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While secularism has been integral to India’s democracy for more than fifty years, its uses and limits are now being debated anew. Signs of a crisis in the relations between state, society, and religion include the violence directed against Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 and the precarious situation of India’s minority religious groups more generally; the existence of personal laws that vary by religious community; the affiliation of political parties with fundamentalist religious organizations; and the rallying of a significant proportion of the diasporic Hindu community behind a resurgent nationalist Hinduism. There is a broad consensus that a crisis of secularism exists, but whether the state can resolve conflicts and ease tensions or is itself part of the problem is a matter of vigorous political and intellectual debate. In this timely, nuanced collection, twenty leading Indian cultural theorists assess the contradictory ideals, policies, and practices of secularism in India.

Scholars of history, anthropology, religion, politics, law, philosophy, and media studies take on a broad range of concerns. Some consider the history of secularism in India; others explore theoretical issues such as the relationship between secularism and democracy or the shortcomings of the categories “majority” and “minority.” Contributors examine how the debates about secularism play out in schools, the media, and the popular cinema. And they address two of the most politically charged sites of crisis: personal law and the right to practice and encourage religious conversion. Together the essays inject insightful analysis into the fraught controversy about the shortcomings and uncertain future of secularism in the world today.

Contributors. Flavia Agnes, Upendra Baxi, Shyam Benegal, Akeel Bilgrami, Partha Chatterjee, V. Geetha, Sunil Khilnani, Nivedita Menon, Ashis Nandy, Anuradha Dingwaney Needham, Gyanendra Pandey, Gyan Prakash, Arvind Rajagopal, Paula Richman, Sumit Sarkar, Dwaipayan Sen, Rajeswari Sunder Rajan, Shabnum Tejani, Romila Thapar, Ravi S. Vasudevan, Gauri Viswanathan

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Indian public debates on the question of secularism have been among the most thought-provoking in the contemporary world. This rich collection of essays by Indian intellectuals (including historians, political scientists, and philosophers) reflects the sophisticated character of many of the arguments being deployed. I strongly recommend it to anyone who has been seriously thinking about this problem.”—Talal Asad, author of Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity

“This very rich collection of essays from a stellar line of contributors is remarkable not only because it updates Indian debates on secularism. It also evinces a spirit of scrupulous engagement with the present by deliberately situating itself in the shadow of the anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat in 2002. Philosophical, historical, and contemporary at the same time, these essays add a new dimension to global discussions of liberalism and the politics of the religious Right.”—Dipesh Chakrabarty, author of Habitations of Modernity: Essays in the Wake of Subaltern Studies

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822338468
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 11/28/2006
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 432
  • Product dimensions: 6.34 (w) x 9.26 (h) x 0.99 (d)

Meet the Author

Anuradha Dingwaney Needham is Donald R. Longman Professor of English at Oberlin College. She is the author of Using the Master’s Tools: Resistance and the Literature of the African and South Asian Diasporas. Rajeswari Sunder Rajan is Distinguished Visiting Global Professor in the Department of English at New York University. Her books include The Scandal of the State: Women, Law and Citizenship in India, also published by Duke University Press.

Rajeswari Sunder Rajan is Distinguished Visiting Global Professor in the Department of English at New York University. Her books include The Scandal of the State: Women, Law and Citizenship in India, also published by Duke University Press.

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The Crisis of Secularism in India

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2007 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-3831-4

Chapter One

Secularism's Historical Background

Shabnum Tejani

Reflections on the Category of Secularism in India Gandhi, Ambedkar, and the Ethics of Communal Representation, c. 1931

Discussions on the place of the religious community in Indian society have turned on the opposition of "secularism and communalism" and of "modernity and tradition." Recently-and particularly since the rise of right-wing Hindu movements-left-leaning intellectuals have rallied around the secular ideal, asserting the need for the "secular" to confront the "communal" (P. C. Chatterji; Bidyut Chakrabarty; Esteves; Amartya Sen, "Secularism and Its Discontents"; Panikkar). However, in these debates, secularism and communalism have become reified and overdetermined categories, existing outside any relationship to the particularities of the historical contexts from which they emerged. Consequently, they have become locked into an implacable binary relationship which has been unhelpful in understanding conflict between Hindu and Muslim communities and its historical relationship to the construction of Indian nationalism.

