Vetting Sources – The Book Review

One of the first things I do when I discover a new monograph (that’s a fancy word for book) source is look for reviews.

The academic publishing field can be pretty brutal. You publish your book, and there will be reviews of it that will be published in the various journals that have the same readership you’d like your book to have. These reviews might be glowing, encouraging people, usually fellow academics or library professionals, to add your book to their collections, or scathing, warning those same people away from your shoddy research and inaccurate conclusions.

This is an excellent way to vet a book – it’s similar to the customer review section of any online shopping website, only these are academics who, presumably, are well-versed in their field and so are coming to the book with a contextual body of knowledge.

So how do you search for book reviews? The same way you search for other journal articles! The key here is that the title of the book and the author are going to be your search terms. You can sometimes get hits by searching Google/Google Scholar, but if you want to be very specific, you can go straight to the journal you want to look in (you know, the one you have already saved fifteen articles from), or you can search databases like JSTOR, Proquest, or Taylor and Francis.

Sometimes, the reviews will be mixed. Sometimes they will be united in their critique. But it’s always a good idea to get a sampling, so you’re not relying on one person’s opinion. It’s also a good idea to look up who the reviewer is to check their credibility on the topic.

And even if the reviews are bad? Well, you still might want to take a look at the book, though maybe through a more cost-efficient method like inter-library loan, but do so with the grains of salt cautioned by the reviewers.

So let’s walk through this.

For this, we’ll look at The Westerners among the Figurines of the T’ang Dynasty of China by Jane Gaston Mahler, published in 1959. This is a series of photographs of tomb figurines with some accompanying text describing their clothing, etc. It’s been awhile since I held this book in my hands, but if memory serves, there was no indication of where the figurines originally came from (which is a problem when looking at this kind of art – because they were often the result of outright tomb robbery in addition to questionably ethical academics coming in to China from abroad). Provenance is important when looking at any extant item. Without provenance, you have no real substantial proof that the Thing is what it is being purported to be. (Psst. Go read Konstantia Kaloethina’s post on the importance of provenance. I will wait.)

I won’t be going into a lot of detail with these reviewers, but you can follow the links to each of their reviews (in JSTOR) to read them yourself. I’ll just be pulling out some of their summary comments.

To begin with, let’s look at Henry Truber’s review (1959), published in Artibus Asiae. Dr. Trubner received his Ph.D. in Fine Arts from Harvard in 1947 and worked as a curator for Oriental Art throughout his career (sorry that this source isn’t better; you’d think it would be easy tracking down credentials of Sinologists from the 1930s-60s…). Truber points out the photographs and discussion of costume as being “a distinct and commendable service to modern scholarship”, but also notes the number of typographical errors as well as Mahler’s tendency to quote well-established facts at length within her text where a footnote would have sufficed. What sticks out to me is his point that Mahler’s “racial” identification methods are faulty (because of course they are – thanks, pre-Civil Rights bunkum. This is a Very Good Reason to pay attention to publication dates and the diction used when people not part of that culture discuss the history of marginalized cultures):

p. 264

Edward H. Schafer‘s own academic focus was on China’s interactions with other cultures during the Tang Dynasty. Dr. Schafer worked as a professor in UCLA Berkeley’s Department of Oriental Languages from 1947-1984, serving as president of the American Oriental Society and receiving many distinctions throughout his career.

In his review (1959), published in the Journal of the American Oriental Society, Schafer agrees with Trubner that Mahler’s descriptions of clothing are far more useful than her attempt to classify them by “race” as opposed to region or culture. He also notes Mahler’s clunky, extended use of quotes in her section on the history of Western China.

p. 206

Still, like Trubner, he recommends the book to students, noting that his own criticism as “carping.”

The last review we will look at is by Dr. Richard Edwards, a prominent historian of Asian art who wrote extensively about Chinese paintings and taught at Brandeis University, Washington University in St. Louis (where he was at the time of this review), and the University of Michigan. Edwards’s review (1960) is in the Journal of Asian Studies.

Edwards makes many of the same points that Trubner and Schafer did, but also notes that the twelve pages on clothing need to be taken with a grain of salt:

“We are told (p. 115) that ‘Dignitaries of the seventh and eighth centuries . . . adopted pleated cuffs and bands like the Kuchans (Fig. 6).’ The drawings of the Chinese in Fig. 6 show extremely long sleeves, and if the cuffs are there they cannot be deciphered.”

p. 337

Of the three, Edwards feels the most scathing in the end.

p. 337

There might be more at play here bubbling beneath the surface. All three reviews came out not long after Mahler’s book was published, as would be expected. All three were from men recognized in the field via academic postings or their own research and publications. Remember – Mahler is Jane Mahler. While Schafer worked to see policy changed at the University of California so that women could have full professor status, that was in the 1970s – far be it from us to say whether or not he had these same views of equality a decade prior. I also don’t want to assume that Trubner and Edwards were misogynists, but as sexism in academia is still an issue in 2019, I don’t think it’s an unfair assumption.

I want to point out that Dr. Jane Gaston Mahler was the first woman in the United States to receive a doctorate in Oriental Art History (Columbia, but I can’t find a date). She taught at Barnard College and Columbia University.

All that aside, I hope this exercise was helpful. Again, (scholarly) book reviews can be found anywhere you look for academic articles already – JSTOR, EBSCO, etc. It’s also not a bad idea to keep track of the journals specific to your area of study and check their tables of contents every now and again to see reviews for new titles to add to your wishlist.

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