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As a chronic producer and consumer of book reviews and a nonacademic, I'm rightly a target of historian Jeffrey Herf's recent call at Open University for more reviews of scholarly books of general interest:
"We know that a large number of very fine, well written, deeply researched and important works are being published in this country to the sound of deafening silence. We know that most of the vast non-specialist audience of university graduates in the United States hasn't a clue about what is going on in history, political science, sociology, economics, philosophy, literary criticism, art history, the natural sciences, and a host of other smaller academic disciplines. Indeed, despite much talk about interdisciplinary work, we know that within the academy, most scholars have only the foggiest notion of what is going on in other disciplines. We know that for the overwhelming number of college graduates in the United States, the last serious work of scholarship in the humanities and social sciences that many of them will ever read will probably be the last required text in the last semester of their senior year in college. Many of our students tell us how much they enjoyed reading various works we assign in our classes. How are they expected to continue to read such works if none are brought to their attention?"
Gawker makes fun of the idea at length, Eugene David briefly. Eric Rauchway has some interesting tangential thoughts. But hands down the most sensible response is from Ross Douthat at the American Scene:
"We live in an age that's glutted with books, and I'm very well aware of how depressing it is to watch thousands of well-written and worthy volumes -- one's own included -- appear over the course of the year and vanish without a trace. But this is a problem created by abundance (of would-be writers and publishers willing to take a chance on them), by specialization (the plethora of academic books that are extremely important, but only in extremely narrow fields), and by the mass market, which makes it harder for niche efforts to get traction in a world of Dan Browns. And as a result, it certainly can't be solved by founding a book review that tackles an extra thousand or so books a year, since the only people with the time and interest to read those reviews are already up to their ears in good books they meant to read but can't find the time for."
Still, the commentariat disappoints me. Nobody's thought of a way to pay for this mammoth hypothetical periodical. Nobody mentions that for most of us most of the time, a good book review is a substitute for reading the book. Worst of all, everyone's so busy pontificating they don't give examples (except in mockery). So here are three wonderful books I'm now in the middle of that it took me a long time to find, with hat tips to those who put me on to them (don't ask me why they're wonderful unless you have a free afternoon):
America's God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (2005) by Mark Noll of Wheaton College (via Christian Century).
Korea's Place in the Sun: A Modern History (2005) by Bruce Cumings of the University of Chicago (via Sam).
A Gathering of Rivers: Indians, Metis, and Mining in the Western Great Lakes, 1737–1832 (2000) by Lucy Eldersveld Murphy of Ohio State University at Newark and the Newberry Library (via another book I'm trying to review).