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How to Review a Book

(by Victor Wiebe)

This guide will be of interest to anyone who must review a book, whether it is a non-fiction or imaginative work like a novel, poetry or play. Further help is available from the Book Review Editor: Victor G. Wiebe, (306) 934-8125, or by form/email.

There is no perfect way to write a book review but the check list given below can be helpful. No review should include all topics in the checklist, though topics 1, 3, and 5 are the primary focus of book reviews. Beyond these the book itself should be the guide, for example if there is nothing remarkable about the style or format, omit remarks on these tropics.

Deciding on what goes into a review may be affected by the limitations placed on the reviewer. For the Saskatchewan Mennonite History reviews are usually between one lengthy paragraph and three typed pages long. The reviewer may be only interested in one or two aspects of a book, for example in one short story in a collection. Finally the level of sophistication of the book may limit or expand the review.

Checklist of Items to be Considered in a Book Review

1. Purpose
Why was the book written?
What did the author hope to accomplish?

The title, preface, introduction and sometimes the conclusion are useful in establishing the book's purpose.

2. Outline of Ideas
Is the book descriptive, pictorial, impression giving, mood creating?
Is it narrative, is there a basic chronology where the characters and events are related to some sequence of time? Is the book expository, where it states a thesis and makes an argument to back it up?

The overall content of the book, including table of contents, chapter headings and subheadings are useful in establishing this information.

3. Content and Authority

3.1 Author's background and qualifications
What are they?
Does the author's religion, nationality or origins influence the book?
Is the author influenced by social, cultural and political events or institutions?

3.2 Development in the book
Are the author's ideas presented consistently?
Are they developed logically and thoroughly?
Is the approach to the book elementary, cultural, popular or scholarly?
How thoroughly is the subject dealt with?
Were areas omitted purposely, from oversight or bias?
How serious arc the omissions?

3.3 Sources
Did the author use new sources and surveys?
If so, how was the information gathered and how reliable is ft?
Are primary sources described in a new light?
Are secondary sources or works by other authors examined critically?
Are the foot notes complete and easy to follow up?

4. Style and Format

Is the writing simple or technical lucid or turgid; logical and reasoned or imaginative; and or/emotional?
Is the style suitable for the subject and/or for the reader?
Does the book contain aids for understanding, such as charts, graphs, maps, statistics, illustrations, photographs?
Is there an index? How adequate is it?
Are bibliographies included? How thorough are they and are they annotated?

5. Significance of the Work

Has the author written other books in the field?
How does this book compare?
How does it compare to works by ether authors?
Is there any further work that needs to be done?

Footnotes and bibliography in the book itself are useful in determining relevant past works and consulting librarians or other experts will help located additional works.

Organizing and Writing

Once you have read the book, consulted the preceding checklist, gathered background information about the author and topic of the book you are ready to begin organizing and writing the review.

1. Preliminary Information

Any book review should begin with the following basic information which provides the reader enough information to clearly identify the book and to order a copy for themselves.
(a) title of the book
(b) author's name
(c) place of publication
(d) publisher
(e) date of publication
(f) edition
(g) number of pages
(h) special features such as maps, graphs
(i) cost
(j) if needed, special instruction on ordering

2. Beginning

An effective opening will catch the reader's attention immediately, so usually do not begin with something as ordinary as: "This book is ..."

Instead:
- Write a brief anecdote or some human interest item connected with the book or its author, or;
- Take one of the items on the check list as a point of beginning; e.g. the significance of the book in its field, or;
- Open with a statement about the projected treatment of the book. For example, "Certain features of this monograph make it worth reading, but..."

3. Development

A good review will involve description, evaluation and whenever possible an explanation of why the author wrote as he did. This means it will often be necessary to relate different parts of the checklist to each other; for example, explain how the author's bias affected the selection and use of sources.

A good book review resembles an essay, however there are some crucial differences. Book reviews do not have chapters of other divisions. Long quotations from the book itself are discouraged, although brief quotes may be used to illustrate a point. If you quote from the book put page numbers (in Parentheses) into the review immediately after the quote.

4. Conclusion

Conclude in a short summary statement that picks up the principle themes introduced at the beginning of the review to complete the package. Personal judgments of likes and dislikes are appropriate if placed here.

Mennonite Historical Society of Saskatchewan / 06.2016

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