Reviews: A Theme and a Hobby

In the academic space, critical reflection is a valuable tool. While perhaps considered of lesser importance, a good book review is a core part of academic development and reflection. A good review can lend balance to the rosy lenses or the overtly pessimistic perspectives that other academics or the greater public might view a work with. In otherwords, a carefully organized set of thoughts about an academic development serves as a developed reflection about the theoretical development, usefulness, and ethnical considerations about scholarly work of peers’ publications.

In the past, I had developed a regular habit of casually reviewing most academic books I found noteworthy for better or worse. For the vast majority of these I had posted them on Goodreads, not really considering them to be of significant value to anyone. Although, I will boast that some of them have gotten dozens (DOZENS! [insert Arrested Development’s Tobias Fünke gif here]) of likes. While I cannot speak to the economic value of these reviews, I have found them useful for myself, and on occasion they have proven useful in framing how I think as a researcher for my potential collaborators. As such, I feel it is time that I develop a regularized framework for my reviews both in so-called academic “seriousness” and in editorial affordances. It would be nice to be able to embed links, and reference other works more carefully. Doing this on my own site enables this in a way that I can control. That is I am not “publishing” an academic review, so much as talking to myself in public, you know, like a totally sane person. Also it allows me to escape the framework of Amazon’s commodification of reviews.

That is, I will begin putting my reviews here for several reasons:

  • It falls within the economic framework of a personal website.
  • It enables me to journal and reflect on my thoughts in a way that helps my own development.
  • If a reader finds my takes valuable or not, they have full access to me talking to myself and tell me off if need be.
  • It provides a writing space between the silliness of aimlessly blogging thoughts and the seriousness of academic publishing.

If you have the misfortune of having to read these reviews, I am doing this out of the love of reading and thinking. I am perhaps being a little self-indulgent in doing so. Apologies. This was an accidental hobby that somehow convinced me that I genuinely liked dense academic reading. The writing I provide in the form of a review gives me a little bit of space to say that I was influenced by these readings, and that I can give a first draft of how I was moved. It provides me some self-assurance that I’m not wasting my time.

Also, it is possible there are some pretty candid claims in these reviews. I am in no position to claim to be an expert in everything I review here or to claim that I am writing with the tone or credibility required of that sort of publication. That is part of the reason these are not all “academic reviews” but rather thoughts more for my own reflection. Tonally, these reviews will not read like an academic review. They at times may have an obvious bias that would be sanitized or edited out of a peer-reviewed book review. While I am an academic, my goal is not to make “academic reviews.” Each of these should be read more in the spirit of me trying to find my place within the excessively trans-disciplinary world I have found my own academic work to reside. This is a long-term struggle of my own making, and this is just a small part of how I make sense of it. That said, I do somewhat take pride being able to make sense of a wide range of arguments and synthesizing them.

On occasion, I imagine what an author might say to one of my reviews (especially for the particularly negative reviews). I have given some negative reviews for books that later on proved to be hugely valuable to me. A bad review here does not mean the book is not worth reading. For example, I am highly critical of Benjamin Bratton’s writing style, and considering some of his statements in YouTube videos, he seems very aware of this critic of him. He comes across as pompous, needlessly inaccessible, and righteous. Although, he might have earned a little bit of a right to be. The Stack is a constant reference for me. I consider it to be a significant and irreplacable update to Empire addressing a vast space of how we have redesigned the planet for computation. If given a chance to have a serious academic discussion with Bratton, I would consider that a highlight of my life. I still don’t like his writing style.

Going farther than stylistic differences, I have given some particularly nasty reviews of books before. While the tone of these reviews would likely be sanitized in a typical publication setting, at times I think a harsh tone is necessary. This is not necessarily to shake a finger at a writer so much as it is to give those who read the review a sense of the weight of how important it is to think critically at times about what academics are saying. This sort of tone usually does not make it past a risk adverse editor’s desk. Academics are a particularly fragile bunch, often taking slights towards our work as slights to our own identity and person. Regardless, the traumas of fighting for our ideas, and the power that the academic process provides speech does not exclude one from being gravely mistaken. The professional academic tone often exists to hide the real dilemmas academic work can cause. Some of the most unethical work to ever occur on earth began by someone with a PhD wielding the power of academic publishing and professionalism to hide serious errors in thinking.

On a more positive note, I hope that these reviews provide something valuable to anyone who reads them. I count myself as the first in this even if I am the only. But in hopes that I am giving something of use to someone, I hope that someone sees a refreshing lens that helps suggest how reading academic work can be fun and fulfilling. It is not often that people leave their PhDs thinking reading is anything other than homework. But on occasion it is fun, and reflecting on it, and seeing my take, I hope gives some poor soul out there a chance to know they do have the ability to be thoughtfully independent of the burden of having to agree with every work they’ve been told to cite. We can play with ideas with varying levels of seriousness. Academia needs both at once: seriousness and play. These reviews are a chance to thoughtfully play with what academia considers sacred: big, scary, educated ideas.

Image Attribution: Alexander O. Smith

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