Scholars have pointed to the namecalling that has become associated with discussions on politics andreligion, or secularism and communalism in India (Bhargava, "Religious and Secular Identities"). Those accused of bringing religion into politics are called communalists, those seen as pandering to religious minorities are branded as pseudo-secularists, and those charged with wanting to introduce Western (secular) modes of governance and ethics are pilloried as Macaulayites. The debate has been circumscribed by its own categories. Part of the reason for this is the way in which secularism has been fundamentally implicated in narratives of modernity. As history marched forward, common sense, after Kant and Hegel, predicted that so would the secularized individual emerge, unfettered by ascriptive identities. In this sense, modernity marked the ultimate stage of history, signified also by the emergence of public, civic, and privatized religious identities, liberal democracy, and the nation-state (Partha Chatterjee, Nationalist Thought, 1-35, and "Two Poets and Death"; Dipesh Chakrabarty, Habitations of Modernity, 80-97).

This trajectory of human development and social transformation was to pave the way for all other nations and all other peoples, and the categories of nation, liberal democracy, and the secular individual that emerged in the philosophical debates of post-Reformation Europe were to be transported wholesale across the globe. But it was a trajectory that implied an understanding of humanity that was fundamentally ahistorical. The debates in India have been locked into the binary oppositions of secularism/communalism, politics/religion, and Macaulayism/authenticism because of the ways in which these categories have been treated both as ahistorical, and simultaneously bound to the stages of history. It is precisely because of this that it becomes possible for commentators to argue that secularism in India is "discontented" (Amartya Sen), or even that it is "dead" (Nandy, in his essay in this volume).

In this essay, I focus on one historical moment, the Round Table Conferences that took place in London in 1931-32, the purpose of which was to draw up a constitution for a future independent India. It was during the course of these conferences that Gandhi went on his famous "fast unto death" in protest at Ambedkar's attempt to have untouchables recognized as a minority community along the same lines as Muslims and Sikhs. This period is of particular significance because it reflects competing ideas about the legitimate place-the citizenship-of the "community" and the "minority" within what it meant to be Indian, at a time when such ideas were still largely malleable. The debates during the conferences characterize the dilemmas of formulating a liberal democracy for people who had historically been represented, and in turn came to represent themselves, as determined by the ascriptive identities of sect and caste. Notions of fossilized communities, a majority "Hindu" population, as well as liberal democratic ideals, had existed side by side in India for much of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth (Ludden, "Orientalist Empiricism"; Dirks). It was these notions that laid the ground for the debates in 1931, and out of these that a particular idea of secular nationalism, or indeed, secularism, emerged in India.

The preoccupation with "religion" in the debates on secularism has meant that the discussion has been almost wholly devoid of any attention to the question of caste. Yet a close study of a moment such as that of 1931-32 will show that the distinction between so-called religious issues and those of caste is a false one. In fact, the politics of secularism in India, structured by the imperative of creating a democratic majority, was fundamentally reliant on the co-optation of untouchables into an upper-caste Hindu identity (S. Sarkar, Writing Social History, 358-90; Ilaiah; Nigam). Thus, in taking the example of the Round Table Conferences, I want to make two points: first, that secularism in India was not about "religion" as much as it was about the dilemmas of democracy; and second, that to treat secularism as a predetermined category elucidates nothing about its meaning in the context of India. Rather than being distinct from the categories of community and caste, nationalism and communalism, liberalism and democracy, Indian secularism emerged at the nexus of all of these. It was therefore a relational category arising out of a series of specific historical negotiations. As such, it had meanings that were modern, in the sense that they were contemporaneous with such negotiations elsewhere, but they were not universal in that they were closely tied to the historical context out of which they emerged and did not replicate the narrative of history as staged in the West.

