You might be saying to yourself, What’s wrong with this guy? I mean, who thinks about stuff like that: “Reviews I Want to Read”? Doesn’t he have more important things to think about? And how many more “reviews” do we need, anyway? That’s OK. We can divide the labor.
Your focus on more important things frees me up to wonder why, for instance, I haven’t yet seen an adequate in-depth review of Kristina R. Gaddy’s Well of Souls: Uncovering the Banjo’s Hidden History (with a not-at-all perfunctory foreword by Rhiannon Giddens), published in October 2022 by Norton. Not that the book has been ignored—on the contrary. There was a very favorable review in the Wall Street Journal by the poet and scholar David Yezzi, one of several in major outlets. I was glad to see that—I found Well of Souls both fascinating and haunting. Gaddy's book sought to uncover the African roots of the banjo and the instrument’s “key role in Black spirituality, ritual, and rebellion” in America, and I strongly recommended it to several musical friends (much better qualified in that respect than I am). But no review I’ve yet seen addresses the book’s anti-Christian bias. You would never guess from Gaddy’s account that many slaves brought to America from Kongo were Catholic (for Kongo was at the time a Catholic kingdom), nor that these same Christian slaves in America played a key part in the Stono Rebellion, of which Gaddy gives a brief and very misleading account. Nor has any review I’ve seen addressed the book’s cheap dichotomy: Black banjo music = hauntingly rich; white banjo music = superficial.
In the same vein, having just read an egregiously woke review of several novels in MIT Press’s fascinating Radium Age Series (presided over by Josh Glenn)—the series is reprinting, with new introductions, science fiction that first appeared between 1900 and 1935—I long for an essay that will help to get the bad taste of the terrible review out of my mouth while introducing the series to readers who haven’t yet investigated it. Perhaps even now a reviewer is at work on such a piece.
Many books, of course, hardly get noticed at all. I’m still waiting for adequate coverage of Kirk Farney’s Ministers of a New Medium: Broadcasting Theology in the Radio Ministries of Fulton J. Sheen and Walter A. Maier, published by Intervarsity Academic last June. Interesting books often need to be assessed from various different angles, and this one is no exception. In particular, I would like to see a review of Farney’s book (which resonated with my deep childhood memories of hearing radio ministers that my grandma followed when my younger brother and I were boys) from the perspective of “sound studies” and “the soundscape,” from a reviewer familiar with the work of Marshall McLuhan and Walter Ong and Eric Havelock and the generations of scholars who have come after them. (By the way, some—not all, but some—of the voices of those radio ministers in the 1950s were deeply creepy, in a way I could feel even as a kid but could not have articulated then; I’d love to see a review address that.)
Then there are the many forthcoming books I’ve read about in PDFs of publishers’ catalogues and in other sources. Titles catch my eye, and I find myself hoping that this or that book will draw the attention of a good reviewer or three. I myself will be writing about Nicholas Orme’s Tudor Children, due in April from Yale University Press, a sequel of sorts to his great book Medieval Children. But I am very much looking forward to a magisterial review by another scholar that will not only take up this new book but will also do justice to Orme’s work as a whole.
One of the books of 2023 to keep an eye out for is Elisabeth Elliot: A Life, by Lucy S. R. Austen, coming from Crossway in June. Elliot, you may recall, was best known for her 1957 book Through Gates of Splendor, which recounted the experience of evangelical missionaries to a remote tribe in Ecuador; Elliot's husband, Jim, and four of his co-workers were killed, but ultimately many members of the tribe became Christians. Elliot went on to have a long and influential career as a writer and speaker.
I read this in manuscript and wrote a blurb for it: “Lucy S. R. Austen’s biography of Elisabeth Elliot is not only (by far) the best account we have of this fascinating woman; it is also a book that should inspire other biographers―both first-timers and veterans―to resist the relentless pressure to smooth out the rough edges of the lives they are seeking to chronicle. Here we have a story that will remind us of the twists and turns, the unexpected chapters, and the deep sense of grace that marks our own lives.” Needless to say, I will be very interested to see how this one is received (not least, I hope, in the review section of First Things).
I could go on and on in this vein. I’m thankful for this bounty; I don’t take it for granted.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books and senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books.
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Image by picryl licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.