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How to review a book

by
Ashley Thomson


Introduction: This guide will be of particular value to those who must review nonfiction. It will also be of some use in reviewing imaginative works such as plays, poems, novels, and short stories.
The guide covers (I) the contents of a review and (II) its organization and writing. It also provides (III) a sample review (pdf file) and (IV) suggestions for further reading.

I. Contents

The following checklist is meant to be suggestive. No review should include all--or even many--of the topics on it. AS A GENERAL RULE TOPICS 2, 4, AND 5 (with the exception of any detailed discussion of the author's background) ARE THE PRIMARY FOCUS OF MOST BOOK REVIEWS WORTH THEIR SALT. Beyond that, one's election of topics may be suggested by the book itself (e.g., if there is nothing remarkable about its style or format, leave remarks on these subjects out). Selection may also be affected by certain limitations on the reviewer, such as (a) length (e.g., 200 words v.2000); (b) point of view (e.g., s/he may be interested in only 1 or 2 aspects of the total book); (c) the degree of sophistication (e.g., in an elementary informational report, the reviewer might be less likely to concentrate on the significance of the work in its field than s/he would be in a scholarly treatise, where remarks on such a subject would be almost obligatory).


1. The General Field

- What is it?
- How does the subject of the book fit into it?

2. The Book's Purpose

- Why was it written? What did the author hope to accomplish?
Note: The title, preface, and introduction are useful in establishing this information.

3. The Book's Title

- Derivation, meaning, suggestiveness?
- Fitness and adequacy--or inadequacy
: is the title ambiguous?
: does it create a false impression?

4. The Book's Contents

- Type of book
: Description (e.g., is it fundamentally pictorial, impression giving, mood creating)?
: Narrative (i.e., is it fundamentally chronological, relating characters or events to some ultimate sequence in time)?
: Exposition (i.e., does it have a thesis, an argument)?

- What are the author's main ideas?
- How are they developed? (chronologically? topically? both? other?) Note: The table of contents, chapter headings, and sub-headings are useful in establishing this information.

5. The Book's Authority

- Author's ideas.
: Key words/terms/concepts defined?
: Internal consistency of ideas?
: How well are the ideas developed?
- Areas covered
: degree of thoroughness (elementary or scholarly approach)?
- Areas not covered
: on purpose?
: from oversight, bias, or other failure?
: degree of seriousness of these omissions?
- Author's use of sources
: New sources?
- if so, how gathered? how reliable?
: Existing sources?
- primary sources seen in new light?
- critical examination of all relevant secondary sources (i.e., works by other writers on subject)?
- satisfactory documentation (use of footnotes)?
- Author's background and qualifications
: What are they?
- race, nationality, origins?
- influences--social, cultural, religious, political,etc.?
- early formative experiences?
- academic training?
- present position?
- affiliations--literary, scholastic, religious, political, ideational, etc.?
: What effect do these have on his work?
- book written with expertise? bias? both?

6. The Author's Style

- Writing
: simple or technical?
: clear/lucid or turgid?
: economical/spare or wordy/verbose?
: logical/reasoned or imaginative/emotional?
: other?
- Suitability
: to purpose of author?
: to subject?
: to readers?

7. The Book's Format

- Size
: suitability?
: convenience?
- Binding
: appearance?
: durability?
- Quality of paper
- Print type
: legibility?
: appropriateness?
- Aids to understanding and utilization
: charts, graphs, maps, statistics, illustrations, photographs (current, clear, related to text)?
: index
- adequacy tested by looking up number of items
: bibliographies
- superficial or thorough?
- annotated?

8. Significance of Work in Field

- In comparison to author's other works (if any)
- In comparison to other writers in the area Note: The book's footnotes and bibliography are useful in determining relevant past works. For those published after the book was written, ask at the Information Desk for assistance.
- Further work that needs to be done.

II. Organization and writing

Once the book has been read and digested, and once reference has been made to the preceding checklist and if necessary, to other sources, for information about the field of the book, the author, etc., then it is possible to begin organizing and writing the review.

Preliminary

Any book review should be preceded by the following information:

- Title of the book
to identify book
- Author's name
- Place of publication
in case the reader wishes to order the book for him/herself
- Publisher
- Edition
suggests how up-to-date information in book is
- Date
- Paging
to give an idea of how detailed the book is, and to suggest something of its format (this might save possible repetition in review)
- Special features (e.g. maps)
- Cost (if known)
more information for ordering


  1. The Beginning

    An effective opening will catch the reader's attention immediately. Do not, therefore, begin with something pedestrian such as "This book is . . ." Instead, try:

    - Writing a brief anecdote or some human interest item connected with the book or its author AND/OR
    - Taking as a point of departure one of the items on the check list that seems important (e.g., the significance of the book in the field) AND/OR
    - Opening with a statement about projected treatment of the book (e.g., Certain features of this monograph make it worth reading . . . but these strengths are outweighed by . . .)
  2. Development

    A good review will involve description, evaluation, and whenever possible, explanation of why the author wrote as he did. This means it will often be necessary to relate different parts of the checklist one to the other (e.g., how the author's bias affected his selection and use of sources).

    In the sense that the review involves relationships, it is like a little essay. It differs from an essay, however, in that it never includes: chapters or other divisions; long quotations from the book or other reviews (although brief quotations may sometimes be used to illustrate a point); footnotes (if quoting from the book, put the page number in the review immediately after the quote, in parentheses). Finally, never append a bibliography of works consulted to a review.

  3. Conclusion

    Do not as a general rule, trail off with comments about minor matters - e.g., typographical errors. Instead try to end the review with an assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the book. If possible, relate the assessment to the opening remarks of the review so that what results is a neat little package.


III. For further reading

  1. How to Write a Book Review

    Barzun, Jacques and Henry F. Graff. The Modern Researcher. 4th ed. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1985. Especially good on the organization of a review.

  2. Sources of Reviews

    Most scholarly journals in every discipline contain reviews, and so if you are merely interested in samples, try these. If, however, you wish to find reviews of a particular work, consult such common reference tools as:

    Book Review Digest. 1905- (INDEX Z 1035 A1 B66)
    Book Review Index. 1965- (INDEX Z 1035 A1 B6)
    Canadian Periodical Index. 1938- (INDEX AI 3 C242). Look under heading "Book reviews"

    There are many more specialized sources of reviews. To locate these sources please ask at the Information Desk for help.