What is a book review?

A book review is an overview or critique of a selected work. It can be anywhere from a few lines to a few pages long; the length of the review gives some indication of the depth and sophistication of the analysis. Among other things, a reviewer might comment on the author's style of writing, motifs or themes that run through the book, historical accuracy (if appropriate), and other outstanding features. Additionally, there may be some indication of the reading level and anticipated audience. There will often be a plot summary in the case of works of fiction. The reviewer will generally give an opinion of the book - whether it is interesting, credible, worth buying, etc. Even if there are elements of the book that the reviewer doesn't like, any laudable features will nevertheless be pointed out.

A book review can serve two purposes. Firstly, it can help the reader to understand a particular work by an author. The review may assist the reader in analyzing the themes and symbols prevalent in a specific work and point out the special qualities of an author's writing style. In addition, the reviewer sometimes includes biographical details about the author's life which may have influenced his or her writing. Secondly, where the particular work under study is less well-known, the reader may use reviews of the author's other works to glean information about the author's writing style and favorite themes. These details can indirectly assist the reader by suggesting possible themes or motifs used commonly by that author.

How to write a book or article review

An analytic or critical review of a book or article is not primarily a summary; rather, it comments on and evaluates the work in the light of specific issues and theoretical concerns in a course. The literature review puts together a set of such commentaries to map out the current range of positions on a topic; then the writer can define his or her own position in the rest of the paper.

Keep questions like these in mind as you read, make notes, and write the review.

  • What is the specific topic of the book or article? What overall purpose does it seem to have? For what readership is it written? (The preface, acknowledgments, bibliography and index can be helpful in answering these questions. Don't overlook facts about the author's background and the circumstances of the book's creation and publication.)
  • Does the author state an explicit thesis? Does he or she noticeably have an axe to grind? What are the theoretical assumptions? Are they discussed explicitly? (Again, look for statements in the preface, etc. and follow them up in the rest of the work.)
  • What exactly does the work contribute to the overall topic of your course? With what general problems and concepts in your discipline and/or course does it engage?
  • What kinds of material does the work present (e.g., primary documents or secondary material, literary analysis, personal observation, quantitative data, biographical or historical accounts)?
  • How is this material used to demonstrate and argue the thesis? (As well as indicating the overall structure of the work, your review could quote or summarize specific passages to show the characteristics of the author's presentation, including writing style and tone.)
  • Are there alternative ways of arguing from the same material? Does the author show awareness of them? In what respects does the author agree or disagree?
  • What theoretical issues and topics for further discussion does the work raise?
  • What are your own reactions and considered opinions regarding the work?
  • Browse in published scholarly book reviews to get a sense of the ways reviews function in intellectual discourse. Look at journals in your discipline or general publications such as University of Toronto Quarterly, London Review of Books, or New York Review of Books. Some reviews summarize the book's content and then evaluate it; others integrate these functions, commenting on the book and using summary only to give examples. Choose the method that seems most suitable according to your professor's directions or that is compatible with others in the journal for which you're writing.

    To keep your focus, remind yourself that a book review is primarily to discuss the author's treatment of the topic, not the topic itself. Your key sentences should therefore say "This book shows" or "The author argues" rather than "This happened" or "In this situation."

    Reviewing Multi-Authored Works

    All of the criteria noted above apply. However, you must address the collection of articles as a whole as well as the individual articles within the volume.

    Here are some questions that you might ask yourself:

    • Does the editor's introduction adequately introduce the theme of the volume?
    • Does the collection of articles form a cohesive whole?
    • Do the individual articles fit the theme of the volume? Are some articles more successful in this respect than others?
    • How will readers of the journa//course for which you're reviewing the volume relate (e.g., do some or all of the articles address the topic of the journal/course)?