“On their own terms”: Book Goals and Book Reviews

What follows may seem to depart from our stated purpose on the blog to maintain a tight focus on issues of ancient Hebrew grammar. However, since it concerns writing projects in which we are both involved, it seemsrelatedclosely enough for the departure to avoid being an egregious one.

In her 2002OTL commentary on Lamentations(Louisville:WJK), Adele Berlin observed that “a commentary need not be encyclopedic” (ix). Given the massive history of scholarship on every biblical book, which seems to increase exponentially every year, she was wise, in my opinion, to avoid representing “every interpretation put forth or every issue debated in the scholarly literature.” Taking the position that “a commentary gets its character from what is selected for comment, both from the text and from the secondary literature,” she flatly states what her approach is and leaves the rest for others.

I commend this openness of purpose and simplicity of focus. A commentary that attempts to cover everything is much more likely to fail than succeed, and in the process will probably not cover any one issue adequately. The fact is, much commentary writing has become bloated and threatens to become much more a literature review than actual reading of the text. Those that do strictly give an interpretation of the text seem few and far between.

Since Berlin states her position up front, it becomes easy to read and use her commentaryon its own terms. The recognition that a focused series has immense value, along with my (and John’s) specialization in Hebrew and NW Semitic grammar, is why I appreciate and contribute to theBaylor Handbook on the Hebrew Bible. My volume on Ruth (see sidebar) came out last year and I have begun to write (with John) the volume on Qoheleth. (John is also well into the volume on the Aramaic texts in the Hebrew Bible.)

The BHHB series fills an important niche: verse-by-verse grammatical analysis. Where else does one find this type of information? It is certainly not easy to find grammatical comments in the average critical commentary, since such works are focused on textual criticism, history of interpretation, intertextuality, literary analysis, etc. To wit — I poured over dozes of commentaries in my preparation for the Ruth BHHB volume and yet I cite very few. Why? Because most had very little to say about the Hebrew language of Ruth and what was said was often ad hoc, ungrounded in any transparently coherent linguistic sense of the grammatical system, and too often a minor variation of what some previous scholar had said, which itself often went back to Gesenius.

This is simply the state of the biblical studies: what is going on grammatically in the biblical texts is not an area of intense focus; it is not in vogue (and hasn’t been for quite some time). Enter the BHHB series, a self-described grammatical “prequel for commentary proper” (as stated on the Baylor web site and in the catalogues).

As my brief case for the BHHB attests, I am of the opinion that there is great value to focused commentary series. Other series focus on history, tradition, archaeology, or some ideological approach, such as evangelical or feminist readings. Why not one for grammar? So, it is understandable that I was dismayed to have my Ruth volume reviewed poorly, not due to manifold and manifest deficiencies relating to its raison d’être, but from refusing to take the work on its owns terms.

Two reviews have now appeared and neither is positive. Timothy Lim (Edinburgh) reviewed it forThe Expository Times(122:3) and, just recently, Marjo Korpel (Utrecht) reviewed it in the onlineReview of Biblical Literature.

Both reviews are instructive, even if they are rather dismissive of my work. How then, you ask, are the reviews instructive? Do they point out fundamental problems that I would change if I could go back and write the book over or that I’ll adjust as I write the next volume in the series? Not at all, I answer. Rather, the reviews shall serve as teaching fodder, since how to write a useful review is clearly not taught much anymore and apparently the concept and components of a useful review are not as obvious as one might expect.

After I read each review, I sat back and asked myself whether having my own work the subject of poor (in both senses) reviews might change my own reviewing philosophy. I thought back through the reviews I’ve written, and the answer is, again, no. I wouldn’t change them, simply because I was informed by my own mentors what a constructive review consists of and I think each of my reviews represents this model. There are two basic elements and one desirable but optional third element that serve the readers well:

  1. a fair summary of the contents,
  2. an evaluation of the bookon its own terms(often with specific examples taken from the book),
  3. some connection to the field in which the book belongs, preferably using a feature that is either present (noted as done well or not so well) or absent (and thus needed) in the book itself.

Throughout, it is desirable to say something “interesting,” not just useful. In other words, reviews don’t have to be boring! (Seehereandherefor other thoughtful comments on writing reviews.)

So, how do the two reviews of my Ruth handbook measure up to these common sense components?

Lim’s review simply doesn’t take the book (or the entire BHHB series) on its own terms. As one should be able to see by cracking open any of the finished volumes — or by looking on the Baylor website or in the Baylor catalogue — the series’ primary audience is intermediate Hebrew students, although a legitimate secondary audience is advanced students and scholars (which is why the series is also characterized as a grammar-orientedprequelto commentaryproper).

