so conversation about this topic arose naturally and often. One memory led to another, and at the celebration itself in October 2022 (postponed for two years because of the Covid-19 pandemic) Jim filled in many of the details that had become foggy in my own mind over time. Part of what we used to discuss as BMCR was first getting underway was logistical (frequency, format, editorial principles, et sim.), but much was also conceptual—what should book reviews in fact accomplish? Who reads book reviews anyway, and what are they looking for in them?
Inevitably, I suppose, for a cultural and literary historian like myself, these memories got me thinking about the long history of the book review as a distinct mode of criticism, and I soon found myself looking casually into its modern history. I found nothing particularly surprising. The venues and stylistic forms we have come to know in our own era, from short bare-bones summaries or notices, to fuller critical assessments intended for a general literary public, to scholarly reviews of scholarly books—all these forms coalesced in the 19th century, in newspapers, newsletters, print journals, each taking different forms depending on their readership. Common historical sense would also suggest that the invention of the printing press was an important moment in the development of formal book-reviewing, but I leave an assessment of that historical influence on modern book reviewing to actual book historians. My amateur reflection about the recent history of the book review, however, got me asking the simple question—was there even such a “thing” as book reviewing in Classical antiquity? Is this yet another concept—like “self-consciousness” or pornography—that early modern historians will delight in claiming didn’t exist before the 17th century?
Because of its dependence on quick and affordable dissemination, the book review does seem on the face of it rather alien to pre-modern publication practices and readership habits as we have come to understand them. But people did buy and read books in antiquity, and certainly had opinions about what was good or bad, useful or misleading, so we should not be surprised to find traces of such commentary in our ancient authors, even if they may not be exact analogues of a BMCR review. So, freeing my mind from a rigid definition of the book review, I thought it might be interesting to think of some of the ways in which classical authors went about summarizing, promoting, or repudiating books they had read. I know anyone reading this will be able to think of many other examples, too, but I will offer a handful of exemplary cases that I think will allow us to draw a direct throughline of sorts from antiquity right up to BMCR.
In the course of my wanderings through the scholarship, I was pleased to find that Reynolds and Wilson located the actual invention of the book-review in Photius’ Bibliotheca. As they write in Scribes and Scholars (4th ed., 2013, pp. 62-63), Photius, the 9th-century patriarch of Constantinople, wrote the Bibliotheca as “an offering and consolation to his brother Tarasius, a summary of books that he had read over a long period of time…The resulting work…is a fascinating production, in which Photius shows himself the inventor of the book-review.” Here’s a translation of the passage to which they refer, from Photius’ opening dedication to Tarasius:
Your idea was to have something to console you for our painful separation, and at the same time to acquire some knowledge, even if vague and imperfect, of the works which you had not yet read in our company. We believe that their number is exactly 279. …The summaries will be arranged in the order in which our memory recalls them…If, during your study of these volumes, any of the summaries should appear to be defective or inaccurate, you must not be surprised. It is no easy matter to undertake to read each individual work, to grasp the argument, to remember and record it; but when the number of works is large, and a considerable time has elapsed since their perusal, it is extremely difficult to remember them with accuracy.
(Tr. Freese, 1920)
The claim that a single person in antiquity actually invented something like a book review seems a little bold to me, given how little of antiquity we have to work with, but I admire Reynolds’ and Wilson’s confidence, and maybe it’s true in some way that it all really began with Photius’ summaries of his reading for his brother. Certainly much of Photius’ rhetoric, and the kinds of things he focuses on in his summaries, echo the concerns of many BMCR reviews, as we can see in this sample—a recommendation to read a selection from Lucian, which takes the form of a snapshot of the book’s overall aims, followed by some attention to style and readability.:
(#128). Read Lucian’s declamation On Phalaris and his various Dialogues of the Dead and Courtesans, and other works on different subjects, in nearly all of which he ridicules the ideas of the heathen. Thus he attacks their silly errors in the invention of gods; their brutal and ungovernable passions and lack of restraint; the monstrous fancies and fictions of their poets; their consequent errors in statesmanship; the irregular course and changes and chances of their life; the boastful behaviour of the philosophers, full of nothing but pretence and idle opinions; in a word, his aim is, as we have said, to hold up the heathen to ridicule in prose. He seems to be one of those persons who regard nothing seriously; ridiculing and mocking at the opinions of others, he does not state what opinions he himself holds, unless we may say that his opinion is that one can know nothing for certain. His style is excellent, his diction clear, suitable and expressive; he shows a special liking for distinctness and purity united with brilliancy and appropriate dignity. His composition is so well fitted together that the reader does not seem to be reading prose, but an agreeable song, whose nature is not too obtrusive, seems to drop into the listener’s ears. In a word, as already said, his style is charming, but not in keeping with the subjects which he himself has determined to ridicule.