Framing the Terms of the Debate: Constitutional Reform in 1909

Colonial knowledge had long represented Indian society as fundamentally divided by caste and sect. India was thus not seen as a society of individuals but of communities (Washbrook; Inden). Institutions such as the Census sought to classify and document these communities and had placed the innumerable castes under the category of "Hindu" (Cohn; Appadurai). This, as well as the ways in which upper-caste Hindu social reform movements of the nineteenth century had recast India as the land of the Aryans, with Muslims and Christians as foreign interlopers, was central to the identification of Hindus as a majority community (Ranade; Jones; O'Hanlon, Caste, Conflict and Ideology; Partha Chatterjee, "History and the Nationalization of Hinduism"). This picture of a society comprised of caste and community, of majority and minority, well in place by the late nineteenth century, underpinned all debates around constitutional reform that would take place in the twentieth. This is particularly evident in the debates that resulted in the reforms of 1909, which in turn framed the language in which all future constitutional arrangements would take place. It is for this reason that I begin with some attention to this earlier period.

Preliminary efforts at representative reform had been made in 1892 and had been along territorial (municipal) and not communal lines. Upper-caste, Western-educated lawyers and publicists had been the main beneficiaries of these measures, being returned to elected office in numbers vastly disproportionate to their ratio in the population. Well-placed Muslims, as well as colonial officials, saw these reforms as misguided and inappropriate since they had resulted in the election of men grossly unrepresentative of Indian society. That the men from these classes had gone on to represent their own interests seemed to lend credence to the imperial idea that there could be no "general" interest in India, only sectional interests. Any future reforms, it was determined, would have to take this into account.

The first concerted attempt at constitutional reform in India took place in 1909 (M. N. Das; Wasti; P. Singh). The Morley-Minto reforms, named after the viceroy and the secretary of state for India who instituted them, came on the backs of three sets of events. First, the social and political upheaval that had followed the Partition of Bengal in 1905, led in large part by a narrow contingent of Western-educated Brahmins, had prompted colonial officials to seek a counterbalance in the loyal and conservative sections in society-the landlords and the Muslims. Second, constitutional gradualists within the Indian National Congress, exemplified by the likes of Gopal Krishna Gokhale, continued to push the colonial government on its promises of electoral reform. Minto, in his role as the new viceroy, saw the need to be responsive to these political demands. Third, uneasy about the prospect of electoral reform which had worked against them in 1892 and would presumably continue to do so, a deputation of prominent Indian Muslims met with Minto in October 1906 to state their case that in any further electoral reform Muslims should, on account of their status as a minority in India and their historical significance to Indian society, be considered an electoral category in their own right.

The Morley-Minto reforms are, in fact, best known for their institution of a separate or "communal" electorate for Muslims. It is widely recognized that during this period a corporate Muslim identity was formalized in Indian politics. Consequently, 1909 has been given a prominent place in much of the scholarship not only on Muslim identity formation (Shaikh) but also in its display of "communal" or "separatist" sentiment (Robinson), as a step on the path to Pakistan (M. N. Das; Page). However, at the outset of the discussion around council reform in 1906, the term "communal" was not one used solely in reference to confessional communities but also included nonreligious corporate interests such as landlords, tea planters, jute farmers, as well as commercial and educational bodies (Wasti). Strikingly, all "communities," regardless of relative size, were deemed equally constitutive of Indian society.

In current debates, and indeed by 1909, "communal" was taken to mean the political organizing of a "religious" community to the furtherance of its own ends, and often in the most hostile and violent of ways. Its meaning is heavily imbued with negative connotations: to be communal came to mean being irrationally attached to the premodern, subnational identities of caste and religion, and not the modern civic identities of class and occupation. It was this shift in meaning-from the consideration that communities or communal bodies were a constitutive part of Indian society to one where their interests were considered "particular" and outside the priorities of nationalism -that was to have profound implications for how future debates would be framed.

The argument in favor of electoral representation along communal lines was twofold. On the one hand, a sense of realpolitik meant that in order to offset the potentially destabilizing effects of political unrest, the colonial government needed to shore up what were seen as the more loyal and conservative elements in society. On the other, the profession that the purpose of colonial rule was to educate and enlighten Indian society to reflect the values of Britain, to school an as yet unprepared population for self-government, meant that reform in line with the principles of Western liberal representative democracy was requisite (U. Mehta). However, colonial officials felt it inappropriate to introduce such forms of representation immediately. India, so the argument went, was not yet ready for the kind of representative democracy enjoyed by its rulers. Constitutional reform in a society so profoundly divided by caste and religion could not be geared to the representation of the individual. Reform had surely to be "progressive," but it must also be "appropriate," and in line with the "requirements" of Indian society. A constitution for India should therefore seek to reflect rather than alter the traditional institutions of India. After the failures of 1892, Minto concluded that "the multifarious groups ... which make up the people of India can be represented in the fullest sense of the word only by persons who actually belong to them" (Minto to Morley, March 21, 1907; emphasis mine).

