If you’re like me, the book review assignment can be surprisingly difficult, at least to do well. And unfortunately, if you’re doing this for a fourth- or even a third-year class, you may actually be subjected to a standard that professors themselves often don’t bother meeting. The dirty little secret of the historical profession, which you’ll quickly get a sense of as you read book reviews in peer-reviewed historical journals, are that book reviews are often done sloppily and lazily, even by professional historians. The real credit comes from writing books and articles, not reviewing them. But, you’ve still got to write one, so you may as well do it well. Here’s how:
Read the book – You can get away with not reading a book for class discussion. However, you can’t get away with not reading one for the book review. If you don’t put in the time upfront, then you’ll have two choices for hastily slapping together a book review the night before: either you’ll have to crib off of already published book reviews by other historians (which is technically plagiarism, if you’re not citing your sources appropriately), or you’ll be writing a summary of the book rather than a review. Which leads to my second point:
Analyze – don’t summarize. The assignment is to write a review of the book: not a summary of it. Summarizing is easier, of course, and badly written reviews (even published badly written reviews) often do a lot of summarizing for this reason. But remember that you are going to be graded based on your ability to look at the book critically and identify its strengths and weaknesses. So it’s less important to write about what’s in the book than about what you think about the book. Several things in particular must be discussed.
There is one exception to this: all good book reviews in history identify the main argument, or arguments of a book — or, alternatively, they strongly criticize a book that doesn’t have a main argument. This is not the same as running through the book chapter by chapter and summarizing each in turn. If the book has a main theme or a main point, it should be in the introduction. It may not be an obvious point, but the first and most important task of a book review is to understand what the author said out to argue in his or her book, and to neatly capture that argument for the reader of your own review.
Identify a Strength(s) and a Weakness(es). Ultimately, the point of a book review (a real book review, not just an assignment) is to tell readers whether or not it’s worth reading the book, and why. If you ever end up writing a review for the New York Review of Books, that will be the standard you have to meet. In this case, focus on explaining why the book was successful in what the author tried to accomplish, as well as why it failed. If the tone of your review is positive, then the strengths should outweigh the weaknesses. If the tone of your review is negative, then the reverse is true. However, there is no perfect book — and at the same time, there is no book with no positive feature whatever. Imagine that the author is going to read your review: you don’t have to be uncritical, but you do have to be fair.
Identify the Historical Context. At the undergraduate level, this is the most difficult part of writing a good book review in history — and at the graduate level, some students over-indulge so excessively that the book review becomes a lofty exercise in name-dropping. In both cases, however, it is essential to explain how this book relates to other relatively recent and influential histories on the same subject. As a general rule, there have always been at least some such books: academic history is large enough that there are virtually no truly empty fields.
Again, consider the theoretical purpose of a book review: readers will want to know how this new work relates to something they are likely to be already familiar with, or may even have on their bookshelf. In this case, you will simply be trying to convince your professor that you are familiar with more of the literature than the single book in front of you, but the end result should be the same. You should try to demonstrate, as much as possible, that you are aware of whether this author has made an entirely new argument on a novel subject, or whether they are simply repeating what a legion of historians has already said before them.