On Writing Book Reviews
For information on how to use footnotes and guidelines for writing effectively, see:
- A book review is a critical analysis of a secondary text, not a summary of the work's content. In a book review, you should evaluate the way in which the author handled the subject and the contribution of the book to your understanding of the issues discussed.
- There are four basic categories to be considered in your evaluation--historiography, methodology, style, and personal evaluation.
- A. Historiography: the tradition in which the author writes history. Historiography (which is a fancy word for the "history of history writing") concerns the intellectual approach the author takes to the subject, the school of historical thought that most influences the author, and the assumptions, values, or analytical frameworks the author employs.
- 1. What is the author's theme or thesis? What is the author's purpose in writing the book?
- 2. What are the author's values and biases? From what point of view does the author write?
- 3. Are the author's assumptions and assertions in agreement with those generally held in the field? If not, are deviations clearly identified, well motivated, and overtly justified?
- 4. What impact does this work have in its field? Does it contribute something original? Will it have lasting value?
- B. Methodology: the author's method includes the rules employed in organizing the evidence, the kinds of questions asked by the author, and the approach utilized in answering them.
- 1. What are the sources of the author's data? Are these sources adequate? What are the limitations of the data, any inherent biases or problems which must be taken into consideration in its use?
- 2. What kinds of questions does the author ask about the subject. Are there questions which remain unasked, or questions asked but unanswered?
- C. Style: the author's style has to do with the writing and organization of the book.
- 1. Is the book well written? Are there passages of eloquence or elegance?
- 2. Is the book well argued? Does the author clearly articulate and answer questions raised in the book? How well does the author's point come across and does it convince you?
- 3. Is the book accessible to an intelligent reader or only to a specialist?
- D. Personal Evaluation: think about your own approach to the subject, your own values, and your preferred method. Reading is not a passive experience, but an interaction between author and reader.
- 1. What is your response to the author's point of view?
- 2. What do you think to be the greatest strength of the work, and the greatest weakness?
- 3. What does the book contribute to your understanding of the subject?
- The form of a book review is an essay. You should begin with an introduction that both grabs the reader's attention and provides a statement of the points you intend to make (a thesis statement). You may then choose to move on and write a paragraph about each of the categories (historiography, methodology, style, and personal evaluation). You may decide that the topic of your book review lends itself to a deeper examination of one category than the others, for example, if its methodology is especially interesting or terrible. Finally, you will want to provide a conclusion for your essay which sums up your argument.
Some Reflections on How to Write an Essay;
On Writing a Research Essay; and
How to Cite, Using Footnotes: Using the Chicago Manual of Style.
Prepared by Professor Catherine Lavender for History 401 (Advanced Seminar in Historical Method), The Department of History, The College of Staten Island of The City University of New York.
Last modified: Friday, 24 March 2000.