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Organizing Research for Arts and Humanities Papers and Theses: Writing Academic Book Reviews

Purpose of a Book Review

Note: This information is geared toward researchers in the arts and humanities. For a detailed guide on writing book reviews in the social sciences, please check the USC Libraries guide to "Organizing Your Social Science Research Paper," authored by Dr. Robert Labaree.

When writing an academic book review, start with a bibliographic citation of the book you are reviewing [e.g., author, title, publication information, length]. Adhere to a particular citation style, such as Chicago, MLA, or APA.  Put your name at the very end of the book review text.

The basic purpose of a book review is to convey and evaluate the following:

a.     what the book is about;

b.     the expertise of the author(s);

c.     how well the book covers its topic(s) and whether it breaks new ground;

d.     the author’s viewpoint, methodology, or perspective;

e.     the appropriateness of the evidence to the topical scope of the book;

f.      the intended audience;

g.     the arrangement of the book (chapters, illustrations) and the quality of the scholarly apparatus, such as notes and bibliographies.

Point "c. how well the book covers its topics and whether it breaks new ground" requires your engagement with the book, and can be approached in a variety of ways. The question of whether the book breaks new ground does not necessarily refer to some radical or overarching notion of originality in the author’s argument. A lot of contemporary scholarship in the arts or humanities is not about completely reorienting the discipline, nor is it usually about arguing a thesis that has never been argued before. If an author does that, that's wonderful, and you, as a book reviewer, must look at the validity of the methods that contextualize the author's new argument.

It is more likely that the author of a scholarly book will look at the existing evidence with a finer eye for detail, and use that detail to amplify and add to existing scholarship. The author may present new evidence or a new "reading" of the existing evidence, in order to refine scholarship and to contribute to current debate. Or the author may approach existing scholarship, events, and prevailing ideas from a more nuanced perspective, thus reframing the debate withing the discipline.

The task of the book reviewer is to “tease out” the book’s themes, explain them in the review, and apply a well-argued judgment on the appropriateness of the book’s argument(s) to the existing scholarship in the field.

For example, you are reviewing a book on the history of the development of public libraries in nineteenth century America. The book includes a chapter on the role of patronage by affluent women in endowing public libraries in the mid-to-late-1800s. In this chapter, the author argues that the role of women was overlooked in previous scholarship because most of them were widows who made their financial bequests to libraries in the names of their husbands. The author argues that the history of public library patronage, and moreover, of cultural patronage, should be re-read and possibly re-framed given the evidence presented in this chapter. As a book reviewer you will be expected to evaluate this argument and the underlying scholarship.

There are two common types of academic book reviews: short summary reviews, which are descriptive, and essay-length critical reviews. Both types are described further down.

[Parenthetically, writing an academic/scholarly book review may present an opportunity to get published.]

Short summary book reviews

For a short, descriptive review, include at least the following elements:

a.     the bibliographic citation for the book;

b.     the purpose of the book;

c.     a summary of main theme(s) or key points;

d.     if there is space, a brief description of the book’s relationship to other books on the same topic or to pertinent scholarship in the field.

e.     note the author's affiliation and authority, as well as the physical content of the book, such as visual materials (photographs, illustrations, graphs) and the presence of scholarly apparatus (table of contents, index, bibliography, footnotes, endnotes, credit for visual materials);

f.     your name and affiliation.

Good examples of short book reviews of approximately 200-300 words are available through the database Choice Reviews Online.

Critical or essay-length book reviews

For a critical, essay-length book review consider including the following elements, depending on their relevance to your assignment:

a.     the bibliographic citation for the book;

b.     an opening statement that ought to peak the reader’s interest in the book under review

c.     a section that points to the author’s main intentions;

d.     a section that discusses the author’s ideas and the book’s thesis within a scholarly perspective. This should be a critical assessment of the book within the larger scholarly discourse;

e.     if you found errors in the book, point the major ones and explain their significance. Explain whether they detract from the thesis and the arguments made in the book;

f.     state the book's place within a strand of scholarship and summarize its importance to the discipline;

g.    include information about the author's affiliation and authority, as well as the physical content of the book, such as visual materials (photographs, illustrations, graphs) and the presence of scholarly apparatus (table of contents, index, bibliography, footnotes, endnotes, credit for visual materials);

h.     indicate the intended readership of the book and whether the author succeeds in engaging the audience on the appropriate level;

i.     your name and affiliation.

Good examples of essay-length reviews may be found in the scholarly journals included in the JSTOR collection, in the New York Review of Book and similar types of publications, and in cultural publications like the New Yorker magazine.