The Elusive Book Review

ImageThe book review is quite often a graduate student’s first publication.  However, a perfect book review is an elusive creature that no one can agree upon.  There are common elements found throughout, but on the edge, there are topics that are constantly up for debate.  Here, I have listed them and the details that should be considered or included in each section, in no exact order.  Be conscious of your word limit! I am not an expert on writing book reviews, but I thought it would be helpful to share the knowledge I’ve collected over my grad school career.  I recommend reviewing the information below and grabbing some highlighters and between 10-15 published book reviews in large circulation and highly respected journals (American Historical Review, Journal of American History, etc).  This will help frame what a book review is supposed to look like and how a completed book review feels to the reader.  Always make sure to go back and reread your book review at least once and pass it on to one person who has also read the book and one person who hasn’t so they can critique it.  I know sometimes this isn’t possible, but at least one other person should review your writing before it gets sent anywhere.  A little help goes a long way to save embarrassment of errors.

Sometimes writing a book review requires an amount of outside research on a semi-unfamiliar topic to get an understanding of how to place the book in the field and in context.  The book in question’s foot or endnotes are also a great place to start and the introduction often offers a historiography.  Read the book reviews for the authors or books mentioned and follow the trail back.

Author

  • Credentials (degree, research, etc.): What makes this person believable on this topic?

Argument

  • What is the book trying to prove and why?
  • What have other historians/scholars in the field said about this topic?
  • Is it in align with previous thought?
  • What makes it an original argument?

Historiography

  • Where is this book in the historiographical conversation?
  • Is it repeating research or moving the field forward?
  • Name two or three other historians in this field who have researched and published on this topic (or one close to this topic depending on how specific it is).  How does this work reflect theirs?

Resources and Method of Presenting an Argument

  • What type of resources has the author implemented?  Primary or secondary documents?
  • Where the resources retrieved from a single location/archive?
  • Are the sources logical and credible? Do they fit this topic?
  • Would you recommend any other resources or archives to the author?
  • What type of history is this? (see below for more of an explanation on this)
  • How does the author map out the book? (see the introduction or the first few paragraphs and concluding paragraphs of each chapter)
  • Is it logical or confusing?
  • Is the book laid out in a chronological order? By topic? By person?

Summary

  • Analyze each section not just summarize.
  • How does this section fit into the rest of the work?
  • Does it support the argument?
  • What is the sections strengths and weaknesses?
  • Is there something in the chapter that should be more in depth or is too much time spent on certain topics? (remember to relate back to the argument for this)

Audience

  • What group(s) of people is the author trying to research with this book?
  • Who would enjoy this book and why?

Topic

  • What is this book about?
  • Frame the topic with events or years.
  • What type of work is this? (essay collection, synthesis/survey, etc.)

Critique

  • What are the strengths of the work?
  • What are the weaknesses and why are they weaknesses?
  • Did the author leave out anything of importance?

Types of History

This is not an exhaustive list, but hopefully can present a better understanding of the different types of study that come together to make up the field of history.  Likewise, these defitions are not all-encompassing.  Rarely does a book or work rely solely on one type of history.  They are oftern interwoven throughout, though one type may prevail.

Political: history relating to politics, anything regarding presidents, results/effects of political decisions, etc

Comparative: comparing any two or more events, people, places, etc

Psychoanalytic: looking into the mind of a historical figure trying to determine “why” and motivations behind actions

Social: a study of human interactions and movements as well as social structure (including classes) and change

Cultural: study of what makes a civilization a cohesive group of people, including their language, popular traditions, and art as well as how they remember their past

Economic: study of the effect of the economy and economic theory on the human population and history, including human motivations; game theory is popular, analyzing the structure and logic of interpersonal interactions (contracting and bargaining

Environmental: the study of the change in the environment and its impact

Military: the study of the change in military over time, including warfare, methods, research, schools, etc.

Intellectual: the study of ideas (the philosophical history)

Women’s/Gender: study of women and men throughout history, their roles,

LBGT: the study of the change of LBGT culture and society, including viewpoints and biases, across time

Race & Ethnicity (ethnographic): effects that race and ethnicity has on the lives, experiences, and cultures of people across the world; viewing race and ethnicity to understand the world

Religious: analyzing the impact that religion has had on civilizations and culture throughout history and how people have shaped religion

Labor: analyzing the change in work/how people make a living throughout history and its impact on other aspects of people’s lives

Legal: the study of law and its change, including the impact of legal decisions

For more information:

History on Wikipedia for quick info

Los Angeles Valley College: How to Write a Book Review

The Writing Center at UNC: Book Reviews

American Historial Association: The Art of Reviewing

Book: A Pocket Guide to Writing in History

Book: Writing History: A Guide for Students

Book: Writing History: Theory and Practice

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