My relationships with book reviews

- Pratyoush Onta | 2021-09-24

Pratyoush Onta

Dec 9, 2017-Over the course of one’s life, one can have many different types of relationships with book reviews. First, of course, is the relationship of a reader of book reviews written by others. I have no memory of the first or early book reviews I read but I would think they must have been published in Nepali publications such as Balak, Gorkhapatra and The Rising Nepal and the Indian publications The Times of India and The Illustrated Weekly of India, all of which I used to read during the 1970s. As a student of St Xavier’s School then, I have vague memories of writing some book reviews as part of the assignment for some school subjects, but I have absolutely no memory of the reviews we were suggested to read before doing those assignments.

This relationship of a reader of book reviews continued in a slow pace through college and really picked up once I started to pursue serious studies in the history of South Asia in 1989 after the jhurest year of my life was over. As a graduate student in a leading university in the US, I read reviews that were published in all kinds of publications: Academic journals, dedicated review magazines, and popular media. Among these, I read the reviews published in journals most seriously. It was important to learn about various books, especially if they were related to Nepal Studies and to South Asian history. In the pre-digital age, I photocopied many good reviews of such books published in journals not available in Kathmandu and brought them back to Nepal when I returned home for good in 1995.

This relationship of a reader of book reviews did not end when I got my PhD. In fact, the variety of reviews I read became even wider. I read and continue to read reviews of fiction in addition to reviews of non-fiction trade and academic books. In the most recent years, in addition to reading reviews in the kinds of publications mentioned above, I have also read a lot of reviews of academic works that are available online in various academic portals. Some of the reasons for reading these reviews remain the same: To learn about works in various disciplines of Nepal and South Asian Studies as well as developments in some sub-fields of history (ie, cultural history, intellectual history and history of the 20th century, etc). When it comes to Nepal Studies, I read relevant reviews not only to learn about the books being reviewed but also to learn about the intellectual bearings of my field. For instance, I read quite a few reviews in the popular press of a recently published book on Rana-era Nepal by a member of that family. Based on what was said in them, it was apparent that most reviewers had no clue of the academic historical literature on Ranas of Nepal. This goes to suggest that the best academic works on Rana-era Nepal—done by two generations of Nepali historians—remain beyond popular knowledge, something both academics and others should worry about.

The second relationship I have had with book reviews is that of a reviewer who writes reviews. Between 1992 and 2004, I published more than 40 book reviews for some of the leading academic journals in my field, specialist magazines, and many of the influential newspapers and magazines published from Nepal. During the 1990s, I really enjoyed writing reviews of academic books, especially works on the history and anthropology of Nepal. I had strong views about some of the works I was reading then and writing reviews provided me an enhanced understanding of the dominant trends of Nepal Studies (not to mention the wrath of some of the writers whose works I reviewed). During the same years, I also tried my hand in reviewing, perhaps less successfully, some literary works. However, by 2004, I had run out of steam regarding this genre of writing. Partly I felt bored writing such pieces, and partly I felt like I had done my share of reviewing services to the community of readers at large. Since 2004, I have written only two book reviews.

The third kind of relationship I have with book reviews is that of a commissioning editor of reviews for the two journals which I co-founded: Studies in Nepali History and Society (SINHAS) and Media Adhyayan (renamed Samaj Adhyayan in 2016). When we founded SINHAS in 1996, its four founding editors felt like we did not have the editorial capacity then to also publish single book reviews. It was important to spend our editorial energies in getting a brilliant start to the journal and hence all of our effort was concentrated in commissioning, reviewing, and editing top-quality research articles, commentaries, and review essays. It was only after we had completed seven years of operation that we decided we were ready to also publish book reviews. So book reviews started appearing from volume eight in the year 2003. In the 15 volumes of SINHAS (namely, 30 separate issues) put together since then, we have managed to publish reviews of about 150 books, most of them academic ones but also some fiction and other trade books.

SINHAS editors have provided broad guidelines for book reviewers which states: “For books in the social sciences, we expect the reviewer to say what the book does or tries to do before providing her critique. The former might entail locating it in the relevant thematic or area studies literature and the latter would entail, at least, criticisms of factual and other inaccuracies as well as differences in interpretation arising from alternate readings of the ‘evidence’ included (or not included) in the book.” Single book reviews are mostly expected to be under 1500 words which is much longer than what some of the other journals allow (600 to 800 words).

As editors of SINHAS, we usually worry about what books are being reviewed in it. We have some basic operating rules. We try to find reviewers for academic books related to Nepal that get sent to us by their authors/editors and publishers. Despite our best efforts, not all such books get reviewed, partly because some reviewers agree to write reviews and then disappear

with the books. We have chased such reviewers for three plus years before giving up. In some cases, despite repeated requests by their authors, some publishers never send us a review copy. In the case of important books, we have bought copies from the market and found individuals to review them for us.

Nepal Studies is a multi-lingual and multi-national enterprise. Books on Nepal written by Nepalis get published in Nepali, English, and in many other written languages of our country. In the pages of SINHAS, we have managed to publish reviews of books written in Nepali and English in adequate numbers but not in the other languages of Nepal. This is a record we are not proud of as editors. We are in the process of rectifying it by looking for books published in Nepal Bhasa, Maithili, and Tamang to review in future issues of the journal.

Academic books on Nepal by bideshi scholars get published, for the most part, in English and many of these have been reviewed in SINHAS. But few books also get published in Japanese, French, and German. We have managed to publish several reviews of Japanese academic books on Nepal. As for French books, compared to two decades ago when most French academics who worked on Nepal published in French, very few do so these days. Hence we have managed to publish only one review of a new French book recently. As for German books, one of the leading German scholars of Nepal told us that no Nepal-related book had been published in German in the most recent past.

The story for the other journal is very similar. When we founded the annual Nepali language journal, Media Adhyayan, in 2006, its remit was limited to studies in all aspects of the Nepali media. We did manage to find some relevant books to review in each issue of the journal. After publishing ten volumes of it, we changed its name to Samaj Adhyayan in 2016 and hence are able to entertain reviews in a wider array of subjects. No matter what, the challenge for commissioning editors remains the same: It is not finding reviewers per se but copy editing submitted reviews so that they become readable, accurate (especially when quoting extracts from the reviewed text) and insightful.

When I look to the future, I don’t see myself writing too many book reviews or commissioning them for journals. However I do expect to be reading reviews written by others until the sunset of my life.


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