How to Write a Book Review

The Structure of a Book Review (adapted from this Inside Higher Ed article)

In fact, like other genres of academic writing, such as journal articles and research proposals, academic book reviews tend to have a standard, even formulaic, structure. Although of course this may vary slightly by discipline and/or publication venue, my advice is, if in doubt, to use the following framework, with one paragraph for each of the following seven sections:

Introduction. All good pieces of academic writing should have an introduction, and book reviews are no exception. Open with a general description of the topic and/or problem addressed by the work in question. Think, if possible, of a hook to draw your readers in.

Summary of argument. Your review should, as concisely as possible, summarize the book’s argument. Even edited collections and textbooks will have particular features intended to make them distinctive in the proverbial marketplace of ideas. What, ultimately, is this book’s raison d’être? If there is an identifiable thesis statement, you may consider quoting it directly.

About the author(s). Some basic biographical information about the author(s) or editor(s) of the book you are reviewing is necessary. Who are they? What are they known for? What particular sorts of qualifications and expertise do they bring to the subject? How might the work you are reviewing fit into a wider research or career trajectory?

Summary of contents. A reasonably thorough indication of the research methods used (if applicable) and of the range of substantive material covered in the book should be included.

Strength. Identify one particular area in which you think the book does well. This should, ideally, be its single greatest strength as an academic work.

Weakness. Identify one particular area in which you think the book could be improved. While this weakness might be related to something you actually believe to be incorrect, it is more likely to be something that the author omitted, or neglected to address in sufficient detail.

Conclusion. End your review with a concluding statement summarizing your opinion of the book. You should also explicitly identify a range of audiences whom you think would appreciate reading or otherwise benefit from the book.

Writing good academic book reviews gets easier with experience, just like any skill. And provided you meet your deadlines and are amenable to any changes your editor may wish you to implement, your opportunities to make contributions in this genre and to the collective pursuits of a community committed to the advancement of knowledge will only increase with time. All you need to do is take that first step.

How to Review a Book in Four Steps adapted from Vitae

In five no-nonsense steps, (1) acquaint yourself with the genre, (2) choose a good book, (3) read the book while taking notes, (4) draft and revise the book review.

1. Acquaint yourself with the genre.

Read a handful of academic book reviews (see the links below), and analyze them for the common features and attributes. Get a sense for what makes a book review solid, and what doesn’t. Take notes: What phrases work well, and how could your own voice improve them? Which statements are not helpful and to be avoided? How do reviewers pass judgement on the book? How can you tell when the reviewer is effectively petitioning to elect the book’s author for sainthood and when the reviewer thinks the author is a drooling idiot, without saying it outright? (And of course, doubt any reviewer too eager to praise or punish. No one believes a single five-star rating. Others can condescend and excoriate, while scholars trade in backscratches and pulled punches.) As you read, observe what kind of questions and larger contexts your review will need to address: no book review treats only the book it is reviewing. An adequate reviewer of, say, a scholarly work on Star Trek might note, for example, that Gene Roddenberry wrote westerns before he switched to science fiction, recoloring for the reader the credit shot at the end of every episode in which the Enterprise rides off into the sunset. And of course, never review a book by Harold Bloom without first knowing who Harold Bloom is.

2. Choose a good book.

In order to choose a good book, one needs to have a clear topic or question of interest. When in doubt, talk out and then correspond in writing about your questions with advisers, instructors, and editors. Chances are, once you have a topic, careful database searches and recommendation seeking will render a small stack of quality books to choose among. (Do not, I repeat, do not just take the first on-topic title you encounter on Google books.) When in doubt, choose a book that multiple trustworthy sources recommend.

A moment on mechanics: academic books come in several types. Arranged in decreasing order of prestige, there’s the usually single-authored monograph (a detailed book-length study of a specialized topic), the edited volume (wherein a few editors combine new chapters by separate scholars), and the topical reader (wherein a few editors combined excerpts from classics on a topic by separate scholar). I’ve reviewed all three types and in my experience, this is an easy one: stick to the monographs. Despite good faith efforts and supportive editors, I doubt I will ever feel satisfied with my (published) attempts to summarize or synthesize the dozens of articles in edited volumes. By contrast, monographs enjoy the latitude to luxuriate in their topic and argument. Reward yourself: review a good monograph! Or do better yet: review multiple monographs on a single conversation. And, in fact, GSS 101 students are required to review only a monograph.

3. Read the book while taking notes.

Many good students are under the mistaken impression that reading is a linear pastime, and that, in order to read or review a book, they must start on page one, graze their eyes over every line until the last page–until at last they can close the book and be done. Boloney: a book is not a scroll. Don’t read it like one. There is of course much to be said in favor of sustained, absorbed reading (or at least something to say against its opposite: cf. Edward Tenner’s review of Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows and Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus), which every good book deserves. That said, a good book reviewer picks up a book and starts everywhere but the beginning. She scours the acknowledgements for name networks; she processes patterns and anomalies in the index and footnotes; she rummages for hints and highlights in the italicized parts, lists, and graphs; she leaps from introduction to conclusion, from the heading and closing of each chapter, from paragraph heading to example; and then she luxuriates in sustained reading of sections and chapters. Again, the smart reviewer also reads around the book, engaging the works, authors, and debates it responds to as part of the book’s larger conversation.

As for note-taking, C. Wright Mills’ appendix “On Intellectual Craftsmanship” to his classic 1959 The Sociological Imagination is my preferred guide: in a bumper-sticker, discipline your note taking creatively. Be sure to take notes in full sentences and paragraphs that include the original quote with page numbers. Conceptually, approach your subject as if you are mapping your next adventure on Google maps–zoom in on the minute details of personal lives, zoom out to observations on social structure and historical context, and play around as you find your best path forward. Take too many notes, and then be ready to set most of them aside.

4. Draft and revise the book review.

If you’re new at this, draft it as best you can with other exemplary book reviews near at hand. (That old saw comes to mind: “copy one source, and you’re a plagiarist; copy five, and you’re a student; copy fifty, and you’re a great scholar.”) There are many ways to review a book well, but all of them must do, according to Robert Pinsky’s delightful “How Not to Write a Book Review,” at least three things:

A. The review must tell what the book is about.
B. The review must tell what the book’s author says about that thing the book is about.

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

This list has the philosopher’s quality of being both plain and expansive. Cover it, the book’s evaluation of it, and your evaluation of their evaluation. An evaluation should work both with and against another position. A generous argument against a position should also improve that position. Close reading and selective quoting are two other musts. In revision, ask for comments from trusted advisers.