American Historical Review Reading And Writing Book Reviews

In a recent study, I reported on my findings when I sent out an electronic questionnaire on reading and writing book reviews to groups of academics in the arts, sciences and social sciences (Hartley, 2006).

Approximately fifty people in each of these groups replied. Almost two-thirds of them recalled reading a dreadful book review. Some of the things they said about such reviews were that they were:

• pointless, uninformative, indecisive and boring

• a mere listing of the contents

• pretentious, unkind and careless

• personally abusive about the author's credentials

• written to cherish the reviewer's ego.

Generally speaking, book reviews were not highly regarded if they simply outlined the content of a book using a chapter by chapter format.

On the other hand, approximately half of the respondents recalled reading an outstanding book review. Here they thought that such reviews:

• gave a balanced, critical evaluation of the text

• made seemingly dull topics interesting

• were well written, succinct and informative

• made theoretical contributions in their own right

• made people want to buy the book.

In a wide-ranging and informative paper, Miranda (1996) suggests that the key features of successful reviews are that the reviewer:

• evaluates the contribution of the text

• sets the work in a larger, broader context

• identifies the strengths and weaknesses of the arguments

• involves the reader in the discussion.

Miranda also notes that some book review formats are not used as extensively as they might be. She distinguishes between integrated formats, where there are several reviews on books on the same subject matter; multidisciplinary format, where one book is reviewed by people from different disciplines; special issue formats, where the reviews supplement and complement the theme of selected papers in that issue of the journal; review essay sections, where two or three books on the same or contrasting themes are reviewed by the same reviewer; and rejoinders, where a review is followed by the author's reply. All of these formats seem worth exploring more.

How then do authors write book reviews? Respondents to my questionnaire were reluctant to commit themselves. Most argued that it depended on the book in question. One, however, wrote: 'I use a basic sort of "recipe" that touches on all the information that I think readers of book reviews need'.

Two stages appear to be required. First of all, there is the preliminary reading and thinking about the book. Sometimes this is done before starting on the review, but some reviewers start making notes from the outset. At this stage, reviewers are concerned with selecting and thinking about information that will be relevant to the task. This might involve a trip to the library or to particular web sites to check up on required information.

Next comes the actual writing of the review. Here, different writers have different preferences. The quotations given in Figure 3.7.1 provide but two examples.

'I usually read completely the books I am reviewing (so as to be sure that I do not misunderstand them), marking parts that I think are particularly meaningful. Then I start by saying what the book is about and the intended audience (since having this information first may allow readers who are not interested to skip the rest of the review, and readers who are interested to raise their attention). Next I outline how the topic is developed, as concerns facets of content and depth of treatment. Then I point out what are in my opinion the points of strengths and weaknesses of the book. Finally, I try to give a global evaluation of my appreciation and possible usefulness of the book. Finally I polish the form and try to bring it to the required length. This writing phase lasts usually around two hours'.

'I read the book through, marking on it possible points for inclusion on (i) what the author says the book is about, (ii) possible key findings, and (iii) controversial statements. I then decide on which of these to include and which bits of the book to write about and what to leave out (because of space limitations). I word-process the first draft, which is usually too long, and then I cut it and continually refine it through numerous editings - with periods for incubation between each one - until it emerges, in my view, as a highly polished piece of prose!'

Figure 3.7.1 Examples of how academics write book reviews.

From Hartley (2006), p. 1203. Reprinted with permission of John Wiley & Sons, Inc. © James Hartley, 2006.

Whatever the procedure, it is important that a book review contains a number of key features. Figure 3.7.2 provides a checklist that might prove useful in this respect.

Make sure that your review contains:

□ An early paragraph saying what the book is about, and putting it in context

□ Information about the intended audience

□ A critique of the argument/content of the book

□ Any supporting academic references

□ Remarks on the strengths and limitations of the book

□ A note on the format, length and price (or value for money)

□ A note (if appropriate) on how well the text is supported by tables/diagrams/illustrations

If the following details are not supplied for you, please make sure that your review contains:

□ Accurate details of the authors'/editors' names and initials

□ Title of the publication

□ Date of publication

□ Publisher and place of publication

□ Format (hardback, paperback or soft cover)

Figure 3.7.2 A checklist for book reviewers.

From Hartley (2006), p. 1205. Reprinted with permission of John Wiley & Sons, Inc. © James Hartley, 2006.

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