(Photius, Bibliotheca 128, Tr. Freese, 1920)
Of course, like many BMCR reviewers as well, Photius opens himself to objections from the author of the book under review that the reviewer misunderstood what the author was trying to do, didn’t read carefully enough or is incompetent to review the work in the first place! A review like Photius’ of Lucian in the pages of BMCR might well have goaded Lucian to write a letter to the BMCR editors (or post a variation on Twitter)—“Dear BMCR Editors—when Photius claims in his review that my aim was to ‘to hold up the heathen to ridicule in prose’, he is looking too hard for a kind of moralizing that is alien to what I’m up to. He needs to get out more…”.
If Photius was something like the first bona fide pre-modern book-reviewer, though, what about book assessment before his intervention in the 9th century? Readers were opining about the books they read long before Photius’ “recommended books” list, and were not above publishing their critiques. Such critiques tend to be embedded in philosophical texts, broadly speaking, since philosophy has tended to be a bookish pursuit ab initio, and Greek philosophers, anyway, are particularly conscious of their place in a longer history of ideas. I was interested, then, not so much in philosophical authors engaging critically with the ideas of earlier thinkers, but how they engaged with specific books. With this in mind, I’d propose that we can trace the seeds of the BMCR review to none other than Plato’s Socrates, who is my candidate for our first book-reviewer. I’m referring of course to Socrates’ famous beef with Anaxagoras, which is presented as a particular encounter with a particular book in the Phaedo (97c-e):
One day, however, Ι heard someone reading from a book he said was by Anaxagoras, according to which it is, in fact, Intelligence that orders and is the reason for everything. Now this was a reason that pleased me; it seemed to me, somehow, to be a good thing that Intelligence should be the reason for everything. And Ι thought that, if that’s the case, then Intelligence in ordering all things must order them and place each individual thing in the best way possible; so if anyone wanted to find out the reason why each thing comes to be or perishes or exists, this is what he must find out about it: how is it best for that thing to exist, or to act or be acted upon in any way?… Reckoning thus, Ι was pleased to think l’d found, in Anaxagoras, an instructor to suit my own intelligence in the reason for the things that are. And Ι thought he’d inform me, first, whether the earth is flat or round, and when he’d informed me, he’d go οn to expound the reason why it must be so, telling me what was better…If he could make these things clear to me, Ι was prepared to hanker nο more after any other kind of reason…
Well, my friend, these marvelous hopes of mine were dashed; because, as I went on with my reading, Ι beheld a man making no use of his Intelligence at all, nor finding in it any reasons for the ordering of things, but imputing them to such things as air and aether and water and many other absurdities. Ιn fact, he seemed to me to be in exactly the position of someone who said that all Socrates’ actions were performed with his intelligence, and who then tried to give the reasons for each of my actions by saying, first, that the reason why I’m now sitting here is that my body consists of bones and sinews…
(Plato, Phaedo 97c–99b5, tr. Gallop)
It’s interesting that Plato wants to stress the vehicle by which Socrates learns about Anaxagoras—not just his ideas. This seems to reflect Plato’s anxiety about the formal accessibility of a book he regards as philosophically misguided and potentially even dangerous, not only because he felt Anaxagoras was wrong, but also because Anaxagoras’ ideas have a kind of seductive appeal and their packaging as a book literally codifies that danger. In the Apology, in another very famous passage all BMCR readers will remember, Socrates again alludes to the accessibility of Anaxagoras’ book, available for purchase at the booksellers for a drachma, and is indignant that people would conflate his own ideas with what they found in Anaxagoras’ book:
Do you imagine that you are prosecuting Anaxagoras, my dear Meletus? Have you so poor an opinion of these gentlemen, and do you assume them to be so illiterate as not to know that the writings of Anaxagoras of Clazomenae are full of theories like these? And do you seriously suggest that it is from me that the young get these ideas, when they can buy them on occasion in the orchestra for a drachma at most, and so have the laugh on Socrates if he claims them for his own, especially when they are so peculiar?
