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.

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.
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

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.


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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