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Academic Book Reviews

Introduction

There are few reviews as detailed and critical as academic book reviews. You might have spend half a lifetime writing your magnum opus only for some prickly professor to ridicule your ideas. However, in an ideal world, an academic book review should contain constructive criticism, an honest appraisal of the good and the bad. The reviewer should set aside his or her own ego and explain what the book contributes to the overall conversation.

Formatting Rules

Most academic reviews follow a very similar format. They typically start with some bibliographic information about the book, along with the reviewer’s name and affiliation:

Fudge, Phoebe, et al. The Theology of Chocolate. Chicago: Epicurean Publications, 2013. pp. xi, 192. $19.99 (softcover). ISBN: 978-0-18-9874111-1.

Reviewed by:
Marilyn Squirrel
University of Nuttingham
m.squirrel@nuttingham.ac.uk

Notice that the page count includes roman numerals to refer to the number of pages that precede the start of official pagination. For the price, consult a major retailer such as Amazon or give the publisher’s RRP (recommended retail price).

The rest of your document consists of the review itself, neatly organized into a series of paragraphs.

Basic Structure

Most book reviews follow a fairly simple structure, with each section being any number of paragraphs long:

In other words, most introductions begin by explaining how the book fits in with current scholarship in the field. Why is this study important? Why should we care about it? Then the reviewer will explain the author’s main argument and give some general assessment of the quality of the book.

The middle paragraphs provide summaries of the various parts of the book. A lot of academic reviewers like to do this chapter by chapter, but you can also use a topic based approach. For instance, if you’re reviewing a translation, you might deal separately with the quality of the translation, the value of the notes and apparatus, the volume’s introduction and conclusion, and so on.

As you analyze the specific arguments made in the book, relate what you think of them and whether they adequately prove the book’s main thesis. Some reviewers like to save their own opinion for the end of the book review, but it’s best to let the reader know what you think all the way through. Often you can split these middle paragraphs into two parts: a careful summation of the argument, followed by your opinion.

The conclusion sums up the overall value of the book. Explain to your readers why this book will be worth their time (or not). Try to be generous and gracious in your final assessment.

Tips

Points to Critique

The following is a partial list of the kinds of things you might focus on in your review:

Major Details:
Author’s main argument
Individual chapters and arguments
Author’s methodology
Accessibility (reading ease and jargon)
Factual errors
Relevance
Appropriateness for the intended audience
Relationship to other work in the field
Originality
Implications for future research

Minor Details:
Spelling and grammar mistakes
Cover art
Visual appeal and formatting
Author’s background (avoid ad hominem arguments)
Quality of notes and apparatus (bibliography and index)
Accuracy of foreign language translations

To avoid nitpicking, make sure that you focus primarily on the major details.

Tone

Academic book reviews can be surprisingly personal in tone. In most disciplines you don’t have to adopt some oddly impersonal tone. Here are some sample sentence starters:

I enjoyed …

I, for one, will be assigning this book to my students …

In my experience, few scholars have adequately demonstrated that …

At the same time, you should not overuse “I.” We know this is your review.

Reviews are also a matter of tactfulness. Here is an example of how you might phrase the same point in two different ways:

Harsh: Although the author clearly does not know the basic distinction between a friar and a monk, such an egregious error does not invalidate some of the book’s conclusions.

Tactful: Despite a few minor errors (e.g., some confusion about the differences between friars and monks), the main argument is sound.

Be careful though. If you’re constantly hedging (this is great, but …), you may come across as insincere. If something is bad, just say it.

Going Above and Beyond

If you want to excel as a reviewer, here are some further tips:

  • Read some other important studies in the field and see how the book you’re reviewing fits in.
  • Follow up quotations and references and determine if the author’s interpretation is fair.
  • Reread the book and look for inconsistencies in the argument.
  • Determine if there are gaps in the argument. What could have been said, but was omitted? Be careful, though, not to put too much weight on this in your review. Some reviewers constantly blame the author for not saying what they wanted to hear.

Sample Book Reviews

If you have access to a university library, you can access book reviews through many of the more popular databases (e.g., JSTOR or MLA Database). Just type in the book title and author and your search results should include reviews. If you want to consult open access review sites, we suggest you start with the following two websites. They should give you plenty of examples to emulate (or avoid):

  • H-Net Reviews (click on Browse Reviews to see the latest reviews of books in the humanities and social sciences)
  • The Medieval Review (click on Archives to access hundreds of reviews)