(Plato, Apology 26d, tr. Tredennick and Tarrant)
The rhetoric of Socrates’ objections to this book would be right at home in a BMCR review; in fact, maybe BMCR’s next act should be to rewrite ancient book critiques in the BMCR idiom, e.g.:
Anaxagoras of Clazomenae, On nature. Orchestra, Athens: Athens Booksellers, c. 450 BCE. 1 drachma.
Socrates of Athens
The title and advance buzz around this book suggested it would be an exciting attempt to clarify the reasons why things are the way they are. I had high hopes for this book, then, but in the end the study proved to be a major disappointment, as I will discuss in detail below…. κτλ.
As I noted, it’s not just Anaxagoras’ ideas that Socrates is objecting to here, but the more significant fact that they have been preserved in written form, in a book. We know from the Socrates we find in Plato’s Phaedrus that he regarded the fixity of the book, its un-dialectical nature, as a liability, an obstacle to learning and knowledge. For this very reason, the story he tells at Phaedrus 274c ff., of the Egyptian god Theuth who invented writing (among other things), points out that since writing is inherently intellectually stultifying, there must also be people who can counter the effects of writing by assessment, essentially reviewing a written work as if in conversation with it, even the work can never respond:
Thamus replied, “Most scientific Theuth, one man has the ability to beget the elements of a science, but it belongs to a different person to be able to judge what measure of harm and benefit it contains for those who are going to make use of it (ἄλλος δὲ κρῖναι τίν’ ἔχει μοῖραν βλάβης τε καὶ ὠφελίας τοῖς μέλλουσι χρῆσθαι·); … For your invention [letters] will produce forgetfulness in the souls of those who have learned it, through lack of practice at using their memory, as through reliance on writing they are reminded from outside by alien marks, not from inside, themselves by themselves: you have discovered an elixir not of memory but of reminding.
(Plato, Phaedrus. 274/5, tr. Rowe)
Earlier in the Phaedrus, at 268c, when Socrates and Phaedrus are discussing the kind of person who believes he can become a doctor without proper training, Phaedrus says most people would think such a person to be mad, and that he was misled by hearing stuff read from books (ἐκ βιβλίου ποθὲν ἀκούσας) or after having stumbled on some drugs. In the face of books, in short, one must, according to Socrates, be always ready to offer a critique, to talk back to a voice that has acquired outsized authority by virtue of the fact that it has been published.
Second-order thinking about assessing books, it seems, extends much further back in time than the presumed “recent” invention of the modern book-review, as did the realization that what makes reviewing an essential practice is the notion that a published text—in antiquity, of course, meaning a scroll subjected to an intentional program of copying and dissemination—is a social document, one that invites a community of readers to engage with it. So too, the book review, the inevitable critique that any individual reader will bring to a book at hand, really only becomes a book review when it too can be disseminated, becoming a document open, itself, to public scrutiny.
In a famous passage from Aristophanes Frogs, , where the chorus assures Aeschylus and Euripides that the audience will be able to appreciate the fine points of their imminent agon, Aristophanes alludes fairly transparently to the power of a written text to promote a community of book-reviewers (should we imagine Athenian audiences as anticipating the “book-club” of our own time?):
And if you’re afraid
of any ignorance among
the spectators, that they won’t
appreciate your subtleties of argument,
Don’t worry about that, because
things are no longer that way.
For they’re veterans,
and each one has a book
and knows the fine points;
their natural endowments are masterful too,
and now sharpened up.
So have no fear,
but tackle it all, resting assured
that the spectators are sage.
(Aristophanes Frogs, 1109-1117, t r. Henderson, 2002)
There is constant debate about what exactly Aristophanes is referring to here with the line, “For they’re veterans, || and each one has a book (βιβλίον τ’ ἔχων ἕκαστος) || and knows the fine points.” Does the audience have actual scripts in front of them, for example? Does the passage tell us anything historical about the extent of Athenian literacy at the time? But two basic points are clear—first, the audience, either in reality or potentially, both has (or has had) some sort of access to a book relevant to the play at hand… and second, that the audience is portrayed (whether, again, in reality or ironically, as a form of mocking flattery; on this latter point, see M. Wright’s discussion in The Comedian as Critic: Greek Old Comedy and Poetics, 2012, 65-66) as having highly refined critical faculties (“their natural endowments are masterful too, || and now sharpened up), implicitly activated by the fact they can work from a fixed, formalized and relatively stable text. The audience (or at least some segment of it), Aristophanes might say, could just as well write a BMCR review of the published version of Frogs as they could a theater review of the particular performance they saw in 405. As this valuable passage from Frogs suggests, books could be conceptualized as fostering a community of critics, whether or not Aristophanes actually thought most of his audience would do a good job of literary assessment.
