“How to Write a Book Review”

A book/article review is a commentary, not a summary. Its purpose is to comment on a particular work or a series of works bearing upon a single subject or related subjects. You should therefore 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 related information that captures the book’s/article’s essence. You can then concentrate on your critical assessment of the way the author(s) address(es) the issues and questions. What is (are) the overall thesis(es)–the points of view and arguments? What are your reactions? Did the book(s) enhance your understanding of the issues? Are you persuaded? Be as direct as possible. Remember, you are the expert.

In framing your review, succinctly and unobtrusively 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/article? (Often the preface contains such information) What evidence does she/he/they cite, and is it the most current available at the time of publication? Did she/he/they gain access to new documentation, and has newer documentation become accessible subsequently? What difference does this new documentation make? Or does the book/article present a novel/revisionist interpretation based on previously available documents? Why do we need his book? Your commentaries about these aspects, of course, will affect your comparative evaluations of the works. You should also consider the time during which the book/article 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 in 1954 will differ from a biography written by a neo-Marxist in 1974. Similarly, the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union influenced scholars’ assessment of the origins and conduct of the Cold War itself. For that matter, so has proliferation of “failed states,” emergence of “terrorist” non-state actors, and similar phenomena inherent in a globalized and decreasing stable international order/system.

It will almost certainly be necessary for you to refer to specific portions of the book/article in order to illustrate and support your statements and conclusions. Doing so is fine, but avoid extensive quotations. When reviewing more than one book/article, choose aspects of the subject that are sufficiently broad to cover each and compare the books from these particular perspectives. An effective strategy is to indicate in your introductory paragraph on what dimensions/issues you chose to concentrate, and explain your choices. Do not try to make more points than can be accomplish  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)/article(s) under review and drawing conclusions as to the meaning and importance of the point.
Your review should conclude with your summative assessment. Refer back to your introductory paragraph(s). What is your ultimate judgment of the style, format, contents, and historical value of the book(s)/article(s)? Has/have the author(s) achieved the purpose, explicit or implicit, for writing the book? Are you convinced? Why or why not? When comparing books/articles, assess respective evidence cited. Ask yourself whether the book(s)/articles increased your knowledge, raised new questions, provoked you to think differently. Would you recommend any or all of these books/article, and at what level — secondary, undergraduate, graduate? What book/article on this subject still needs to be written? Should someone write it?

  • Professor Richard Immerman