This post is part of an on-going series examining sloth in Christian communities.
Someone once said that Christians are a “people of the book.” It’s true (or, at least, it ought to be). We take our faith and practice from the pages of Scripture. The doctrine of “sola scriptura“—the belief that the bible is the sole inerrant authority for faith and practice—was at the Protestant Reformation’s center.
It is equally valid (or, at least, it ought to be) that Christians are a “people of the books.” In his last letter, the Apostle Paul asked Timothy to “bring the books” when he visited. In the 2,000 years that followed, books served to instruct Christians in the faith and spread Christian ideas. It is no less so today.
Of course, given the number of books published (not to mention the access to information provided by the internet), it is impossible to a fraction of the books published today. Who should we read? What should we read?
One apparent solution is found in book reviews. Reviews consume the material (or are supposed to) and then tell us whether it is worth our time and money.
Good reviews, rightly used, can spare us time and resources. Bad reviews (or the wrong use of reviews) can rob us of new insights, silence helpful critiques, and ensure that valuable contributions never see the light of day. Bad reviews and its twin, the wrong use of reviews, are often sloth’s children.
“The golden rule of book reviewing,” writes Andy Naselli, “is to judge a book based on what the author is intending to do—not based on what you would do if you were the author.”
From Naselli’s correct and straightforward observation, it becomes apparent that a quality book review is hard work. One must labor in self-control to interact with the book itself, not with one’s perception of the author, the topic, or hopes for the book. It is hard work to summarize the author’s purpose, methodology, argument, conclusions, and skill in a way that the author would recognize as her own—and then critique the book on how effectively the author executed.
Much easier is to approach a book with expectations and demands—”The book should be structured in this way, deal with these ideas and sources, and come to these conclusions.” Disappointed that the author didn’t do what you wanted in the way that you would have, you can critique them severely and give them a lower rating. Likewise, being with pleased that the author came to the conclusions you hoped in the way you wanted, you may ignore a plethora of deficiencies in how they wrote or handled data, to dish out high praise and five stars.
Anytime you read a review in which the bulk of the reviewer’s critique and conclusion rests on what they wish the author had done, what the author didn’t do or the conclusion, you are likely dealing with a slothful reviewer—sheer laziness.
Spotting Sloths in the Wild
Dan Reid, writing from years of experience as an editor (who reads reviews), outlines several sloths in book reviewing:
- “The author failed to write a different sort of book, the sort of book that I prefer; and so I dislike this book.”
- “The author is an evangelical (or liberal or feminist or …), and we all know what they are up to. So this book, which barely deserves my attention, is a very bad book indeed.”
- “The author presumes to know quite a bit about her topic, and there is evidence that this is the case. However, I happen to know a lot about the topic brought up in the last paragraph of chapter six and virtually nothing about the content of the other chapters. So let me take this platform to talk about a narrow slice of the book and judge the whole on its basis.”
- “The author takes no account of my work on this topic. This is regrettable, and I shall now condemn the book on the basis of my being slighted—but not before I take the opportunity to tell you all about my thesis.”
- “I have never liked this author. In fact she blocked my bid for tenure. So this is pay-back time. Oh yeah.”
- “I have a deep-seated need to show my superiority, not least in my area of expertise. And so I will point out certain small but unforgivable failings in this book that will subtly cast it in a bad light.”
- “It is clear to me that anyone who holds the views represented in this book has questionable or possibly bad (or racist or misogynist or _) motives, so I shall ferret out and expose those motives and then attack them.”
- “I believe in reading for authorial intent, but that applies only to Scripture. In this review I shall employ a hermeneutic of suspicion and tell you what I think this book is saying despite the explicit protest of the living author to the contrary.”
- “This book takes on a sacred cow of our discipline. It shakes the foundations of my academic cosmos. It quivers the posts of my sacred canopy. It shivers me timbers. It threatens to cause me to start again from the ground up. In this last decade of my academic life, I’m not about to let that happen. So here’s my fatwa.”
In his post, Reid offers commentary on several of these sloths, worth your time to read.
Christians would do well to take the time to understand the nature of these expressions of laziness and be ready to spot them in book reviews. Of course, such sloth is not limited to reviewing books. They show up frequently in Christian critiques of sermons, churches, other people, culture, politics, etc.
Slothful Users of Reviews
The temptation to laziness is not limited to the writing of reviews. We can also be lazy in our use of reviews. It is a particular temptation because reviews are written to reduce our workload. But anything created to lighten the load can become an excuse to avoid the responsibility to work.
One sloth in the use of reviews is skipping to the bottom line. Skip the review, what does the reviewer say in conclusion. Skipping the content to cut to the conclusion gives one no way of knowing the basis or methodology for the review. (I’ve seen some quality reviewers give a few lazy reviews.)
Another lazy approach is to look at only the stars. “3-star average? I’ll pass.” Too many people approach the ranking system this way. That’s why authors and publishers encourage reviews and rankings. But, as everyone knows, the system is easy to manipulate.
Your company makes widgets and sells them on Amazon. Your only competitor just released a new widget to compete with your new release. There are twenty-five employees in your company. On release day, each one leaves a five-star review of your product and a 1-star or 2-star review of the competitor. Each negative review mentions the same problems with the competitor’s product. Each employee then asks three members of their household to do the same. Your product has one-hundred five-star ratings within a week, while your competitor has one-hundred negative ratings, each complaining about the same problem.
If you don’t think this happens with book reviews, you’re naive. (The screenshots from the Genevan Commons reveal at least one attempt to sabotage a woman’s book release.) It’s easy to read a book review and then post a negative review on a bookseller website parroting the concerns. Unethical? Sure—but how is a book browser to know any different. All they know is that a brief skim of the reviews will reveal that many people had the same complaint (and several were pastors!). And the book (and your neighbor) is torpedoed before even leaving the dock.
It’s a quick way to get a feel for responses. But is one truth negated by a thousand lies? Does a falsehood become a truth by repeating it a hundred times?
Lazy reviews and the lazy use of reviews are quick and dirty ways to silence a voice or prop up yourself. But how do such promote the exchange of ideas, learning, scholarship? Do dishonest means celebrate the truth?
Both reading and writing are hard work. They have no place for laziness. If you want to take the easy path, perhaps you should avoid books altogether.