The Accursed Book Review


Once upon a time there was a young graduate student, or if not young, at least one who as yet had no gray hairs on her head, who embarked on her journey towards the degree of Doctorate of Philosophy with great optimism and arrogance. She was confident that she would not be one of those for whom large numbers of harvests would pass before reaping the Golden Fruits of Doctorhood. Her hubris angered the gods of Mount Academia, who saw fit to place a curse that the student would forever make progress, forever see the end in sight, but forever get distracted by Other Things, until such day as her hair turned gray and her University turned her out.

Back when I started my PhD program, I imagined that I’d work through my various pre-dissertation requirements in a timely way. I mean, everyone knows it’s hard to finish a dissertation, right? But the other stuff, well that’s not such a big deal. I was already ahead in terms of course requirements, and in having completed my Master’s, had a head start on some other major requirements. Practically a Mere Technicality, the Book Review was to be something on a par with a course project. All you had to do was pick a relatively recent linguistics book, read it, and write a 12 to 15 page review.

Officially, according to the program requirements, it should be completed in the first year of PhD studies. (Not that most do.) Having received my Master’s in the fall of 2004, that was when I officially started the PhD program. I was on a reasonably reasonable schedule, picking my review book in that first year or so. I set to reading it. Slowly. Very, very slowly I read it. At some point, I lost it. Then found it. Probably realized I didn’t remember what I’d read. Started to reread it. Come 2006 I had read the book, but hadn’t yet written anything, when I experienced what might be considered a distraction from my studies. At some point later, John (my husband) tried to talk me into getting a Kindle. As a selling point, he told me about some books he found that were available. “They even have that one you keep falling asleep reading.” Yeah, that would be the Damned Book Review book.

A couple of years and another distraction later, my advisor and I agreed that I should pick a new book for the Damned Book Review. We picked a newly released updated edition by a noted person in my field. I plowed in diligently, being sure to take careful notes this time as I went. I was Determined. But then I realized along the way that reviewing a new edition should involve comparing it to the old one, which I had read before, but years earlier. I’d have to go through it again. The task went slowly. I got demoralized, thinking that I wasn’t really a great person to review the book. I mean, I had met with and corresponded with the author, who, as I said, was a quite well known person in my field. Who was I to criticize?

Come late 2010, I switched once more to a more recent book, this time by an author I’d never met! Who worked in my field, but a different analytic tradition! Yeah, I could critique that. I dug in. But I don’t know, other things came up along the way that were a higher priority. I’d read a chapter or 2, and then get caught up in some new wave of work deadlines or family crisis. Back in April or so I was provoked to make a new push to get through some more of my requirements, including the Damned Book Review. (Remind me to tell you about the Form of Shame.) I finished reading and had amassed 40 pages of notes. I was getting so freakin’ close. But not quite close enough. I had to switch gears to get ready for my trip to China and my presentation there. Next thing you know another couple of months and several new crunches and deadlines have passed before I got myself back to the Damned Book Review. Last week, suddenly free of other pressing deadlines, I dug back in.

And you know what? Today, while sitting in my in-laws’ basement and keeping Theo company while he rode a vintage tricycle around in circles and played with a pile of vintage matchbox cars, I reached a point that could be considered…good enough to send a draft to my advisor.

So, maybe not done. But 3 books and 8 years later, damn if it isn’t doner than it’s ever been.

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6 responses to “The Accursed Book Review

  1. Congratulations! This sounds like definite progress, and a draft to your advisor is a huge step. You can do this!

  2. I always thought the book review seemed like the most daunting requirement, to be honest. With everything else, you’re either presenting your own research (about which you arguably know more than anyone else) or quoting people more knowledgeable than you. With the book review, you’re critiquing someone more knowledgeable than you, who spent years researching the topic. I mean, if they hadn’t tacked on the word “publishable” it would be one thing, but “publishable” implies that it could possibly be made public, which would be enough to make me freeze up for years, if not longer.

  3. Good on you. I never had to meet PhD requirements, but I shared a bed with a man who did. The worst was proofing his thesis, of which I understood one word in ten, and his friends’ theses. If you’ve go over this hump, you can handle the next one!
    And I love your photo group.

  4. Hooray! Time for a distraction! (Perhaps one involving us getting together and eating food?) :D

  5. Just reading about this made me feel tortured. Many years ago, I did university correspondence classes–back before the Internet or satellite classes or any of that. I would receive a box in the mail of many heavy text books and a study guide. Would take ONE comprehensive exam at the end, do one research project and….that was it. But dear God, getting through those books without the stimulation/guidance of a lecturer and classmates was so daunting…

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