One of Lim’s two primary criticisms of my volume is my lack of interaction with non-English scholarship on Ruth. He also complains that “There is no comparable discussion of authorship, intertextuality (e.g., with the books of Genesis and Samuel), subsequent reception in Jewish and Christian literature, gender and voice” (150). So, I avoided citing French, German, and Hebrew sources, and I didn’t deal with historical, literary, and history of interpretation issues. Of course, these are the precisely the components the contributors in the series are discouraged from including, since not only is it unlikely that the primary student audience will be able to access non-English works, but all of these issues together can obviously only be covered ina full blown commentary. Lim concludes with, “It is uneven, including as it does both very basic and more advanced features of grammar, and wholly lacking any discussion of substantial areas of research” (150-51). So, although I fulfilled the goal of writing for a student audience, from beginner to advanced, and kept the obvious focus of the series (language issues/grammar), I have failed to achieve coherence? Indeed, I fail to see the logic of this criticism.

Is there anything I, as the author, can take away from Lim’s review? Absolutely. I’ve asked the series editor to include the series’ statement of purpose on the back cover for the next printing and future volumes. In this way, future reviewers will not have the excuse such as “I don’t visit publisher’s web sites when I write a review.” Perhaps future volumes will thus be more fairly evaluated —on their own terms.

What about Korpel’s recent review? Well, she and I could argue at length about specific issues and their relevance for dating the book, the relevance of the Masoretic layer of interpretation, or the analysis of well-known cruces, like theמאתin Ruth 4:5. But again, there seems to be an issue with both the series in general and my approach specifically. Korpel does seem to know the series’ purpose, since she summarizes it in her first paragraph. But it is not clear that she understands it (or perhaps she simply doesn’t like the series’ focus, but avoids simply saying so). She takes me to task for not including more intertextual references (p. 2) or further elaboration on certain exegetical issues that she apparently considers important (p. 3). I was also expected to introduce the nuances of “colometric division according to the Masoretic accents” (p. 3) and to note when I disagreed with the Masoretic interpretation represented by theטעמיםor the older pausal layer of interpretation. Finally, I am chastised for not teaching the student audience about Hebrew poetry and poetic stichometry.

Now, I ask you, the reader: in a handbook aimed primarily at intermediate Hebrew students (but allowing for advanced students) with a focus on grammar, are the expectations explicit in Korpel’s review reasonable? As for length, I often went well beyond what is technically allowed in the series guidelines. As for the other issues, I would think that an introduction to Masoretic features should come with a dedicated volume, such as Yeivin 1980 (or even a brief introduction, as in Joüon-Muraoka 2006:§§15-16). The same is true for a discussion of pausal forms (for which I was lacerated on p. 3): have students read Yeivin or the very readable articles on the topic by my U of T predecessor, E. J. Revell (Revell 1980, 1981). Similarly, even if a discussion of poetic features belongs in one of the BHHB volumes, it would be fitting in the volume on the Psalms or Proverbs, or even Song of Songs or Qoheleth — but in Ruth?!

Is there anything in Korpel’s review that I can take way and use? Again, yes. She mentions the need for a list of abbreviations, a desire that was just expressed by email from a student reading the book. An excellent idea, and one that I will fulfill for the next printing of Ruth if I am allowed by the publisher (and we will certainly include one in our Qoheleth volume).

I will be the first to admit that there is room for criticism of my Ruth volume — even taken on its own terms. A good author is like a good builder: we can see and admit all the imperfections. In this case, the primary issue is architectural: I wrote the volume to be used linearly, as a course textbook, and so the verse-by-verse comments grew smaller with each chapter, since I did not repeat issues I had already covered. If done again, I would fill in more cross-references, so that the volume could be used more easily in a non-linear fashion.

But my own knowledge of the volume’s strengths and weaknesses aside, the series is aimed at Hebrew students, whether intermediate or advanced, and focused on grammar and in a volume in which I am even more explicit (p. 3) about my primary focus (syntax, semantics, pragmatics) — which I perceive to be areas in which students are not taught well and in which the learning and reference grammar are weakest. Thus, for it — indeed, for any book — I take umbrage at reviews that project simply what the reviewers wanted or would have done, not what exists in the book at hand and why. It is scholarly hubris taken to an all too common dismissive, unconstructive end.

(Seeherefor a fascinating discussion of another recent and controversial RBL review.)

Thankfully, these rather negative opinions of my Ruth volume are not shared broadly, since I have been told that is selling quite well for Baylor. And this bodes well for the series as a whole, which I see as a valuable tool for both studentsandscholars preparing to write a commentary. Thus brings an end to my thoughts on commentary design.

As for reviews … well, I think it’s clear that I expect reviews to take seriously the stated goals of a volume and/or a series to which it belongs. If the reviewer doesn’t care for those goals, it is certainly fair to state this opinion, hopefully with some explanation. But the majority of the review should take the work on its own terms and judge its logic, clarity, and rigor accordingly.


References:

Berlin, Adele. 2002.Lamentations. OTL. Louisville: Westminster John Knox.

Joüon, Paul, and Takamitsu Muraoka. 2006.A Grammar of Biblical Hebrew. Rev. ed. SubBi 27. Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute.

