General Requirements for a Book Review
While a book review presents CONTENT, it focuses on EVALUATION in an attempt to answer the two-part question: “Is this a book worth reading? Why?”
The “title” of your review should be the bibliographic entry for your book as indicated by Turabian/Chicago Manual of Style.
Your book review should include (in whatever order best suits your style, your book and your thesis):
1) A thesis
A good review–like any good essay–has a clear thesis, which the entire paper argues and supports with evidence. For example, “The author has written an intriguing book but fails to provide adequate evidence to support her argument.”
2) An explanation and evaluation of:
a. the author’s thesis and supporting arguments and evidence.
b. the author’s methodology and/or approach (e.g., is the book a biography? Is it social history? Military? Political?)
Read the book for thesis/argument, not just facts.
Do not criticize the author for not writing the book YOU would have written. (It is, however, valuable to note what would have made the book stronger.)
Demonstrate wherever possible your familiarity with the other scholarship on your work’s topic, how the book’s interpretation compares with others on the same or related topic, and how your book contributes to the literature on its topic.
3) An evaluation of the author’s sources.
Consider type, quality, and use of sources (keeping in mind the author’s purpose and intended audience).
Does the author use adequate and appropriate primary sources? Does he/she use them to present a convincing argument? Are only secondary sources used? If so, is the reason for using only secondary sources clear?
4) An explanation and evaluation of the book’s (a) organization and (b) contents.
Is the book arranged chronologically, topically, or some variation? Is this the best arrangement to accomplish the author’s goal?
Do NOT try to summarize every point in the book, BUT be sure to provide a clear sense of what the book’s contents are. Who wants to read a book if he/she does not know what is in it? Reviewers can often combine comments about contents with comments about thesis and organization. For example, a discussion of contents can provide information about how those contents are organized.
5) RELEVANT information about the author (such as profession, training, other works, politics, sex, religion, reputation).
Who is your author? Is he/she an historian (or journalist or political scientist or participant?)
Do not force irrelevant material into your review. For example, that a noted scholar has a B.A. from Podunk U. is NOT helpful in evaluating his/her expertise, but that he/she has written five other books on the same general topic might be.
Biographical information can often be found in a book’s introduction or preface. You might also look at Who Was Who, Who’s Who, Directory of American Scholars, Dictionary of American Biography, as well as doing a basic internet search.
Be sure to note if an author’s background is evident in his or her analysis, but be careful not to equate “bias” with “interpretation”.
6) Other RELEVANT information about the book (e.g., when it was first published, what edition you are reviewing [if other than the first], whether the book is unique in its field, how it can be compared to other works with which you are familiar, which works supplement it and vice versa.)
Consider use–and usefulness–of footnotes (or endnotes) and bibliography. If either is missing, does that affect the book? (Consider author’s purpose and reader’s needs. Not every book needs documentation or was intended for an audience requiring it).
Consider the usefulness of indexes, appendices, photographs, charts, etc. Are they necessary? Helpful? Used properly? If they are not used, should they be? [If these parts of the book are not major ingredients or if there is nothing special to say about them, comment carefully, perhaps making your comments “in passing” as you focus on other elements. For example, “A strength of Smith’s book, which offers readers a minimal index and standard photographs, is its wisely selected and useful maps.” If the book has no index (for example), do not merely write, “It has no index”; do not mention a point unless you have some reason for doing so.
7) Whether you recommend the books to others and why.
What type of reader should use this book? WHY?
Is it a book for someone new to its topic? Is it a book for experts? If so, experts in what field?
What does your book reveal about the need for future research? What research opportunities does it encourage or suggest?
If one of the above considerations does not apply to your book, do not force it into your review.
Do NOT quote at length, but if you quote, document with page numbers in parentheses in the text. The book review is one of those rare times when historians do NOT use footnotes/endnotes.
- Provide page numbers only for quotations. Do NOT provide page numbers for facts and ideas.
- Place page numbers inside parentheses.
- Place parenthetical notes immediately after quotations.
- Treat parenthetical page numbers as part of sentences: they fit inside punctuation as you would words.
- e.g., The author asserts that “there was no choice” (34).
- e.g., The author makes this “ghastly assertion” (51), and then he moves on without clarification.
- e.g., The author claims that “the president had no choice . . .” (151).
For additional writing guidelines, click here.