Book Review

Book Reviews

ht t ps : // w r i t i ngc ent er . unc . edu/ t i ps -and -t ool s / book -r ev i ew s /

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What this handout is about

This handout will help you write a book review, a report or essay that offers a critical perspective on a text. It

offers a process and suggests some strategies for writing book reviews.

What is a review?

A review is a critical evaluation of a text, event, object, or phenomenon. Reviews can consider books, articles,

entire genres or fields of literature, architecture, art, fashion, restaurants, policies, exhibitions, performances, and

many other forms. This handout will focus on book reviews. For a similar assignment, see our handout

on literature reviews .

Above all, a review makes an argument. The most important element of a review is that it is a commentary, not

merely a summary. It allows you to enter into dialogue and discussion with the work’s creator and with other

audiences. You can offer agreement or disagreement and identify where you find the work exemplary or

deficient in its knowledge, judgments, or organization. You should clearly state your opinion of the work in

question, and that statement will probably resemble other types of academic writing, with a thesis statement,

supporting body paragraphs, and a conclusion.

Typically, reviews are brief. In newspapers and academic journals, they rarely exceed 1000 words, although you

may encounter lengthier assignments and extended commentaries. In either case, reviews need to be

succinct. While they vary in tone, subject, and style, they share some common fe atures:

• First, a review gives the reader a concise summary of the content. This includes a relevant

description of the topic as well as its overall perspective, argument, or purpose.

• Second, and more importantly, a review offers a critical assessment of the content. This

involves your reactions to the work under review: what strikes you as noteworthy, whether or

not it was effective or persuasive, and how it enhanced your understanding of the issues at

hand.

• Finally, in addition to analyzing the work, a review often suggests whether or not the audience

would appreciate it.

Becoming an expert reviewer: three short examples

Reviewing can be a daunting task. Someone has asked for your opin ion about something that you may feel

unqualified to evaluate. Who are you to criticize Toni Morrison’s new book if you’ve never written a novel

yourself, much less won a Nobel Prize? The point is that someone —a professor, a journal editor, peers in a stud y

group —wants to know what you think about a particular work. You may not be (or feel like) an expert, but you

need to pretend to be one for your particular audience. Nobody expects you to be the intellectual equal of the

work’s creator, but your careful o bservations can provide you with the raw material to make reasoned

judgments. Tactfully voicing agreement and disagreement, praise and criticism, is a valuable, challenging skill,

and like many forms of writing, reviews require you to provide concrete evid ence for your assertions. Consider the following brief book review written for a history course on medieval Europe by a student who is

fascinated with beer:

Judith Bennett’s Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England: Women’s Work in a Changing World, 1300 -1600,

investigates how women used to brew and sell the majority of ale drunk in England. Historically, ale and

beer (not milk, wine, or water) were important elements of the English diet. Ale brewing was low -skill and

low status labor that was complimentary to w omen’s domestic responsibilities. In the early fifteenth

century, brewers began to make ale with hops, and they called this new drink “beer.” This technique

allowed brewers to produce their beverages at a lower cost and to sell it more easily, although wom en

generally stopped brewing once the business became more profitable.

The student describes the subject of the book and provides an accurate summary of its contents. But the reader

does not learn some key information expected from a review: the author’s a rgument, the student’s appraisal of

the book and its argument, and whether or not the student would recommend the book. As a critical

assessment, a book review should focus on opinions, not facts and details. Summary should be kept to a

minimum, and specif ic details should serve to illustrate arguments.

Now consider a review of the same book written by a slightly more opinionated student:

Judith Bennett’s Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England: Women’s Work in a Changing World, 1300 -1600

was a colossal disappo intment. I wanted to know about the rituals surrounding drinking in medieval

England: the songs, the games, the parties. Bennett provided none of that information. I liked how the

book showed ale and beer brewing as an economic activity, but the reader get s lost in the details of

prices and wages. I was more interested in the private lives of the women brewsters. The book was

divided into eight long chapters, and I can’t imagine why anyone would ever want to read it.

There’s no shortage of judgments in this review! But the student does not display a working knowledge of the

book’s argument. The reader has a sense of what the student expected of the book, but no sense of what the

author herself set out to prove. Although the student gives several reasons for the negative review, those

examples do not clearly relate to each other as part of an overall evaluation —in other words, in support of a

specific thesis. This review is indeed an assessment, but not a critical one.

