The Book Review as Conversation

By Tom Boellstorff—University of California, Irvine

The eight book reviews which will be published as a part of this series were written as final projects for the seminar “Digital Technologies, Culture, and Media,” which I taught from January to March 2015 at the University of California, Irvine, where I am Professor of Anthropology. The authors are primarily graduate students from a range of disciplines—anthropology, informatics, history, sociology. Most are Ph.D. students but one author is an M.A. student and one an undergraduate. The reviews have undergone revision since their original submission to me.

The “Digital Technologies, Culture, and Media” seminar built on my own background in the study of digital culture (see, for instance, Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human (Princeton University Press, 2008; new edition, 2015). However, it also built on the knowledge and insights of the students participating in the course. We developed the syllabus together and throughout worked to track how scholarly knowledge production is built on collaboration, citation, and community. Indeed, as a form of conversation.

I have always considered the book review genre as a form of conversation in its own right. In my view book reviews are less interesting as forms of judgment or gatekeeping—of assessing a book as “worth reading,” or determining virtues and flaws. All this can happen in book reviews, of course, but I contend that book reviews are, at their best, tools for conversation. They place books in various historical and scholarly contexts. They provide succinct, synthetic overviews of a book’s argument, allowing busy scholars to learn the outlines of someone’s research. They thereby place that research into conversation with broader communities of intellectual practice.

These eight book reviews do a wonderful job of building on such conversations. Indirectly, they are in conversation with each other as well, since they were written at the same time by authors who know each other. They contribute to broader debates on some of the most important issues facing humanity today—the interfaces of technology and culture—and I hope you will find them as stimulating as I do.

Tom Boellstorff is an anthropologist based at the University of California, Irvine. In his career to date, his interests have included the anthropology of sexuality, the anthropology of globalization, the anthropology of virtual worlds, Southeast Asian studies, the anthropology of HIV/AIDS, and linguistic anthropology. He is the winner of the Ruth Benedict Prize given by the Society of Lesbian and Gay Anthropologists. He is the author of Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually HumanA Coincidence of Desires: Anthropology, Queer Studies, Indonesia and The Gay Archipelago: Sexuality and Nation in Indonesia

About Emma Louise Backe

PhD student in Medical Anthropology at the George Washington University and independent consultant, focusing on the intersections of international development, global health, reproductive health justice, gender-based violence, and the politics of care. Social justice sailor scout working on behalf of survivors of sexual violence, gender equity, and comprehensive sexual and reproductive health among vulnerable populations.

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