Guidelines for Writing a Book Review
When you have been assigned to write a book review, also
called a critical review essay, you will find it helpful to recall the
words of William of Baskerville in Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose:
"Books are not made to be believed, but to be subjected to inquiry." This
is what distinguishes a book review from a book report: the purpose of a
review is not simply to report on the contents of a book (although this
will comprise a small part of the review), but rather to evaluate it and
provide a critical commentary on its contents.
Format of the Book Review
The format of a review is generally as follows, although you should always
consult your professor of Teaching Assistant about any specific
1. Introduction: Identify the book you are going to review. The author,
title, date and place of publication may be placed at the beginning of
the essay in the form of a bibliographic citation. Then state what the
author's goal was in writing the book.Why
did the author write on this specific subject? What contribution to our
understanding of history did the author intend to make?
2. Brief Summary: In the main body of the review, you should begin by
briefly describing the content and organization of the book, along with
the most important evidence used. Do not get bogged down in details
here; this section is only intended to prepar e the reader for the
critical assessment to follow.
3. Critical Assessment: Evaluate the book's contribution to our
understanding of history. There are several things you should look for:
a) Identify the author's central argument, or thesis. The thesis is not
the topic of the book but the specific argument that the author has
made about her or his subject. Sometimes, the author states the
thesis in the book's introduction, sometimes in the
conclusion. Feel free to read these sections of the book first to
determine the author's main argument. Knowing the main argument will
help guide you through the rest of the book. Finding the central
argument or arguments can be like finding the forest i n the trees:
it requires you to step back from the mass of information to
identify larger themes. Sometimes a book, such as a general
historical survey, lacks an explicit argument or thesis.
b) Identify the author's perspective, point of view, or purpose. This
can be approached in a number of different ways. Ask yourself
whether the author has a particular emphasis, such as economic,
social or intellectual history. Is the book informed by a r eligous
or political ideology? If the book describes a conflict, does the
author, either explicitly or subtly, favor one side over the other?
Does the author state the purpose of the book in the introduction
c) Look at the author's evidence: what sources did he or she use? A
history of European witch trials based only Inquisition records
would be one sided. This does not mean that any conclusions from
which evidence would be invalid, but the author should demonstrate
an awareness of any limitations imosed by the sources used.
4. Conclusion: Asses the organization and style of the book. Is it
well-organized and clearly written? Does the style or the content of
the book recommend it to a specific readership? Offer a final
evaluation of the book: How valuable lis it? How importan t is it to
read this book?