Book Reviews in the Age of Goodreads

A few weeks ago, I read Reza Aslan’s book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth and I loved it. I went to my Goodreads account and posted a glowing review.

I recommended this book to some historians I know and they both read it. I’ve been speaking to them about it and I was surprised to learn that they’re far more critical of the work than I am. Not because of their religious beliefs but because they don’t think it’s very good history.

Both of them have advanced degrees in history. One of them works as an administrator in higher education. They’ve both been trained in the work of history and both have expectations molded by the standards of academic work.

They see significant flaws in Dr. Aslan’s book. If someone expects to challenge the orthodox historical consensus on a subject (as Dr. Aslan does) there are standards that must be met, the work must uphold a certain level of academic rigor.

Zealot fails to meet these standards. As my friend suggested—he can’t believe that this work would ever survive peer review.

After hearing what my friends had to say about the work I decided to do what a good librarian should do and find out more about Dr. Aslan’s qualifications, his authority to speak on this matter, and the critical reception his work has received from professional historians in the field.

What I found casts doubt. My friends aren’t the only ones who have issues with this book. There are many professional historians, particularly historians who specialize in the study of the historical Jesus, the early history of Christianity, and the classical history of Judaism, who are harshly critical of Zealot.

I decided that this information is important to know for people who read this book and need to decide where they stand on this issue. So I logged into my Goodreads account and edited my review of Zealot to append an update, to acknowledge these concerns.

As I was doing so, it occurred to me how lucky I am to be able to do this. In olden days, if I’d written a review of this book and gotten it published, that would be that. It would be inked on paper, unchangeable. If I changed my mind about it, I could write retractions and clarifications and get those published, too, but that’s not the same thing as being able to update the original review itself to reflect new understanding and my evolving opinion.

It comes to me to wonder how the culture of book reviewing is going to change over the next years, now that we have platforms where our opinions can be mutable, where we can communicate through documents that are themselves changeable, without the need to produce multiple static statements in sequence. Where we can evolve our ideas in real-time.

I think there’s interesting potential here.

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