Indeed, it’s worth remembering that the entire premise of Frogs springs from Dionysus’ critical reading of a book. In the early lines of the play Dionysus notes that he was inspired to go to the underworld to retrieve Euripides, (52-54) by reading (silently! ἀναγιγνώσκοντί…πρὸς ἐμαυτὸν) a text of Euripides’ Andromeda:
DIONYSUS: Anyway, as I was on deck reading Andromeda to myself, a sudden longing struck my heart, you can’t imagine how hard.
(Aristophanes Frogs, 52-54, tr. Henderson, 2002)
The resulting play, Frogs, is hardly a book review as such, but it’s interesting how Aristophanes presents it as the consequence of Dionysus’ emotional response to a critical reading of a written text:
Euripides of Salamis, Andromeda. Athens: Athens Booksellers, c. 412 BCE. (Price unknown).
The drama and poetry of this book filled me with an overwhelming desire (pothos) to seek out the author himself even though he had recently died. After reading this play, I knew that this was the only man who would be able to save Athens from its current political turmoil—or at least so I thought before I actually went to the underworld to find him…
The passages I’ve discussed so far are early in a long Greco-Roman tradition of reading and critique. As literacy expanded, and the number authors and books in circulation around the Mediterranean increased, so would opportunities for—and the need for—discussion and assessment. While it may be difficult to pinpoint formats in antiquity that look to us like modern book reviews, we can find many forms of critique that perform similar functions and indicate similar critical impulses. Let me end with two examples drawn from the much later period of Imperial Rome, when books circulated widely and were disseminated in various states of publication among a feisty, competitive intellectual elite. Two bookish authors, almost exact contemporaries of each other at Rome, the wildly prolific medical writer and philosopher Galen, writing in Greek, and the littérateur Aulus Gellius, writing in Latin—both of whose careers flourished in the mid-to-late second century CE.
It is difficult to know even where to begin in conveying Galen’s deep and complex relationship with authors and books, and the scope of his critical project. His medical commentaries (a species of book review in itself, at least in his hands), especially on Hippocratic works, were numerous and influential for the history of medicine up to the 19th century, and nearly all of his major works were undertaken as some form of engagement (usually critical, often polemical) with the published books of other authors. We know all this not only from the many works themselves that survive, but from a remarkable work with the revealing title, On My Own Books, a critical overview of his CV, so to speak. In today’s parlance, we might say this work is “kinda meta-”, a book-review of one’s own books, while offering along the way (again, usually critical) reviews of various contemporary books by other authors. Among the many things that this little work reveals is the fluid state of “publication” in this period—Galen writes formally and informally (for friends upon request, for students, for “beginners”), all of which modes have unpredictable trajectories of dissemination, as he makes clear. Some of his published works began their life as public lectures, often competitive and eristic, since a good many of these take the form of vituperative critiques of others’ ideas and books. One story he recounts in On My Own Books is emblematic, and occurs as part of Galen’s account of the works he wrote for friends:
On another occasion, too, I was speaking in public on the books of the ancient doctors, and the topic set before me was Erasistratus’ work on The Bringing-up of Blood. A pencil was placed in the book in the customary manner, and as it pointed to that part of the book in which he rejects the use of venesection, I addressed some further remarks towards Martialius, to discomfort the man who pretended to be an “Erasistratean.” Well, this speech got a very good response; and a friend of mine who was hostile to Martialius begged me to dictate what I had said to a person he would send to me who was trained in a form of shorthand writing, so that, if he suddenly had to leave Rome for his home city, he would be able to use it against Martialius during examinations of patients.
