A book review is a decription, critical analysis, and/or evaluation of the quality, meaning, and significance of a book. Reviews generally range between 500-1000 words, but may be longer or shorter depending on the length and complexity of the book being reviewed, the overall purpose of the review, and whether the review is a comparative analysis examining two or more books that focus on the same topic. Professors assign book reviews as practice in carefully analyzing complex scholarly texts and to assess your ability in effectively synthesizing research to reach an informed perspective on an issue.
There are two general approaches to reviewing a book:
Book Reviews. Writing Center. University of New Hampshire; Book Reviews: How to Write a Book Review. Writing and Style Guides. Libraries. Dalhousie University.
I. Common Features
While book reviews vary in tone, subject, and style, they share some common features. These include:
To maintain your focus, always keep in mind that most assignments ask you to discuss a book's treatment of its topic, not the topic itself. Your key sentences should, therefore, say "This book shows...,” "The study demonstrates...," or “The author argues..." rather than "This happened...” or “This is the case....”
II. Developing an Assessment Strategy
There is no definitive method to writing a book review in the social sciences, although it is necessary that you think critically about the research problem under study before you begin writing. Thus, writing a book review is a two-step process: 1) developing an argument about the work under consideration, and, 2) clearly articulating that argument as you write an organized and well-supported draft.
A useful strategy is to write the questions down and answer them as you read [remember to note the page numbers so you can refer back to the text!]. Which questions are most useful while evaluating what you read will depend upon the type of book are reading. Here are a series of questions to focus your thinking as you read a book.
Beyond the content of the book, you may also consider some information about the author and the circumstances of the text's production. Question to ask may include:
Book Reviews. Writing@CSU. Colorado State University; Book Reviews. The Writing Center. University of North Carolina; Hartley, James. Reading and Writing Book Reviews Across the Disciplines. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 57 (July 2006): 1194–1207; Writing a Book Review. The Writing Lab and The OWL. Purdue University; Writing Book Reviews. Writing Tutorial Services, Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning. Indiana University.
I. Bibliographic Information
Provide the essential information about the book using the writing style asked for by your professor [e.g., APA, MLA, Chicago, etc.]. Depending on how your professor wants you to organize your review, the bibliographic information represents the heading of your review. In general, it would look like this:
The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party's Revolution and the Battle over American History. By Jill Lepore. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010. xii, 207pp.).
Reviewed by [your name].
In most scholarly works, the author(s) will state the purpose of their book in the preface or in an introductory chapter. Begin your review by telling the reader not only the overarching concern of the book in its entirety [the subject area] but also what the author's particular point of view is on that subject [the thesis statement]. If you cannot find an adequate statement in the author's own words or if you find that the thesis statement is not well-developed, then you will have to compose your own introductory thesis statement that does cover all the material. This statement should be no more than one paragraph and must be succinct, accurate, unbiased, and clear.
If you find it difficult to discern the overall aims and objectives of the book [and, be sure to point this out in your review if you believe it to be a deficiency], you may arrive at an understanding of the purpose by asking yourself the following questions:
III. Note the Method
Illustrate your remarks with specific references and quotations that help to illustrate the literary method used to state the research problem, describe the research design, and analyze the findings. In general, authors tend to use the following methods, exclusively or in combination.
IV. Critically Evaluate the Contents
Critical comments should form the bulk of your book review. State whether or not you feel the author's treatment of the subject matter is appropriate for the intended audience. Ask yourself:
Support your evaluation with evidence from the text and, when possible, state it in relation to other sources. If relevant, note of the book's format, such as, layout, binding, typography, etc. Are there tables, charts, maps, illustrations, text boxes, photographs, or other non-textual elements? Do they aid in understanding the research problem? Describing this is particularly important in books that contain a lot of non-textual elements.
NOTE: It is important to carefully distinguish your views from those of the author to ensure that you do not confuse your reader.
V. Examine the Front Matter and Back Matter
Back matter refers to any information included after the final chapter of the book. Front matter refers to anything before the first chapter. Front matter is most often numbered separately from the rest of the text in lower case Roman numerals [i.e. i-xi]. Critical commentary about front or back matter is generally only necessary if you believe there is something that diminishes the overall quality of the work or there is something that is particularly helpful in understanding the book's contents.
The following front matter may be included in a book and should be considered for evaluation when reviewing the overall quality of the book:
The following back matter may be included in a book and should be considered for evaluation when reviewing the overall quality of the book:
VI. Summarize and Comment
State your general conclusions succinctly. Pay particular attention to the author's concluding chapter. Is the summary convincing? List the principal topics, and briefly summarize the author’s ideas about these topics, main points, and conclusions. If appropriate and to help clarify your overall evaluation, use specific references and quotations to support your statements. If your thesis has been well argued, the conclusion should follow naturally. It can include a final assessment or simply restate your thesis. Do not introduce new information or ideas in the conclusion. If you've compared the book to any other works or used other sources in writing the review, be sure to cite at the end of your book review.
Book Reviews. Writing@CSU. Colorado State University; Book Reviews. The Writing Center. University of North Carolina; Gastel, Barbara. Special Books Section: A Strategy for Reviewing Books for Journals. BioScience 41 (October 1991): 635-637; Hartley, James. Reading and Writing Book Reviews Across the Disciplines. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 57 (July 2006): 1194–1207; Procter, Margaret. The Book Review or Article Critique. The Lab Report. University College Writing Centre. University of Toronto; Reading a Book to Review It. The Writer’s Handbook. Writing Center. University of Wisconsin, Madison; Scarnecchia, David L. Writing Book Reviews for the Journal Of Range Management and Rangelands. Rangeland Ecology and Management 57 (2004): 418-421; Writing a Book Review. The Writing Lab and The OWL. Purdue University; Writing Book Reviews. Writing Tutorial Services, Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning. Indiana University.
It can be challenging to find the proper vocabulary in which to discuss and evaluate a book. Here is a list of some active verbs for referring to texts and ideas that you might find useful:
Examples of usage
Paquot, Magali. Academic Keyword List. Centre for English Corpus Linguistics. Université Catholique de Louvain.
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