Writing a book review, a comparative book review, or an historiographical essay (basically, a review of several secondary sources on a single topic) is a good way to practice one of the key features of historical analysis—assessing history scholarship (aka “secondary sources”). Historians must place their own research within the work of others who have approached their topic, and book reviews are helpful for two main reasons. On one hand, writing a book review for a book that covers a topic one is researching forces you to read related scholarship carefully. On the other hand, if you are trying to get a handle on several different scholarly works in a short period of time, reading reviews written by other professional historians of some of those works can be a beneficial shortcut. Moreover, the more well-written book reviews that you read will help you learn not only more about your topic, but also the qualities that make for a good review. In other words, reading and writing book reviews are an important part of developing the skills of historical analysis.
The steps for writing book review start by following the rules of reading historically. Above all, a competent review must recap the main argument, assess how well it holds up and estimate its importance for those who care about its subject. To accomplish these three goals, it helps to know something about the author, to ready critically, and to follow the basic rules of good prose writing.
Good book review writing habits:
- Start by knowing as much as you can about the author
Use your library reference databases—Gale Virtual Reference library, Credo, JSTOR and Google Scholar, for example—to see what else your author has written. A quick Google search in this instance can also show where they teach and provide a link to a curriculum vitae (the scholar’s version of a resume). Use these searches to find out what other books or articles the author has written, and how they identify in terms of sub-discipline expertise (that is, perhaps a specialist in political history or an expert in medieval literature).
- Read for the argument, not for details.
Read the suggestions under “Reading Historically” or from a reputable writing center like that of the University of Iowa ( ) before you read your book, so that you approach the text critically. What these hints have in common are strategies for helping you think about what the argument is and how it is supported. You don’t have to have an answer to every question posed by a list like that provided by University of Iowa by any means. But it is essential to look for how the author chose to structure the book, what historical periods s/he sees, what their primary sources are and how they use them, in addition to the all-important question of what the argument is and whether or not it is convincing.
- Draft your review focusing on explaining and assessing the interpretation, not a blow-by-blow summary.
In the introduction reveal the historical period, topic and genre of the book (a political biography of Samuel Adams during the era of the American Revolution OR a socio-economic analysis of the lives of free African American women in antebellum Charleston, South Carolina). In this first paragraph, also lay out the author’s argument and signal your overall impression of the book, which is the thesis of your review. (Example of possible thesis statements for book reviews include that arguing that the book succeeds in revising previous views, or the author proves her thesis for the most part, or the fascinating topic leaves the reader wanting more…)
Subsequent paragraphs focus on the main themes or critiques you’ve identified, not summaries of each chapter’s findings. Conclude with a statement on which sort of audiences might find the book helpful—popular, college students, scholars only—and why.
- Always present your best self in writing, without grammatical or stylistic errors.
After you’ve written your review, being careful to not just outline and summarize what the author said, but instead shaped a review based on critical questioning, read it over. Look out for grammatical and spelling errors, make sure that any points you assert are supported by evidence from the text (with all quotes properly cited and page numbers in parentheses), and be certain that you have a clear introduction and conclusion. Once last time, read it out loud to see if you’ve left any words out and to be sure that it makes sense.
Check out an annotated book review with all its requisite parts: Book Review of Forging Freedom