An Important Scholarly Exercise: What it takes to write a Valuable Book Review and Why
Charles F. Howlett
So, you’ve been asked to write a book review. Consider it an honor, not a burden. Younger scholars, in particular, often consider reviewing an onerous task detracting from their own scholarly research, interests, and desires, or that it takes up too much time. But I would argue that there are important benefits to be derived from writing book reviews. One of the most notable is that reviewing books not only expands one’s personal library of learning, but it also fosters disciplined reading habits. Failing to read and report on books deprives scholars of one of the academic opportunities of being well read in their field.
In addition, reviewing books not only benefits the author but also helps readers decide whether or not to spend time and money on a book. A good review will most certainly be read and appreciated for its own sake by readers who may otherwise demonstrate no inclination of even consulting the book. More specifically for the book reviewer, it is most beneficial that your opinion be respected since it can generally provide you with an avenue for your own scholarly submissions. Very often, this last aspect is overlooked on the part of younger scholars seeking to publish their research and findings to advance their own fledgling careers.
How does one actually write a book review that can be appreciated by the scholarly community? First, the most important aspect to keep in mind is that it should be interesting and to the point. Historical works, in particular, require thoughtful deliberation and reflection. Noted journals in the field of history such as the American Historical Review and Journal of American History (generally 500–800 words), as well as those in sub-disciplines geared to a specific audience such as Diplomatic History, History of Education Quarterly, Journal of Cold War Studies, and Peace & Change, among others, will specifically limit the number of words you can pen. This is where deliberation and reflection come into play in terms of addressing the journal’s readership. Ask yourself this question: how will my review fit into the journal’s scope and mission given its subscribership? Embrace it as an opportunity, not a restriction. Less is sometimes more and readers should not be sidetracked by superfluous and extraneous observations that add nothing to the discussion. Equally important, your review is really a creative composition. It should be neither a transcription of the book’s contents nor a disguised summary of what the dustcover says. A scholarly review is not a report. Thus, in a few brief paragraphs, bring the larger work into focus through applying your own understanding of the subject and importance of the book. Again, whether the review is critical or praiseworthy, always keep your audience in mind. Readers of book reviews are not interested in your own predilections or predispositions. They want a thoughtful evaluation, which will hold you as accountable as that of the book’s author. Be aware, also, that you should indicate the page numbers of any passages or phrases you choose to quote since accuracy adds to authoritativeness.
Second, make sure you address the most important points you, as reviewer, should cover. The primary obligation is to describe the author’s or authors’ purpose in writing the book; was the book’s objective achieved? Assess the book’s strengths and weaknesses while also addressing whether one aspect of the work dominates others—check for balance. It is critical that you place the book in the context of other works on the same subject to establish its significance or inability to measure up. You may also want to devote a few words about the author’s qualifications in the field. Has the author published on the same subject before? Are there any biases inherent in the author’s observations about the topic written? Think about the book’s utility to the readership. For instance, is this a work that can be used in a survey class or is it more suited to an advanced course? A critical consideration these days is whether or not the cost of this work prohibits its widespread use in the classroom.
Third, if this is a new edition of an old work, your professional obligation is to discuss the extent to which the work has been revised from the previous edition and ask whether its significance still remain worthy of consideration. Very often new editions of classic works will have a new foreword by the editor of the latest reprint. If that is the case, touch on the ways the editor of the new edition shed additional light on its continuing contribution to the literature in the field. Are there differing viewpoints in terms of the revisionist literature in the field? Are there sidebars in the new addition for explanatory purposes?
Lastly, be on the alert to spot-check the book’s accuracy for basic facts. Are the quotations accurate and, most importantly, are the citations proper? Is there a comprehensive list of references or annotated bibliography, or are some important sources not included that should be? Is the book’s physical appearance helpful to its promotion? Does it have appropriate images and are they clearly reproduced to enhance the work’s quality, not necessarily appearance. Equally important, is the editing from the publishing house first-rate or are there mistakes that are readily apparent? Additionally, be sure to note whether there is a foreword, introduction, notes, appendices, bibliography, index, type and number of illustrations, and if the book is in cloth, paperback, or both, and its cost in both venues. Usually, this is noted in the heading prior to writing the review.
I would also suggest that reviewers establish a checklist of the most important criteria to evaluate and to rank them in three categories: the work falls below expectations; the work meets expectations but is not exceptional, although useful; and the work exceeds expectations and is an important contribution to scholarship. The criteria I recommend can be classified in the following way: (1) tone and substance of the work in terms of readability and writing style; (2) contribution to scholarship by offering new insights and valuable interpretations; (3) demonstrates knowledge in the field; (4) fulfills the author’s stated objectives; (5) appropriate balance; (6) fair and objective without trying to sway readers’ opinions; (7) quality of editing; (8) accuracy and appropriate citations; (9) complete references and bibliography—the book is not overloaded with works not pertinent or helpful to the topic; (10) illustrations and charts, and appendices, if appropriate; (11) the author consulted the relevant primary and secondary sources relative to the book’s topic while also critiquing those secondary works as part of the narrative or contained in an annotated bibliography; and (12) overall recommendation to readers—why or why not should you read this book.
Of course, some reviewers may also have their own set of criteria or standards they wish to apply. What is important is that your review becomes part of your professional reputation. At the same time you should make sure that you adhere to the journal’s length limitation unless you believe that it merits a longer analysis; in that case, you must contact the journal’s editor and explain why. Meeting the deadline for submitting your review is also very important and should not be taken lightly. Someone’s career may hinge in the balance based on your review, so the sooner you get it done, the better for everyone. Thus timeliness is of the essence as to the book’s publication and the review’s appearance. Keep it fresh since the review will often determine its true value to scholarship. An outdated review is a disservice to the author and readers.
Writing a book review is an art, a skill, and an obligation. How professionals communicate their observations on a particular topic or discipline remains one of the most important tasks we have as scholars. After all, how do we know what you really think about someone else’s scholarly work unless you are willing to write that review?
Charles F. Howlett, Ph.D., Professor of Education Emeritus at Molloy College, is also a retired Social Studies teacher and department chair. His most recent book, published by Southern Illinois University Press, with Audrey Cohan, is John Dewey, America’s Peace-Minded Educator.