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Book Reviews

A. Writing a Book Review
One of the many ways historians carry on a conversation about their field of interest is through reviews of one another's work. The typical scholarly review is limited to between 500 and 750 words and so you should not be surprised if your professor limits you to a specific number of words. When you write a review of a scholarly work, you are expected to
comment on such things as the author's argument, her presentation of the evidence, the quality of that evidence, and her writing style. It can be helpful to sample other historians' reviews in journals such as the American Historical Review, however, you should keep in mind that these reviews are written by experts who already know a great deal about the subject of the book they are reviewing.

You should also keep in mind that just because reviews are published in a journal does not mean they are examples of good historical writing. Sometimes the reviews in these journals are poorly written, sometimes the reviewer has an axe to grind, either with the author or over some point of interpretation. Some reviewers have a clear ideological bias, but in other cases you will have to deduce their bias from between the lines of what they have written. Finally, you should know that most faculty members have read the reviews of books in their fields, so they will know if you are plagiarizing from reviews already published elsewhere.

Although the book review is a flexible medium, most reviews generally contain certain elements.

B. The Book Review Format
For you to be successful in writing a book review you should follow the following recommended guidelines:

1. You must provide the bibliographic and publication information. At the top of the review include: author's name, title, the place of publication, publisher, and date of publication. Book titles should be in italics or underlined.

2. You must provide an outline of the contents of the book. This is the core of a book review and should be as objective as possible.

  • From your review, a reader should be able to get a good idea of what the book is about. Sometimes this can be gleaned from the book's own organizational structure (chronology, chapters, sections, etc.)
  • For works of fiction or (auto)biography, a summary of the book's content can be accomplished without a detailed plot summary.
  • Remember, a book review is not a book report! Rather, you should introduce major characters, themes, the setting, and the broad outlines of the story without falling into a tedious recapitulation of the plot.
  • For non-fiction, your review should indicate what major questions the book addresses, what ground is covered, what the major conclusions are, and so on.

3. Assess the book. This is where your opinion, both positive and negative (usually some of both), can be expressed. You should consider the following comments and questions:

  • Discuss the general import of the work.
  • What is the general significance of this book?
  • How does the book fit into a wider scholarship on the topic? In other words, does the author revise a prevailing view of historical developments, does she support a prevailing trend in the other scholars' work?
  • Why should it be of interest to the specialist or non-specialist?
  • Let the reader know whether or not the book is worth reading and why.
  • Is the topic interesting, important?
  • Do the author's ideas change anything in your own thinking?
  • Is the work controversial? If so, how?
  • Does the work offer anything new--new perspectives, new insights?
  • Why should we read it?

As a reviewer, you can bring in knowledge from other sources to compare with the author's own interpretations, even though the author knows much more about the subject than you, the reviewer, does.

  • Tell the reader whether or not as the reviewer you are convinced.
  • Assess the quality of the writing, the skill of the argument, and/or the value of the evidence. Even if you like the book very much, you may still want to offer some suggestions as to how it might be improved. You might also show how it points to future questions that should be studied. You should use your own experience, level of familiarity with the field, and judgment in this part.
  • You must remember the audience: on the most basic level, you, as the reviewer, are recommending whether potential readers should buy and read this book, look at it in the bookstore, or simply forget about it entirely.

You may want to quote passages from the book to make particular points.

  • Whenever you do so, put the citation in quotations marks and follow it with the page number in parentheses. For example: "Okagbue was a very striking figure, tall, with a full beard and a bald head." (Achebe, 78)
  • If referring to another book for comparison, you must give the relevant information about the other book in parentheses after the author and book title the first time (and only the first time) it is mentioned. For example: In Jonathan Spence's Emperor of China (New York: Vintage Books, 1974), Spence notes that . . . .

You must remember that book reviews are not just summaries!

  • Like other forms of expository writing, book reviews present an extended argument (a thesis) that is effectively organized and supported by evidence.
  • Your understanding and critique are equally (if not more) important as the basic information that you convey about the book.
  • Just as in a research paper, your ideas must emerge clearly and persuasively.