Separate electorates were conceived as a potential leveler, initiating marginalized communities such as the Muslims and the landlords, whose interests had hitherto been largely unrepresented, in the ways of liberal democracy. The separate electorate would function by allowing a double vote. Members of a communal body, say the zamindars of Sindh, would be allowed to cast their vote both in a general electorate and for a representative taken only from their own body. They were intended as a temporary measure: by balancing interests, these electorates would work to create a level playing field. Once the position of backward communities had been raised, their members would not in theory feel it necessary or be bound to represent only the interests of "their" communities.

The measures that were instituted in 1909-license to vote in general and separate electorates for Muslims and other communities to be determined within the different regions-were not very different from those that had been proposed in the preceding years. But by 1909 the question of representation had shifted from being a qualitative one about what it meant to be a "community" in the Indian context to being a quantitative one, where "minority" came to be defined in strictly numerical terms. At the outset of the debates, the discussion had emphasized the integral importance of communal interests in the definitions of an Indian representative system. It asserted not only their legitimacy in a potential constitution but also that they were an essential, foundational part of one. In this sense, the reforms had been about recognizing a certain parity among communities and the right of each to be heard.

By 1909 this had all changed. In the complex back and forth of the debates it had become possible to entertain the idea that communal interests, specifically those of Muslims, could be taken care of outside one main representative structure and were no longer seen as necessarily constitutive of it. The proposals for the separate electorate for Muslims had been met with tremendous resistance from an upper-caste elite. By October 1909 it was stated that "[the] special representation of Muhammadans was only claimed and only conceded on the ground that so important a minority required protection" (confidential note on the new Legislative Councils, Appendix II on Muhammadan Representation, John Morley Papers, vol. 34). Thus it could be argued that "[where] they are in a majority [i.e., Punjab, Bengal, Sindh, and the North West Frontier Provinces] no special measure of protection is required" (Appendix II on Muhammadan Representation, John Morley Papers, vol. 34). It became possible to talk about Hindus needing "protection" from Muslims in regions where the latter's population was numerically greater; issues of "backwardness" and relative social power and access to it, issues which had contributed to earlier discussions, were all lost.

Muslims had made the argument for separate electorates as a way to circumvent the weakness inherent in their poverty of numbers. However, rather than recognizing Muslims as a community on par with Hindus, the upshot of the reforms was to render the Muslims a minority circumscribed within this very logic of numbers. In addition, the perception on the part of the educated Hindu middle classes that representation for Muslims on councils in greater proportion than their percentage in the population was "excessive" and "at the expense of" Hindus, associated the communal electorate, and the term "communal," with divisive, denationalizing, and parochial ideas.

Ambedkar and the Argument for Untouchable Representation, 1917

After 1909, the minority question became practically synonymous with the Muslim question. The other recognized minorities of India, the Jains, Sikhs, and Christians, were, from the vantage point of the colonial government and the newly emerging culture of representative politics, numerically and politically insignificant. But the set of communities in whose general "backwardness" government had expressed concern were the non-Brahmins and untouchables. The colonial state had long recognized the degraded conditions under which untouchables lived and saw this inhumanity as an integral part of the unchristian values of Hinduism.

In the early part of the nineteenth century, officials had begun a system of grants-in-aid to Christian missionaries to impart Western education. Moreover, the administrations of the different presidencies introduced small pieces of legislation over the course of the second half of the nineteenth century which sought to ameliorate the backward condition of these communities. However, legislation was limited and generally only supported the removal of legal barriers to education and employment rather than actively promoting an anti-untouchability program (Nath). Particularly after 1858 and the pronouncement by Queen Victoria that the new regime would maintain a policy of noninterference in native custom and religion, officials were reluctant to take any steps to undermine untouchability for fear of provoking the accusation from upper-caste sections that they were "interfering" in the essential tenets of Hinduism.

