Books are both reservoirs of information and works of explanation and interpretation. The key words here are interpretation and explanation. The basic point to remember is that when you read a book your main goal should be to understand the author's major conclusions and interpretation/point of view. Remember, you are not writing a book report, which is a simple summary of a book, but a book review. Book reviews are more complicated and demanding.
Reviewers report on the content and evaluate the book, discussing matters such as the author's evidence, logic, style, conclusions, and organization.
The Thesis: The first thing to look for is the author's thesis or central argument. Keep in mind that the thesis is not necessarily the subject of the book. The subject of a book may be a biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt, but the thesis may be that Roosevelt was a great wartime leader but a poor interpreter of the postwar world. A book may have several sub-themes, but a good book has a primary thesis.
How do you find the main thesis? Read the book thoughtfully. Always read the Introduction or Preface, since authors use these to state the reasons why they wrote their book. Next, read the Conclusion (or last chapter), since authors usually review their purposes in their conclusions. If you know the author's conclusion, you can keep it in mind when you go back and read the book from start finish, and that knowledge will help you understand what you read.
Another helpful suggestion is to skim the book quickly the first time you look at it: read the table of contents, look at the first and last paragraphs in each chapter, look at the illustrations (if any) and the legends under them. This sort of reading will help you absorb the meaning of the book and the author's point of view. This kind of reading also helps you remember better when you begin your methodical reading of the book.
The Organization of the Review: The thesis of the book usually comes first in a review. You might begin with a quotation from the book that spells this thesis out. Also, identify the author as quickly as you can, so that your reader will know early on who the person is who wrote this book (a professional historian, an amateur historian, an archivist, a novelist, etc.).
Once you introduce the thesis of the book, go on to develop the main ideas. Avoid the temptation to summarize each chapter. Don't try to report every interesting detail, but recount a few interesting aspects. As a reviewer, you are expected to make some judgments, whether on the accuracy of the book (if you know the field well or have specialized knowledge of the subject matter) or on your own opinion/feelings about the book. Did you like it? Mistrust it? Find it interesting?
From these initial feelings you can go on to analyze them. Why did you like/dislike the book, mistrust it, find it interesting? What was interesting/uninteresting about it? By analyzing your intuitions you can provide a foundation of informal reasoning and questioning that can serve as the basis of your more formal analysis of the book.
Checklist for Writing Critical Book Reviews:
1. Always give the author's main thesis.
2. Always give some of the evidence that the author gives to support this major thesis.
3. Identify the author and state his/her biases.
4. Avoid lengthy comments on the style of the book, but do indicate whether it is well-written or not.
5. Comment on what the book added to your understanding of the
6. Avoid vague generalizations or polemical attacks on the book.
7. Don't feel compelled to say negative things about the book. If you find problems or faults with the book, or disagree with the author's thesis, state these objections. But you are not obliged to look for petty problems just to have something t criticize.
8. Judge the book the author has written. You may wish the author had written a different book, but this is the book the author wrote, so don't review it as if it should be another book.
9. Quote selectively from the book you are reviewing. Quotations give some of the book's tone and may express thoughts in a sharp and concise way. But avoid long chunks of quotations. You must show your readers that you have understood the book you are reviewing and can provide pungent analysis of it.
10. Whenever possible, bring some of your own knowledge to bear on the book; something you have learned in class, read in another course, or from your own experience.
If you have thoughts about ideas the author overlooked, mention them in the review--but avoid giving the impression that you are an independent expert on the subject (if you are not); that gives a dishonest impression.
A book review should observe the basic requirements of literary discourse. There should be an introduction (an overview of your thesis or ideas concerning the book), a middle section in which you develop your argument, and a brief conclusion. As always, clarity and grammatical precision are important if your reader is to understand what you are saying.
From: Richard Marius, A Short Guide to Writing About History, 1st ed. (Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman, 1989), pp. 178-192.
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