Here is one final review of the same book :

One of feminism’s paradoxes —one that challenges many of its optimistic histories —is how patriarchy

remains persistent over time. While Judith Bennett’s Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England: Women’s Work

in a Changing World, 1300 -1600 recognizes medieval w omen as historical actors through their ale

brewing, it also shows that female agency had its limits with the advent of beer. I had assumed that

those limits were religious and political, but Bennett shows how a “patriarchal equilibrium” shut women

out of economic life as well. Her analysis of women’s wages in ale and beer production proves that a

change in women’s work does not equate to a change in working women’s status. Contemporary

feminists and historians alike should read Bennett’s book and think twi ce when they crack open their

next brewsky.

This student’s review avoids the problems of the previous two examples. It combines balanced opinion and

concrete example, a critical assessment based on an explicitly stated rationale, and a recommendation to a

potential audience. The reader gets a sense of what the book’s author intended to demonstrate. Moreover, the

student refers to an argument about feminist history in general that places the book in a specific genre and that

reaches out to a general audience . The example of analyzing wages illustrates an argument, the analysis engages significant intellectual debates, and the reasons for the overall positive review are plainly visible. The

review offers criteria, opinions, and support with which the reader ca n agree or disagree.

Developing an assessment: before you write

There is no definitive method to writing a review, although some critical thinking about the work at hand is

necessary before you actually begin writing. Thus, writing a review is a two -step p rocess: developing an

argument about the work under consideration, and making that argument as you write an organized and well –

supported draft. See our handout on argument .

What follows is a series of questions to focus your thinking as you dig into the work at hand. While the questions

specifically consider book reviews, you can easily transpose them to an analysis of performances, exhibitions,

and other review subjects. D on’t feel obligated to address each of the questions; some will be more relevant

than others to the book in question.

• What is the thesis —or main argument —of the book? If the author wanted you to get one idea

from the book, what would it be? How does it com pare or contrast to the world you know?

What has the book accomplished?

• What exactly is the subject or topic of the book? Does the author cover the subject

adequately? Does the author cover all aspects of the subject in a balanced fashion? What is

the approach to the subject (topical, analytical, chronological, descriptive)?

• How does the author support her argument? What evid ence does she use to prove her point?

Do you find that evidence convincing? Why or why not? Does any of the author’s information

(or conclusions) conflict with other books you’ve read, courses you’ve taken or just previous

assumptions you had of the subjec t?

• How does the author structure her argument? What are the parts that make up the whole?

Does the argument make sense? Does it persuade you? Why or why not?

• How has this book helped you understand the subject? Would you recommend the book to

your reader?

Beyond the internal workings of the book, you may also consider some information about the author and the

circumstances of the text’s production:

• Who is the author? Nationality, political persuasion, training, intellectual interests, personal

history, and historical context may provide crucial details about how a work takes shape. Does

it matter, for example, that the biographer was the subject’s best friend? What difference would

it make if the author participated in the events she writes about?

• What is th e book’s genre? Out of what field does it emerge? Does it conform to or depart from

the conventions of its genre? These questions can provide a historical or literary standard on

which to base your evaluations. If you are reviewing the first book ever writ ten on the subject, it

will be important for your readers to know. Keep in mind, though, that naming “firsts” —

alongside naming “bests” and “onlys” —can be a risky business unless you’re absolutely certain.

Writing the review

Once you have made your observat ions and assessments of the work under review, carefully survey your notes

and attempt to unify your impressions into a statement that will describe the purpose or thesis of your review.

Check out our handout on thesis statements . Then, outline the arguments that support your thesis. Your arguments should develop the thesis in a logical manner. That logic, unlike more standard academic

writing, may initially emp hasize the author’s argument while you develop your own in the course of the review.

The relative emphasis depends on the nature of the review: if readers may be more interested in the work itself,

you may want to make the work and the author more prominen t; if you want the review to be about your

perspective and opinions, then you may structure the review to privilege your observations over (but never

separate from) those of the work under review. What follows is just one of many ways to organize a review.

Introduction

Since most reviews are brief, many writers begin with a catchy quip or anecdote that succinctly delivers their

argument. But you can introduce your review differently depending on the argument and audience. The Writing

Center’s handout on introductions can help you find an approach that works. In general, you should include:

• The name of the author and the book title and the main theme.

