HOW TO WRITE A BOOK REVIEW Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention. Some books also may be read by deputy, and extracts made of them by others. --Francis Bacon Book reviews are assigned for two reasons: 1) so that students will get a richer perspective on certain aspects of the course subject; and 2) to improve critical thinking skills. The discussion of elements of a book review that follows describes what I am looking for in a book review. I have included an example to illustrate my points. NOTE: The following guidelines are for book reviews in my courses. Other instructors will have different preferences and requirements, and you should always make sure to know what those are before turning in any work. Philosophy All of us read in the various ways described by Bacon four centuries ago. Back then there were many fewer books—the printing press was slightly over a hundred years old when Bacon was born. Yet, even then he could make the assertion that some books had more to say than others. How much truer that is today. Walk into a major book retailer and head for the “self-help” section, or the “diet” or “current fiction” areas. Stroll around the sale tables, where coffee table books are sold almost by the pound. There is a book for every taste. When an instructor assigns a book (or books) in a course, he or she invariably hopes that it will be, as Bacon put it, “chewed and digested,” but expects that most students will merely “taste” it. And, indeed, it would be foolish to expect that every book assigned will hold the interest of every student assigned to read it. All of which is not to say that a student cannot master the content of a book and critically appraise its value, despite disliking the contents. Mastery of content and appraisal of value is what a book review is all about. Unlike the elementary and secondary school book report, designed to extract a digest of the book from a student, the book review seeks a critical evaluation. When I assign a book review, I seek not just a summary of the contents, but an analysis of the arguments the author presents and an evaluation of the effectiveness of his or her communication of ideas. I do not care if you liked the book or not, only that you can clearly communicate to me in writing why you liked or disliked it. Elements Just as every book is different, so every review will be different. There is no cookie- cutter approach to writing a book review. Your appraisal of a book must be tailored to the work. There are, however, four elements that every review should address to one degree or another: 1) theme and scope; 2) organization and content; 3) sources; 4)value. Additional elements that may be addressed include: 1) point of view; 2) style; 3) setting; 4) place in the historiography of the subject matter; and 5) writer’s previous works and/or scholarly activity. Theme and scope. No matter how pedestrian or lofty, every book has a purpose. Sometimes it is easy to figure out the purpose of the book from its title or its table of contents. Often, it is not. The obvious purpose of telling the story of the Persian Gulf War may conceal the author’s secret purpose of exposing the ineptness of United Nations policing functions, the American government’s preoccupation with protection the interests of its multinational corporations operating in the Middle East, or extolling the virtues of high-tech weaponry. The places to look for a better picture of an author’s intentions are the foreword, preface, and introduction of a book. Authors, or people with some claim to insight into the author’s purpose, often use these sections of a book to explain what motivated research of a particular subject, from a particular perspective. You skip these sections at the risk of not fully understanding the author’s intention. Organization and Content. It is important to understand how the book’s content is organized. It is in discussing the organization of the book that you will briefly summarize the contents. Content and organization go hand in hand because the author attempts to present his material in the best possible way by choosing the most effective organization. Although chronology is always important in a history book, there are some which have an overarching thematic organization. Pay close attention to how the book is organized and judge whether that helped or hindered the author in making his or her case. Poorly organized books can be identified by repetitiousness, disjointedness, and imbalance. A well-organized book, on the other hand, can be read quickly and easily, and the contents will make an impression. Of course, some of these attributes may also be due to your own preferences and background knowledge, so you must be careful in figuring out why you think the book is or is not well-organized. Sources. This is one of the toughest elements to deal with in a student book review. While you have a good idea of what the book is about, the author’s attitudes, and whether it made sense or not, you feel unqualified to say anything about sources. After all, you are just a student. Amazingly, there are things you can say about the sources, even as a student without much background knowledge. You can tell, for instance, whether the book was based primarily on the work of other writers or on an analysis of original documents. You can also tell if the author employs some sources more than others. Finally, you can say whether the author made unfounded accusations or backed all his or her arguments with solid evidence. This section of the review need not be long. It does not even need to be a separate section. A sentence or two as you discuss other elements of the book might be more than enough. On the other hand, if you are particularly impressed with the author’s use of sources, you might want to devote a substantial amount of space to it. Keep in mind, however, that what you have to say about documentation is not a count of the number of the number of footnotes or the pages of bibliography. Value. Some students are very happy to tell me what they thought of a book. Others try to guess what I want to read, and tailor their remarks accordingly. Many students feel unqualified to give a book a bad appraisal. To all of you, all I can say is, honesty is the best policy. I want to know how you feel about a book and why. That means that I do not expect every student to like every book. Some of the best class discussions of books have resulted from readings that half the class hated and the other half loved. If you found the book boring, say so, but also say why you could not stay awake. If you found the book intensely interesting, state the major insight(s) it provided you. It is in this concluding part of the review that you should give some indication of the best audience for the book. I want to know what you think. Did you feel that the book should only be read by other historians or could the general public get something out of it? Did it help you to make better sense of the course material or was it irrelevant? Please note that your review should not be in a question and answer format, in which each of the above elements is treated as a question that you must answer directly. Try to infuse your review with some grace. Mechanics Book reviews have a different “look” in some respects that longer written assignments. For one thing, they should have no cover page. They will have no footnotes or bibliography. As a matter of fact, all of the information about the book you are reviewing should be placed at the top of the review. 1. The header of the review consists of the title of the book, followed by the author’s name, then by the publication information (place, name of press, date), and concluding with the elements of the book (number of pages, presence of maps, illustration, notes, bibliography, index). 2. The review itself should follow standard organization: introduction, body, conclusion. It should be double-spaced, with one inch margins on all sides, and written in 12 pt. font. The first page of the review should not be numbered, only the subsequent pages. 3. After skipping three lines at the end of the review, you should type your name along the right margin with the course title and semester immediately below.
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