Doing Book Reviews

Writing book reviews is an important part of graduate student training. It provides an opportunity to be critical (which means thoughtful, not necessarily argumentative), to try out an authoritative voice, and to get a free book. Here are some great resources:

Book Reviews from the Writing Centre at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Writing Academic Reviews from the Trent University Academic Skills Centre

Writing the Academic Book Review by Wendy Laura Belcher

I’ve summarized the key points below:

First, every book review must follow three rules:

  1. The review must tell what the book is about.
  2. The review must tell what the book’s author says that thing the book is about.
  3. The review must tell what the reviewer thinks about what the book’s author says about that thing the book is about.

Here is the process …

  1. Read or view carefully the item to be reviewed (usually more than one reading/viewing)
  2. Make notes about the item and your responses (use appropriate notetaking methods)
  3. Discover what you want to write about, in the main, by examining, categorizing, and summarizing your notes
  4. Engage in pre-writing activities like brainstorming, organizing points and notes, and outlining
  5. Write a draft developing your main points
  6. Revise your draft to produce a coherent, well-organized review

When it comes to reading the book …

Take particular note of the title (does the book deliver what the title suggests it is going to deliver?), the table of contents (does the book cover all the ground you think it should?), the preface (often the richest source of information about the book), and the index (is it accurate, broad, deep?) …

Some questions to keep in mind as you are reading:

  • What is the book’s argument?
  • Does the book do what it says it is going to do?
  • Is the book a contribution to the field or discipline?
  • Does the book relate to a current debate or trend in the field and if so, how?
  • What is the theoretical lineage or school of thought out of which the book rises?
  • Is the book well-written?
  • What are the books terms and are they defined?
  • How accurate is the information (e.g., the footnotes, bibliography, dates)?
  • Are the illustrations helpful? If there are no illustrations, should there have been?
  • Who would benefit from reading this book?
  • How does the book compare to other books in the field?
  • If it is a textbook, what courses can it be used in and how clear is the book’s structure and examples?

It can be worthwhile to do an online search to get a sense for the author’s history, other books, university appointments, graduate advisor, and so on. This can provide you with useful context …

The classic book review structure is basically as follows:

  • Title including complete bibliographic citation for the work (i.e., title in full, author, place, publisher, date of publication, edition statement, pages, special features [maps, color plates, etc.], price, and ISBN.
  • One paragraph identifying the thesis, and whether the author achieves the stated purpose of the book.
  • One or two paragraphs summarizing the book.
  • One paragraph on the book’s strengths.
  • One paragraph on the book’s weaknesses.
  • One paragraph on your assessment of the book’s strengths and weaknesses.

Final tips:

  • Evaluate the text, don’t just summarize it.
  • Do not cover everything, try to organize the review around the book’s arguments.
  • Judge the book by its own merits and intentions.
  • Don’t spend too much time focusing on gaps.
  • Don’t use too many quotes.

You can download these notes here.

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