• Relevant details about who the author is and where he/she stands in the genre or field of

inquiry. You could also link the title to the subject to show how the title explains the subject

matter.

• The context of the book and/or your review. Placing your revi ew in a framework that makes

sense to your audience alerts readers to your “take” on the book. Perhaps you want to situate a

book about the Cuban revolution in the context of Cold War rivalries between the United States

and the Soviet Union. Another review er might want to consider the book in the framework of

Latin American social movements. Your choice of context informs your argument.

• The thesis of the book. If you are reviewing fiction, this may be difficult since novels, plays, and

short stories rarely have explicit arguments. But identifying the book’s particular novelty, angle,

or originality allows you to show what specific contribution the piece is trying to make.

• Your thesis about the book.

Summary of content

This should be brief, as analysis takes priority. In the course of making your assessment, you’ll hopefully be

backing up your assertions with concrete evidence from the book, so some summary will be dispersed

throughout other parts of the review.

The necessary amount of summary also depends on your audience. Graduate students, beware! If you are

writing book reviews for colleagues —to prepare for comprehensive exams, for example —you may want to

devote more attention to summarizing the book’s contents. If, on the other hand, your audience has alre ady read

the book —such as a class assignment on the same work —you may have more liberty to explore more subtle

points and to emphasize your own argument. See our handout on summary for more tips.

Analysis and evaluation of the book

Your analysis and evaluation should be organized into paragraphs that deal with single aspects of your

argument. This arrangement can be challenging when your purpose is to consider the b ook as a whole, but it can

help you differentiate elements of your criticism and pair assertions with evidence more clearly. You do not

necessarily need to work chronologically through the book as you discuss it. Given the argument you want to

make, you ca n organize your paragraphs more usefully by themes, methods, or other elements of the book. If

you find it useful to include comparisons to other books, keep them brief so that the book under review remains in the spotlight. Avoid excessive quotation and g ive a specific page reference in parentheses when you do

quote. Remember that you can state many of the author’s points in your own words.

Conclusion

Sum up or restate your thesis or make the final judgment regarding the book. You should not introduce new

evidence for your argument in the conclusion. You can, however, introduce new ideas that go beyond the book if

they extend the logic of your own thesis. This paragraph needs to balance the book’s strengths and weaknesses

in order to unify your evaluation. Did the body of your review have three negative paragraphs and one favorable

one? What do they all add up to? The Writing Center’s handout on conclusions can help yo u make a final

assessment.

In review

Finally, a few general considerations:

• Review the book in front of you, not the book you wish the author had written. You can and

should point out shortcomings or failures, but don’t criticize the book for not being som ething

it was never intended to be.

• With any luck, the author of the book worked hard to find the right words to express her ideas.

You should attempt to do the same. Precise language allows you to control the tone of your

review.

• Never hesitate to challen ge an assumption, approach, or argument. Be sure, however, to cite

specific examples to back up your assertions carefully.

• Try to present a balanced argument about the value of the book for its audience. You’re

entitled —and sometimes obligated —to voice strong agreement or disagreement. But keep in

mind that a bad book takes as long to write as a good one, and every author dese rves fair

treatment. Harsh judgments are difficult to prove and can give readers the sense that you were

unfair in your assessment.

• A great place to learn about book reviews is to look at examples. The New York Times Sunday

Book Review and The New York Review of Books can show you how professional writers

review books.

Works consulted

We consulted these works while writing this handout. This is not a comprehensive list of resources on the

handout’s topic, and we encourage you to do your own research to find additional publications. Please do not

use this list as a model for the format of your own reference list, as it may not match the citation s tyle you are

using. For guidance on formatting citations, please see the UNC Libraries citation tutorial . We revise these tips

periodically and welcome feedback.

Drewry, John. 1974. Wri ting Book Reviews. Boston: Greenwood Press.

Hoge, James. 1987. Literary Reviewing. Charlottesville: University Virginia of Press.

Sova, Dawn, and Harry Teitelbaum. 2002. How to Write Book Reports , 4th ed. Lawrenceville, NY: Thomson/Arco.

Walford, A.J. 1986 . Reviews and Reviewing: A Guide. Phoenix: Oryx Press.

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