Robert Holmstedt on Reviewing Books on Their Own Terms

(HT Charles Halton) Robert Holmstedt has a thoughtful discussion up on Ancient Hebrew Grammar about reviewing books on their own terms. The objects of Robert’s critique are reviews by Korpel and Lim of his recent contribution on Ruth to the Baylor Handbook on the Hebrew Bible series. For those new to book reviews (like me), Robert provides the basic elements of a review, based on the model he was taught by his mentors (the first two are critical, and the third is optional but desirable):

  1. a fair summary of the contents,
  2. an evaluation of the book on 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.

In his post, Holmstedt takes issue with the fact that both reviewers level criticisms at the text which appear to neglect the stated purposes of the series. Lim criticizes Robert for not interacting with non-English scholarship, and Korpel criticizes him for not going deep enough into principles of Hebrew grammar. The purpose of the Baylor Handbook series, however, is not to provide a comprehensive commentary, but rather a handbook for the intermediate student of Biblical Hebrew. In light of that, Robert argues, Lim and Korpel rather miss the mark, and I have to agree. I read Holmstedt’s book as an intermediate student of Biblical Hebrew at Oxford and I thought it was incredibly helpful. Ruth is one of the most popular books to cover late in beginning Hebrew and in intermediate Hebrew, and I think this volume provides an incredibly valuable resource to that study. The writing is clear and concise, and the discussion engages the principles on what seemed to me to be just the right level. Whether or not I agreed with every reading (or the fundamental S-V order), I knew well the reasons for Robert’s readings. It seems book reviews are becoming increasingly scrutinized of late, and that’s not a bad thing. We should take special care to understand a book’s aims and goals before deciding if it has failed or succeeded. Too many reviews fail in this regard.

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