How to Write a Book Review

A book review is an essay whose purpose is to comment on a particular work or a series of works bearing upon a single subject or related subjects. The most important element about a book review to remember is that it is a commentary, not merely a summary. You should devote relatively little space to surveying the contents. Simply present a brief outline or synopsis, indicating the general topic, the chronological scope, the major emphasis (political, economic, intellectual, etc.) and which, if any, aspects of the subject are totally ignored. The bulk of your review, therefore, should concentrate on your evaluation of the way the author(s) handled the issues discussed. What is (are) the overall thesis(es) -- the points of view or conclusion? what are your reactions? Did the book(s) enhance your understanding of the issues? Be as direct as possible. Remember, you are the expert.

In framing your review, you should provide some information on the author(s). What are his or her relevant qualifications and background (or lack thereof) for writing on this subject? What were his or her reasons for writing this book? (Often the preface contains such information) What evidence is cited, and has new documentation become available? If so, identify the new documentation. Or, does the book present a novel interpretation based on previously available documents, or does it provide a new literary or dramatic account of a subject already treated by others? Your conclusions and assessments regarding  these aspects, of course, will affect your comparative evaluations of the works. You should also consider the time during which the book was written and, if evident, the author's values and biases. For example, in all likelihood a biography of Senator Joseph McCarthy written by a conservative Republican journalist in l954 will differ from a biography written by a neo-Marxist academic in l974.

It will probably will be necessary to refer to specific portions of the books to illustrate your statements and conclusions, but it is generally not advisable to quote extensively from it. When reviewing more than one book, choose aspects of the subject that are sufficiently broad to cover all of them and compare the books from these particular perspectives. Do not try to make more points than can be accomplished thoroughly in your review. It is better to make a few points well than many points poorly. Once you have decided on the central points you intend to make, treat each one as a separate section of your review. Each section should explain the one point, supporting it with your own arguments and with brief examples from the book(s) under review and drawing conclusions as to the meaning and importance of the point.

Your review should conclude with your personal critique. Refer back to your introductory paragraph(s). What is your ultimate judgment of the style, format, contents, and historical value of each book? Has each author achieved the purpose, explicit or implicit, for writing the book? Has he or she persuasively argued  the thesis to your satisfaction? Why or why not? Compare the evidence cited and argumentation used to support the respective conclusions. Has the book challenged you intellectually, increasing your knowledge, raising new questions, and/or presenting the material in a novel, even provocative manner? Or does the author simply rehash what everyone already knows? Would you recommend any or all of these books, and at what level -- secondary, undergra duate, graduate? What book on this subject still needs to be written?