How to Write Book Reviews for Bill Clement's Classes

Some tips adapted from: Mary Lynn Rampolla, A Pocket Guide to Writing History (Boston, 1995).

The writing projects assigned to you in the course will give you opportunities to learn more about issues, events, and people and allow you to contribute your own ideas to the field. This section discusses major types of assignments that you might encounter -- ranging from summaries, book reviews, annotated bibliographies, and short essays to the meatier and more complicated research paper--and suggests some general ways of approaching these assignments.

"Book Review"

A book review is not the same thing as a book report, which simply summarizes the content of a book. When writing a book review, you not only report on the content of the book but also assess its strengths and weaknesses. Students sometimes feel unqualified to write a book review; after all, the author of the book is a professional historian. However, even if you cannot write from the same level of experience and knowledge as the author, you can write an effective review if you understand what the assignment requires. In writing a review you do not just relate whether or not you liked the book; you also tell your readers whyyou liked or disliked it. It is not enough to say, "This book is interesting"; you need to explain why it is interesting. Similarly, it is not enough to report that you disliked a book; you must explain your reaction. Did you find the book unconvincing because the author did not supply enough evidence to support his or her assertions? Or did you disagree with the book's underlying assumptions?

To understand your own reaction to the book, you need to read it carefully and critically.

As a critical reader, you are not passive; you should ask questions of the book and note reactions as you read. Your book review then discusses those questions and reactions. Though there is no "correct" way to structure a review, the following is one possible approach.

NOTE: "Critical" does not mean negative; skeptical does not mean cynical. If a book is well written and presents an original thesis supported by convincing evidence, say so. A good book review does not have to be negative; it does have to be fair and analytical.

More Help

If you still need some ideas, you can look at the following section on BOOK REVIEWS, adapted from: Jacques Barzun & Henry F. Graff, The Modern Researcher, 4th ed. (San Diego, 1985), 290-291.

The beginning, we know, is important. The first of your twelve paragraphs should present an idea of interest to the readers who will leaf through the magazine. If your first words are "This book . . ." they will not be able to distinguish your review from twenty others, and they will be entitled to conclude that you have not expended much thought on enlisting their attention. The opening statement takes the readers from where they presumably stand in point of knowledge and brings them to the book under review. The briefest possible description of its aim, scope, and place in the world therefore follows the baited opening sentence and completes the first paragraph.

The second classifies the book: what thesis, tendency, bias does it uphold, suggest, evince? Paragraphs 3 to 5 go into the author's main contentions and discuss them. Do not repeat anything you said in the classificatory paragraph, but rather give detailed evidence of the grounds for your classification.

Paragraphs 6 and 7 may deal with additional or contrary points to be found in other authors or in your own research; but so far, these only amend or qualify what is acceptable in the new book. In 8 and 9 you deliver your chief objections and summarize shortcomings. If you have found errors, mention only the important ones -- do not waste space on typographical or minor slips.

From errors you modulate into the broad field: how is our conception of it changed by the book? What further work is needed to clear up doubtful points? Where have gaps been left that must he filled? You have now used up paragraphs 10 and 11 and you have one more in which to strike a balance of merits and faults, ending with some words about the author--not yourself or the subject.

For with book reviewing goes a moral obligation: you hold the author's fate in your hands as far as one group of readers is concerned. Author and work should, through you, be given the floor, have the last word. What you say in the review will, rightly or wrongly, be taken seriously. You are in honor bound to be scrupulously fair. Never use the author's admissions against him, saying, "Mr. X entirely neglects the foreign implications," when it was he who warned you of this in the preface. Do not expect him to have written the book you have in mind, but the one he had. Recognize the amount of work that has gone into the product and be magnanimous: you may be severe on serious faults of interpretation and inference; but unless they are continual, forget the trifling errors in his text just as you concentrate on them in yours. Book reviewers are not infallible.

If you ever have any doubts about what tone to adopt in a review of a book you end up hating, consider this sage advice from an unknown editor: "write your most critical review as though it would appear the day after the reviewed author's death, without embarrassing you."

Final Points to Keep in Mind

Adapted from Back to Michael Kucher's Courses: Technology and the Environment at UW Tacoma