Critical Book Review

Assignment

Your critical book review will be 1000-1250 words, double-spaced.  You should submit it both to your Oncourse Dropbox and under the Assignments tab.  Like any other essay for this class, I will evaluate your work based on this rubric.

What is a critical book review?

It is important to understand what a book review is, and what it is not.  A book review is a critical assessment of a particular work, usually appearing in a journal (either academic or popular) shortly after the book’s initial publication.  A book review is not the critical evaluation of an author’s entire body of work or of a broad literary theme or genre.

A book review has two goals: first, to inform the reader about the content of the book, and second, to provide an evaluation that gives your judgment of the book’s quality.

A book review’s introduction should include an overview of the book that both incorporates an encapsulated summary of the book and an evaluation of the book.  This section is the equivalent of a thesis statement.

How do I write a critical book review?

Before beginning to read, consider the following:

  • Title – What does it suggest?
  • Preface – Provides important information on the author’s purpose in writing the book and will help you to determine the success of the work.
  • Table of Contents – Tells you how the book is organized and will aid in determining the author’s main ideas and how they are developed – chronologically, topically, etc.

Read the Text

Record impressions as you read and note effective passages for quoting. Keep these questions in mind:

  • What is the general field or genre, and how does the book fit into it?
  • From what point of view is the work written?  What biases does the author have?
  • What is the book’s thesis?
  • How does the book fit into the historiography?  What contributions does the book make to the historiography?
  • What is the author’s theoretical perspective?
  • Are concepts clearly defined? How well are the author’s ideas developed? What areas are covered/not covered? Why?
  • How accurate is the information in the book? Check outside sources if necessary.
  • Check the back matter. Is the index accurate? What sources did the author use – primary or secondary? How does he or she make use of them? What limits do these sources impose to the author’s analysis?  Make note of important omissions.
  • Finally, what has the book accomplished? Is further work needed? Compare the book to others by this author or by others. (Use the listing in the bibliography.)

Consult Additional Sources

  • Try to find further information about the author – his/her reputation, qualifications, influences, etc. – any information that is relevant to the book being reviewed and that would help to establish the author’s authority. Knowledge of the period in which the book was written and of critical theories can also be helpful to your review. Your professor and/or reference librarian will be able to suggest sources to use.

Prepare an Outline

  • Carefully review your notes and attempt to unify your impressions into a statement that will describe the purpose or thesis of your review. Then, outline the arguments that support your thesis. Your arguments should develop the thesis in a logical manner.

Write the Draft

  • Skim your notes again; then, using the outline as a guide and referring to notes when necessary, begin writing. Your book review should include the following:
    • Preliminary Information – the complete bibliographic citation for the work ie. title in full, author, place, publisher, date of publication, edition statement, pages, special features (maps, colour plates, etc.), price and ISBN.

      Example:
      Rory Maclean
      Under the Dragon: Travels in a betrayed land
      London: Harper Collins, 1998
      224pp. $37.50
      ISBN: 0 00 257013 0

    • Introduction – Try to capture the reader’s attention with your opening sentence. The introduction should state your central thesis, and set the tone of the review.
    • Development – Develop your thesis using supporting arguments as set out in your outline.  Use quotations to illustrate important points or peculiarities.
      • Do NOT spend more than one-third or so of the paper summarizing the book. The summary should consist of a discussion and highlights of the major arguments, features, trends, concepts, themes, ideas, and characteristics of the book. While you may use direct quotes from the book (make sure you always give the page number), such quotes should never be the bulk of the summary. Much of your grade will depend on how well you describe and explain the material IN YOUR OWN WORDS. You might want to take the major organizing themes of the book and use them to organize your own discussion. This does NOT mean, however, that I want a chapter-by-chapter summary. Your goal is a unified essay.
      • So what do I want, if not just a summary? Throughout your summary, I want you to provide a critique of the book.  A critique consists of thoughts, responses, and reactions. It is not necessarily negative. Nor do you need to know as much about the subject as the author (because you hardly ever will). The skills you need are an ability to follow an argument and test a hypothesis. Regardless of how negative or positive your critique is, you need to be able to justify and support your position.
      • Here are a number of questions that you can address as part of your critique. You need not answer them all, but questions one and two are essential to any book review, so those must be included. And these are ABSOLUTELY NOT to be answered one after another.  Don’t have one paragraph that answers one, and then the next paragraph that answers the next, etc. The answers should be part of a carefully constructed essay, complete with topic sentences and transitions.
      • What is your overall opinion of the book?  On what basis has this opinion been formulated? That is, tell the reader what you think and how you arrived at this judgment. What did you expect to learn when you picked up the book? To what extent – and how effectively – were your expectations met?
      • Identify the author’s thesis and explain it in your own words. How clearly and in what context is it stated and, subsequently, developed? To what extent and how effectively (i.e., with what kind of evidence) is this thesis proven? Use examples to amplify your responses. If arguments or perspectives were missing, why do you think this might be?
      • What are the author’s aims? How well have they been achieved, especially with regard to the way the book is organized? Are these aims supported or justified? (You might look back at the introduction to the book for help). How closely does the organization follow the author’s aims?
      • How are the author’s main points presented, explained, and supported? What assumptions lie behind these points? What would be the most effective way for you to compress and/or reorder the author’s scheme of presentation and argument?
      • How effectively does the author draw claims from the material being presented? Are connections between the claims and evidence made clearly and logically? Here you should definitely use examples to support your evaluation.
      • What conclusions does the author reach and how clearly are they stated? Do these conclusions follow from the thesis and aims and from the ways in which they were developed? In other words, how effectively does the book come together?
      • Identify the assumptions made by the author in both the approach to and the writing of the book. For example, what prior knowledge does the author expect readers to possess? How effectively are those assumptions worked into the overall presentation? What assumptions do you think should not have been made? Why?
      • Are you able to detect any underlying philosophy of history held by the author (e.g., progress, decline, cyclical, linear, and random)? If so, how does this philosophy affect the presentation of the argument
      • How does the author see history as being motivated: primarily by the forces of individuals, economics, politics, social factors, nationalism, class, race, gender, something else? What kind of impact does this view of historical motivation have upon the way in which the author develops the book?
      • Does the author’s presentation seem fair and accurate? Is the interpretation biased? Can you detect any distortion, exaggeration, or diminishing of material? If so, for what purpose might this have been done, and what effect does hit have on the overall presentation?

        These questions are derived from Robert Blackey, “Words to the Whys: Crafting Critical Book Reviews,” The History Teacher 27, no.2 (1994): 159-66.

    • Conclusion – 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 material at this point.

Revise the Draft

  • Allow some time to elapse before going over your review, to gain perspective.
  • Carefully read through the text, looking for clarity and coherence.
  • Correct grammar and spelling.
  • Verify quotes for proper footnoting.

For Further Reading

  • Barzun, Jacques and Henry F. Graff. The Modern Researcher. 4th ed. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1985.
  • Drewry, John. Writing Book Reviews.Westport: Greenwood Press, 1974.
  • Reviews and Reviewing: a Guide. Phoenix: Oryx Press, 1986.

Adapted from 

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