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
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.
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.
The Book Review Format
For you to be successful in writing a book review you should
follow the following recommended guidelines:
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.
You must provide an outline of the contents of the book.
This is the core of a book review and should be as objective
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
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.
non-fiction, your review should indicate what major questions
the book addresses, what ground is covered, what the major
conclusions are, and so on.
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:
the general import of the work.
is the general significance of this book?
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?
should it be of interest to the specialist or non-specialist?
the reader know whether or not the book is worth reading
the topic interesting, important?
the author's ideas change anything in your own thinking?
the work controversial? If so, how?
the work offer anything new--new perspectives, new insights?
should we read it?
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
Tell the reader whether or not as the reviewer you are
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.
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.
may want to quote passages from the book to make particular
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!
other forms of expository writing, book reviews present
an extended argument (a thesis) that is effectively organized
and supported by evidence.
understanding and critique are equally (if not more) important
as the basic information that you convey about the book.
as in a research paper, your ideas must emerge clearly