Book Review Instructions
These are the general instructions for writing a book review.
Step 1: Before beginning the book review, before reading the book, read the specific instructions for the review you are writing.
Step 2: Examining the book. Look at who wrote the book and the credentials of the author(s). Are they university professors, politicians, journalists, lawyers, freelance writers, etc? How will this impact their approach to the book? Do the author(s) seem to have an ax to grind? Are the author(s) openly partisan on the topic? An author's perspective is not necessarily good or bad, especially if they are upfront about it. The point is that you, as a reader and reviewer, should be aware of it. Be sure to look at when the author wrote the book; that context is important. It is also worth remembering that academic scholarly debates don't always align with current partisan debates.
Step 3: Next check the table of contents. How is the book organized? Does the organization seem reasonable? Are there any obvious omissions? Now check the index and ask the same questions.
Step 4: Finding other reviews. Reviews can be tricky. We live in a world where everything is reviewed by everyone - seemingly. You can find reviews on Good Reads, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and so forth and so on... These all might have value depending on what you want to find out. However, here I am wanting you to find scholarly reviews - that is a review by another historians (or closely related relevant field) that mostly appear in academic journals or serious literary outlets. There are several reasons for this. One, it helps you understand the context that the author wrote the book in - which helps with step 2 understanding bias and point-of-view. Two, the professional scholar has a perspective on the scholarship that you don't have and I can't reasonably expect you to have. I can expect you to take it into account. Three, reading well-written reviews is a good way to learn to write reviews.
The first place to look for an outside review is the library and, specifically, digests that catalog book reviews. These include:
Book Review Digest
Book Review Index
Current Book Review Citations
Index to Book Reviews in the Humanities
Try to find reviews in academic journals, such as the Journal of American History or the American Historical Review. In addition, look for journals that are specific to the type of history that is germane to the book you are reviewing. For example, if you are reviewing a biography of the boxer John L. Sullivan, then you will also want to look in the Journal of Sport History, which is available on-line (http://www.aafla.org/search/search_frmst.htm). If you are reviewing a social history then the Journal of Social History is a good place. For military history see Military History Quarterly. You get the idea. You can also look for popular but respected venues such as the New York Review of Books or Atlantic Monthly.
When you go to the web, look for reviews using the on-line databases provided through the Friedsam Library, EbscoHost is particularly good. I also recommend going to H-Net Reviews in the Humanities and Social Sciences. H-Net has an entire, and extensive, archive of book reviews on a searchable web page. Since reviews can often be found easily on-line I want you to evaluate the value of the review to your project.
The purpose of using an outside review is to give you perspective and a model. You are not an academic and, as a result, you might miss some of the finer points in the book. This does not mean you cannot write an informed, graceful, and insightful review. The outside review will help provide some insight into things that you, as a student, are not privy to. When using the review incorporate it into your thoughts. Do you agree with the reviewer? Was he or she unfair? What is the purpose of the review? Some reviews are longer and provide a great deal of grist for the mill. They are intended to engage the authors in an intellectual dialogue. Other reviews are more mundane. You will find shorter reviews, perhaps only a few hundred words, which can be insightful but often have narrow professional purposes such as recommending the book to other academics or to libraries. Ask some questions of the review: Does the reviewer recommend that libraries purchase the book or does the reviewer get into the heart and soul of the author’s argument? What are the credentials of the reviewer? Do not just pick out the first review you find and tack it on to the end of your own review, but rather take the time to find a review that will help you write your own review.
Step 5: Evaluating the Book (You have already begun this process)
When reading and reviewing the book remember that someone has put a great deal of work into it. Does this mean you should say only good and positive things? No. The book can still be a bad one. However, I ask that you show some respect and have good reasons for not liking the book. Is the book boring? It could be, but that should not be the basis and substance of your review. If a book is boring, that is one or two sentences in your review. Also, being boring doesn’t mean that the author doesn’t have valid points that make you think.
I would add here that it is often easier, especially for students, to write a review of a book that you do not like. This gives you an angle on the book and a direction to your review. When you like a book the temptation is essentially to write how well you like the book and leave it at that. That really is not a good review. Try asking yourself why you liked the book. Did it help you see the world in a new light? How did the book relate to the rest of the class? The reality is that books have both strengths and weaknesses and that the book, in all likelihood, falls into the gray zone between great and terrible.
Be sure to read the introduction of the book. This is where the author(s) tell you what he or she will be doing and the thesis of the book. Understanding the thesis of the book is the key to a good review. You cannot really fairly critique a book without first understanding the purpose for the book. Did the author successfully argue his or her thesis? Did he or she make good use of research? Are you convinced?
Ask yourself, how does this book fit in with other books on the same or similar topic (here the outside review should be of great help)?
Has the book changed how you understood a topic?
When reviewing a book I recommend that you take notes as you read and write comments and questions in the margins. This will make writing your review much easier.
Step 6: Get the mechanics right
Go to step one and check the requirements for the specific course and assignment. Now make sure you have not missed something in the syllabus. In my classes, these rules apply to book reviews:
Your papers must be typed, double spaced, and have proper citation in the form of footnotes or end notes. Parenthetical citations are allowed for the book being reviewed. You are allowed three typos or mistakes per page; mistakes beyond that will result in a lower grade. You should use a 12-point standard font (Times New Roman works well).
The review should begin with bibliographical information:
Blight, David W. Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001.
Have an introduction in which you offer a brief summary of the book including the topic it covers and the author’s thesis. Include your own thesis (that is your opinion of the book). This should be no more than a couple paragraphs. Remember that the paper is about the book, not about the subject that is covered in the book. You can assume the professor has read the book and knows a great deal about the topic, so your paper should not recap events covered in the book.
The body of your paper (most of the writing) should support your thesis. Argue your point using examples from the book and from other reviews.
Your conclusion should be no more than one or two paragraphs. It should restate your thesis and that of the book’s author.
Step 7: Avoid common mistakes
Don’t use ‘novel’ to describe non-fiction books.
This is a history course and thus most of what we talk about happened in the past and so you should use the past tense. Don’t switch back and forth between tenses.
Avoid using contractions in a formal paper.
Avoid summarizing the book instead of critiquing it.
Avoid slang and jargon, in large part because these things often lead to a lack of clarity.
Students tend to write on the fly and in a stream of consciousness. The result are long, unorganized, paragraphs or short, choppy, unorganized paragraphs. Some solutions to this problem are to (1) write from a strong thesis statement, (2) write from an outline, and (3) go through at least two drafts. Generally speaking when students write in this stream of consciousness manner (the night before the paper is due) they are also thinking through the paper as they write. This is good as long as you take it to the next step. Once you have the first draft done, read your final paragraph. More often or not this is what you thought of the book and your thesis. Now take that thought and place it at the beginning of the paper and argue the point. Nobody is perfect, that is why you need to write multiple drafts.
Avoid overly extensive use of quotations. You are writing the paper and if you string together a series of quotes you really are not writing the paper.
Avoid writing in the passive voice.
Try to stay within the recommended page length and don’t try any funny business with font size or margins to make your paper longer or shorter
Comment on the substance of the book and not on superficial matter, such as it is boring, there were not enough pictures, etc. This is something of a judgment call (a book can be so poorly written as to ruin the argument and in some books pictures are critical), so exercise common sense.
Run the spell checker, twice
Have someone else read the paper before handing it in. Have them proof it and check the paper for clarity.
Step 8: If all else fails, go talk to your professor about the book. You might the professor eager to talk about the book and learn a great deal. In fact, you might want to make this step one.