(Galen, On My Own Books, 14-15K, tr. Singer)
Such books—Galen’s books intended for friends— tend to emerge from the kind of scenario he depicts here. Galen says he wrote a work in six books called Hippocrates’ Anatomy for his friend Boethus, and another work called Erasistratus’ Anatomy, explicitly because a celebrated anatomist of his day, Martialius, challenged Galen’s own authority in anatomy. Martialius, he said, “enjoyed a great reputation at this time; and he was a remarkably malicious and adversarial personality (βάσκανος …φιλόνεικος), in spite of his more than seventy years.” Galen should talk! — it’s likely his adversaries would have described him the same way—but it’s noteworthy that all of this sniping takes place in the context of books—Martialius’ books, Erasistratus’ books, Galen’s books, all figure in the public debates and displays of intellectual bravado. The scene Galen describes at 14K amounts to a series of public assessments of the “the books of the ancient doctors”—mostly critical, but sometimes approving—which apparently turns into something of a parlor game: “A pencil was placed in [Erasistratus’ work on The Bringing up of Blood], which “pointed to that part of Martialius’ book “in which he rejects the use of venesection”, which offers Galen an opportunity to humiliate Martialius (ὅπως λυπήσαιμι). Galen claims that this went over well with the crowd, and one of his friends who was also hostile to Martialius asked him to have it transcribed by a stenographer so there would be a written record he could refer to in the future. Galen was happy to oblige, but was not happy to find out that this work, though intended only for private consumption by a friend, ended up copied and in the hands of many others after his friend had died—essentially, “published”. He implies that even he felt its tone was a little brash—a work of his youth—and he seems just a bit embarrassed that his scathing reviewing had become textually fixed and divorced from its original context.
Let us conclude with a quick look at the more genteel Aulus Gellius, working in Rome at roughly the same time as Galen. His Attic Nights, a work in 20 books from c. 180 CE that collects miscellaneous notes about books he had read, offers many critical readings of a variety of texts, some of which share many of the qualities of a book review. One entertaining entry concerns Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE), against whom Gellius deploys a rhetorical strategy familiar to BMCR readers—we can call it the “stealth smackdown”. Gellius begins by praising Pliny as the “most learned man of his time”, and celebrating Pliny’s recommendation of charming and skillful arguments that he offers in his book For Students of Oratory:
Plinius Secundus was considered the most learned man of his time. He left a work, entitled For Students of Oratory, which is by no manner of means to be lightly regarded. In that work he introduces much varied material that will delight the ears of the learned. He also quotes a number of arguments that he regards as cleverly and skillfully urged in the course of debates. For instance, he cites this argument from such a debate: “‘A brave man shall be given the reward which he desires. A man who had done a brave deed asked for the wife of another in marriage, and received her. Then the man whose wife she had been did a brave deed. He demands the return of his wife, but is refused.’ On the part of the second brave man, who demanded the return of his wife,” says Pliny, “this elegant and plausible argument was presented: ‘If the law is valid, return her to me; if it is not valid, return her.’” But it escaped Pliny’s notice that this bit of reasoning, which he thought very acute, was not without the fallacy which the Greeks call ἀντιστρέφον, or “a convertible proposition.” And that is a deceptive fallacy, which lies concealed under a false appearance of truth; for that very argument may just as easily be turned about and used against the same man, and might, for example, be put thus by that former husband: “If the law is valid, I do not return her; if it is not valid, I do not return her.”
(Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights, 9.16, tr. Rolfe)
Gellius, in short, is quick to expose Pliny’s exemplary argument as a sophistry the Greeks called an ἀντιστρέφον, an argument that can get lost in an infinite regress of ongoing logical reversals: “But it escaped Pliny’s notice that this bit of reasoning, which he thought very acute, was not without the fallacy which the Greeks call ἀντιστρέφον.” Gellius’ format was not suitable for a full book-review of this lost work of Pliny’s, but like many a book-reviewer—for better or worse—he finds it more dramatic to privilege critique over praise.
The future of the material book in our era is a favorite topic of debate, and it’s hard to predict what this might mean for the future of journals such as BMCR—will books continue to be conceptualized as books even if they are never printed on paper and bound between covers? Will scholarly work gradually make the scholarly book as such irrelevant? If nothing else, my scattershot survey of ancient antecedents of the modern book review should reassure us that as long as there are authors eager to publish, no matter in what written form, there will always be others moved to review and evaluate these works, and readers hungry for the guidance that a well-crafted review can offer.