Korpel, Marjo C. A. 2011. Review of Holmstedt, Robert D.Ruth: A Handbook on the Hebrew Text.Review of Biblical Literature:1-4. (http://www.bookreviews.org/bookdetail.asp?TitleId=7436)

Lim, Timothy. 2011. Book Review: Ruth — A Linguistic Commentary.The Expository Times122 (3):150-51.

Revell, E. J. 1980. Pausal Forms in Biblical Hebrew: Their Function, Origin and Significance.Journal of Semitic Studies25 (2):165-79.

Revell, E.J. 1981. Pausal Form and the Structure of Biblical Poetry.Vetus Testamentum31:186-99.

Yeivin, Israel. 1980.Introduction to the Tiberian Masorah. Trans. E. J. Revell. Atlanta: Scholars Press.

14 Responses to ““On their own terms”: Book Goals and Book Reviews”

  1. Awilum.com » Robert Holmstedt on Writing Reviews Says:

    […] Holmstedt has a very valuable reflection on writing reviews based on his experience of receiving two negative ones concerning his recent […]

  2. Robert Holmstedt on Reviewing Books on Their Own Terms « Daniel O. McClellan Says:

    […] Charles Halton) Robert Holmstedt has a thoughtful discussion up on Ancient Hebrew Grammar about reviewing books on their own terms. The objects of […]

  3. Phillip Marshall Says:

    I was happy to see that you posted some comments about this. I read Korpel’s review the other day, and like you, I kept saying to myself, “That criticism isn’t germane to Holmstedt’s purpose!” I teach my students that book reviews primarily aim to assess how well the author achieved his/her purpose. The only time it is acceptable to critique an author for what is *not said* is when the author has created in some way a legitimate expectation that s/he would address that matter. Otherwise, the book review ends up telling us more about the reviewer than about the book. When that happens, those of us who spent the time to read the review feel robbed [pardon the pun, Robert!], since our reason for reading the book is to learn more about the *book* before we get our hands on it.

    As an aside, I am leading my Hebrew readers through Ruth this semester and we have been using your Handbook on Ruth. We are profiting from it. I am burdened to teach our younger brothers and sisters to read texts grammatically, and you are spot on when you say that most commentaries do not address Hebrew grammar with thoroughness. I often find, when consulting a commentary, that I’m asking very *different* questions than most commentators are answering. That’s not to criticize them, of course. It’s an acknowledgment that you guys in the Baylor series are doing something that fills a lacuna in the field. So thank you!

    Warmly,
    Phillip Marshall
    Houston Baptist University

  4. robertholmstedt Says:

    Dear Phillip,

    Thank you for the encouraging feedback on the Ruth volume and the series. I share your reasons for valuing the series.

    You make a very nice point with regard to reviews: “The only time it is acceptable to critique an author for what is *not said* is when the author has created in some way a legitimate expectation that s/he would address that matter.”

    Well put!

    Best,
    Robert

  5. Dr. Robert Holmstedt on Writing Book Reviews | Biblical Languages Says:

    […] Phillip Marshall| Leave a comment Robert Holmstedt of the University of Toronto recently posted a piece over at Ancient Hebrew Grammar on the function of book reviews, in light of a few negative reviews […]

  6. brianfulthorp Says:

    Well, I’d love to have a chance to get a review copy to read and write a fair review (insofar as I am able)… and have it help me keep up in my Hebrew…. :-)

    • robertholmstedt Says:

      Ha, ha … that’s a fair request. ;-)

      Unfortunately, I gave all my personal copies away. However, I do know that Baylor Press sent another blogger a copy to review on his blog (awilum.com). You could make a request to Baylor.

  7. Robert C. Kashow Says:

    This grammatical series sounds like a good series. I’m tired of turning to 19th century works for grammatical discussions.

    • Justin König Says:

      I feel the same way about 19th century works! There have been a few advances in our understanding in the last century. *cough*Ugarit*cough* I have used Holmstedt’s handbook on Ruth and I have found it to be very helpful. Though it is not perfect it is generally easy to read and understand.

  8. Colin Toffelmire Says:

    Robert, I’m coming very late to this post (I just happened across while browsing), but I thought you might find the JHS review of your commentary both personally encouraging, and a better example of the type of book review you are promoting. http://www.jhsonline.org/reviews/reviews_new/review557.htm

    • robertholmstedt Says:

      Dear Colin,

      Thank you — I did read this review and emailed the author about typos (in the hopes that I have the opportunity to work on a corrected edition). I have a JHS review coming out soon in which I also tried to live up to the principles I advocate. I hope that people let me know if I don’t.

      • Colin Toffelmire Says:

        I’m glad you saw it. I’m biased for a number of reasons, but I do think that JHS puts out some of the very best critical book reviews in the field. I’ve worked with the editorial team, and they take things quite seriously, and are surprisingly rigorous for something as “simple” as a book review.

  9. Review of Malachi (Baylor Handbook on the Hebrew Text), part 1 | Words on the Word Says:

    […] important to note from the outset that Malachi (as a book in this series) is not a “full blown commentary.” It’s a “Handbook on the Hebrew Text,” which does “not attempt to […]


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