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.
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.
University of Nuttingham
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.
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.
Points to Critique
The following is a partial list of the kinds of things you might focus on in your review:
Author’s main argument
Individual chapters and arguments
Accessibility (reading ease and jargon)
Appropriateness for the intended audience
Relationship to other work in the field
Implications for future research
Spelling and grammar mistakes
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.
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.
It may be helpful to explain that most academic reviews tend to follow one of the following five strategies or patterns. The reason is that academics have a lot to lose by writing a negative review about one of their colleagues.
1. The Summarizer
The summarizer simply tells you what the book is about, but does not evaluate the quality of the book. The summarizer will use words such as new, intriguing, interesting, or detailed, to give the appearance of providing a critique. However, this reviewer plays it safe by avoiding any qualitative assessment. This may be because the reviewer is not an expert in the field or because he or she is too scared to make a judgment.
2. The Sycophant
The sycophant continually flatters the author, using words such as groundbreaking, brilliant, tour de force, and so on. Any criticism is limited to a brief comment or two about minor details (the odd typo, the size of the font, etc.).
3, The Sandwich Artist
The sandwich artist wants to criticize, but does not want to offend. His solution is to create what may crudely be termed a shit sandwich. All the criticism is sandwiched between a generally positive introduction and conclusion. He’ll finish his introduction with something like Generally speaking, then, this is an important piece of scholarship, only to tear the book to pieces in the middle paragraphs. Then he’ll transition to the conclusion with a line such as These minor quibbles aside, this is a tremendous addition to our knowledge of X.
4. The Honest, yet Tactful Appraiser
The best approach, and the one we recommend, is to be honest and to show that you care. Convey that you are genuinely interested in the author’s ideas. Don’t just keep harping on those subjects that you’ve been studying. Explain how the world looks from the author’s point of view. Be generous when you do criticize, and don’t nitpick over the details. Demonstrate to the reader why this book matters, or if it’s a lousy volume, put it down gently.
5. The Scornful Pedant
Some reviewers always feel the need to prove that their own expertise is greater than the author’s. They seem to take any new book in their field of study as a personal affront. How dare somebody suggest a new perspective! You can recognize a scornful pedant by his mean-spirited tone and excessive nitpicking. Pedants tend to go off on tangents, prefer to talk about their own hobby horses, and enjoy putting others down.
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)