Well, there's discussion every now and then about changes in the Michigan Law Review's annual issue on book reviews. Seems pretty clear to me that the MLR's book review issue isn't as good for legal history as it used to be. Only one legal history book reviewed this past year? Sure, it's an important book (Austin Allen's Dred Scott) and a mighty fine review. But things used to be better. There were five legal history books reviewed in its 2002 book review issue, for instance and four in 1999, to take two years more or less at random. And just for comparison's sake, Law and History Review reviews in the neighborhood of fifty books per year (though the reviews are short, usually about 800 words). Even that does not allow LHR to review every important book in legal history. There just is not enough space and the field is too broad and growing too quickly to permit that.
Michigan Law Review, of course, never made an attempt to be comprehensive or to review even the best works in legal history. The book review editor in me is always sympathetic to others who have to make difficult choices about what very small number of books to give attention to. Just as I've been looking back at those annual May book review issues of the MLR, it occurs to me that you could have some fun looking at what's been reviewed and by whom over the years. Even the classifications of kinds of books (such as "Reconstructing Liberalism" in 1999) would make for some fun speculation. Alas, that shall have to wait for another post.
What follows in this paragraph relates to my theory of reviewing rather than the choices MLR has made. You can very easily make a case for reviewing books that aren't getting attention elsewhere--even if they're not as good books you're skipping over. Then you may want to review a book precisely because it seems deeply flawed; in fact, that may be precisely the reason to give the book attention. Of course, most books are given the preciously small space available for reviews because they're important and their arguments deserve attention, evaluation, and perhaps response.
Still, I wonder if there's a larger trend at work here? Are book review essays going out of style?
One mighty rough gauge of what's happening in book reviews comes from the Index to Legal Periodicals, which has a separate index for book reviews. Dan Filler and I were talking about which law reviews are publishing essay reviews these days. I guess one way to get a sense of that is to look in the ILP's book reviews index. That also inspired me to ask a simple question of the ILP: have there been changes in numbers of book reviews over the last decade or so? With apologies to our friends at elsblog.org, I thought I'd make a really rough calculation here, which makes no effort to gauge changes in the number of lengthy essay reviews that have appeared in major reviews over the past decade.
My measure, then, is number of pages devoted to indexes of book reviews in ILP in the most recent volume (2007-08), a few years back (2002-03), and a decade ago (1997-98). The results--again I emphasize these are rough--show an increase. In 1997-98, there were 18 pages in the ILP (though a couple of spot checks suggested that they fit a few more reviews on each page back then), in 2002-03 there were 35 pages, and in 2007-08, there were 33 pages.
There are a couple of things I don't know: have the number of law books increased over that time? How has the number of law journals indexed in ILP increased over that time? How many essay reviews were published in each of those years? But in absolute numbers, it appears more reviews are being published now than were published a decade ago. And to do this sort of thing right (or closer to right) would require looking in the top fifty reviews or so, to get a sense of how they've approached reviews. At one point in the early 2000s, my sense was that the major reviews were publishing fewer reviews. (Michigan's devoting less space to the reviews, at least. In 1999, their book reviews issue was 805 pages long; in 2002 it was 573; and in 2008, it was 327.)