Academic book reviews aren’t like the book reviews you read online or may have written in elementary school They offer critical commentary on scholarly works and are typically published in academic journals. They include vital information for researchers, librarians, and scholars.
Academic book reviews have several purposes. Few academic presses have the budget to market their books widely, so reviews alert potential readers and librarians to a book’s publication. Just as important, book reviews can spark further research or ideas about how to move an academic discussion forward. In addition, reviews allow researchers and scholars to learn about a book’s main argument, research methodology, and general strengths, thereby helping them decide if a book is relevant to their work and worth their time.
Preparing to Write a Review
When writing an academic book review, give ample thought to the preparation required before the writing, or even the reading, begins. If you’re selecting the book to review yourself, be sure it’s from a reputable author and publisher and is an academic book, as opposed to one written for a general audience. Librarians can help you use data bases and search engines to select a book that meets the criteria for a scholarly source.
Academic books are always part of an ongoing inquiry, which is often described as a conversation. In other words, other scholars are writing on the same topic or issue and debating central ideas or considering each other’s findings or data. You’ll need to understand how others may have received the book you selected, as well as what people talking about the same topic are interested in. You can generally find out who else may be writing about the topic by checking your book’s References (or Works Cited) section or by looking in the book’s literature review. Research the topic as well to find out how others have responded to the book you’re reviewing since it was first published.
Next, read the book and take notes. Don’t just start at the beginning, however. Scan the table of contents, the footnotes, and the acknowledgements. Look through the book’s chapter titles, headings, and subheadings. Academic books don’t have to be read front to back like novels. Familiarize yourself with the argumentative framework the author is using before you dive into the specifics.
Tips for Reading and Taking Notes
- Make sure you start by pinpointing the major takeaway or thesis of the book.
- Think critically about how well the book accomplishes its task. If there are any issues you notice, such as gaps in logic or inadequate explanation or evidence, note them.
- As you read, think about whether the argument makes sense, flows well, and is convincing. If you find some part of the argument unconvincing, note it, as well as why you think it’s lacking.
- Be specific in your notetaking. Include quotes and page numbers you can reference later.
Writing a Review
A good way to begin is to read other reviews, especially those in your field, to familiarize yourself with the conventions of academic book reviews specific to your area of study. Of course, if you’re writing your review for a class assignment, follow your instructor’s guidelines. If you’re writing in hopes of publishing in a particular journal, review that publication’s writing guidelines and study sample reviews.
While there is variation among different fields or publications, academic book reviews share some conventions. Generally, your review should be concise—typically under 1,000 words—and consist of the following:
- A general summary of the content – describe the topic, argument, and perspective of the work you’re reviewing.
- A critical assessment of the content – the most important aspect of the review, this section should include the work’s strengths, weaknesses, noteworthy and new points, and your assessment of its overall effectiveness or persuasiveness. How does it contribute to the conversation, or ongoing inquiry, in the area it addresses?
Structure the review like an essay with an introduction, body, and conclusion. A typical book review might look like this:
- Introduction—Possibly explain what attracted you to read the book, or discuss the problems or issues the book addresses and why it is a timely topic.
- Summary of the book’s argument and main point—Be brief. The summary should be no more than a paragraph for most books.
- Information about the author—Include specifics about the author’s professional position, as well as other notable work.
- Summary of the book’s content—Include research methods and the range of material used in the work.
- Critical analysis of the content—Assess the book’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as its contribution to the area it addresses.
- Conclusion—Summarize your view of the book and provide a final assessment. Mention who you think might be a target audience for the book, such as researchers interested in a particular aspect of the study.
Tips for Writing the Review
- Keep in mind that the central purpose of academic writing is to advance knowledge or move an academic conversation forward. Evaluate the book on those grounds.
- Be honest and fair. Don’t feel that you have to be critical but also don’t be afraid to point out the book’s shortcomings. A book can have weaknesses but still make a valuable contribution to its field.
- Include strong evidence or examples to back up your claims.
"Book Reviews." The Writing Center. The Writing Center at UNC Chapel Hill, n.d. Web. 08 Dec. 2015.
Brienza, Casey. "Writing Academic Book Reviews." Inside Higher Ed. Inside Higher Ed Inc., 27 Mar. 2015. Web. 8 Dec. 2015.
Peters, Benjamin. "How to Write a Book Review: The Gordin Method." Vitae. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 25 Oct. 2013. Web. 08 Dec. 2015.