The conflict over Untouchable representation, especially around the question of whether they were an integral part of Hinduism, was seen first during the debates that prefigured the Council reforms of 1909. In 1906, the Aga Khan wrote a letter to Lord Minto in which he argued that the relative proportion of Muslims in British India to Hindus was greater than indicated in previous census reports. For all intents and purposes, the Depressed Classes were not Hindus and should not be regarded as such in any future constitutional arrangements: "The Mahomedans of India number according to the census taken in the year 1901, over sixty-two millions or between one-fifth to one-fourth of the total population of His Majesty's Indian dominions, and if a reduction is made for ... those classes who are ordinarily classified as Hindus but properly speaking are not Hindus at all, the proportion of Mahomedans to the Hindu majority becomes much larger" (quoted in Nath, 43). In support of the Aga Khan's suggestion, the colonial government proposed the creation of constituencies on the basis of caste. This drew vociferous opposition from upper-caste Hindus who argued that the caste system was already in decline and that to make it the bedrock of an electoral arrangement would serve only to fossilize hierarchy and not undermine it. Consequently, the proposal was withdrawn and the reforms only provided separate electorates for those communities for whom they had been initially intended, Muslims, landlords, commercial bodies, and so on. However, the commissioner of the next census in 1911, E. A. Gai, took up the question of the definition of "Hindu." He wrote to his provincial superintendents that "the complaint has often been made that the census returns of Hindus are misleading, as they include millions of people who are not really Hindus at all" and suggested that these groups should be listed in a separate table (Nath, 46).

Bhim Rao Ambedkar returned from his education in Britain and the United States in 1916 and very quickly established himself in the eyes of the colonial state as a principal spokesman for untouchables. He formulated a radical philosophy that was anticaste and presented this as part of an argument for separate representation for untouchables before the constitutional Reforms Committee in 1919 (Keer; Gore; Omvedt, Dalits and the Democratic Revolution). The Montagu-Chelmsford Report of 1918 had undertaken to safeguard the interests of Depressed Classes, and it was Ambedkar's memorandum that elucidated the full potential of their being able to be defined as a minority.


Excerpted from The Crisis of Secularism in India Copyright © 2007 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Preface     vii
Acknowledgments     xi
Introduction   Rajeswari Sunder Rojan   Anuradha Dingwaney Needham     1
Secularism's Historical Background
Reflections on the Category of Secularism in India: Gandhi, Ambedkar, and the Ethics of Communal Representation, c. 1931   Shabnum Tejani     45
A View from the South: Ramasami's Public Critique of Religion   Paula Richman   V. Geetha     66
Nehru's Faith   Sunil Khilnani     89
Secularism and Democracy
Closing the Debate on Secularism: A Personal Statement   Ashis Nandy     107
Living with Secularism   Nivedita Menon     118
The Contradictions of Secularism   Partha Chatterjee     141
The Secular State and the Limits of Dialogue   Gyanendra Pandey     157
Secular Nationalism, Hindutva, and the Minority   Gyan Prakash     177
Sites of Secularism: Education, Media, and Cinema
Secularism, History, and Contemporary Politics in India   Romila Thapar     191
The Gujarat Experiment and Hindu National Realism: Lessons for Secularism   Arvind Rajagopal     208
Secularism and Popular Indian Cinema   Shyam Benegal     225
Neither State nor Faith: TheTranscendental Significance of the Cinema   Ravi S. Vasudevan     239
Secularism and Personal Law
Siting Secularism in the Uniform Civil Code: A "Riddle Wrapped Inside an Enigma"?   Upendra Baxi     267
The Supreme Court, the Media, and the Uniform Civil Code Debate in India   Flavia Agnes     294
Secularism and the Very Concept of Law   Akeel Bilgrami     316
Literacy and Conversion in the Discourse of Hindu Nationalism   Gauri Viswanathan     333
Christian Conversions, Hindutva, and Secularism   Sumit Sarkar     356
Chronology of the Career of Secularism in India   Dwaipayan Sen     369
Works Cited     373
Contributors     397
Index     401
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