I have found that one of the best ways to stay up-to-date on current research is to volunteer to do book reviews. I have done about five or six and I have four more on contract that I am working on with various periodicals. What I notice when reading reviews is how much they vary in what kind of things are said and for what reasons. This begs the question, how should a book review be written, and for what reasons? It seems simple enough – review the book. But people expect more than a summary – they can get a summary from the back cover! They want a critical review – an analytical summary. So, with that in mind, I have tried to tackle a book review with some of these things in mind:
1. Find the Central thesis of the book: Unless it is purely a reference book, the author(s) has a main point, and it is probably ‘original’. Your initial task is to find it and be able to summarize it clearly and succintly. Even if it is a reference book, there is probably an agenda behind the new survey book, or dictionary or whatever. Try to figure out what it is, by the tone of the piece, or the editorial comments at the beginning, or by researching a bit about the contributors.
2. The Main thing you want to evaluate in a review is: is the author successful in arguing his/her thesis. What methodology is employed? What is the flow of logic? What presumptions are recognizable – how do they further the thesis; how do they limit the persuasiveness? Many reviewers quibble with a small point here or there, but this does little for the reader. Is there main point fundamentally flawed? Even if you feel the thesis is wrong, does the argument raise important questions?
3. Format: It may seem rigid, but my pattern is to summarize the book for about 3/5 of the review, and critique for the final 2/5. That way, the reader gets a sense for what the book is about ( – leave the detailed analytical critiques to the expert reviewers in journals of narrow scope -), and you can offer some perspective at the end.
4. Positive Points – I try and have something positive to say about the book. The book may be rubbish, but at least it raises some questions about assumptions in the particular field. If you are only negative, it may seem like you went into reading the book with bias. I recently read comments by Karl Barth in prefaces to his second and third edition of his commentary on Romans, and he mentions nasty reviews by theological/biblical opponents. Some of these opponents wrote scathing reviews. This, to me, is poor reviewing. It may be impossible to be completely objective, but I feel that we must come to every book willing to learn or appreciate something.
5. Negative Points – Often people are wanting to know what is wrong with the book, and look to experts for insight. Now, you and I are not experts, but it is a good exercise to scrutinize the argument and look for its flaws – major and minor. Here are some areas to explore for criticism:
a. Length: Is it too short or long – inappropriate for the type of argument.
b. Omissions: Does the author exclude key issues in the topic; does he/she exclude key contributions in the previous research on the issue.
c. Focus: Are some issues covered to the exclusion of others; are any chapters superfluous
d. Errors: Are there multiple typographical/bibliographical/grammatical errors that seriously detract from the argument (this can be the case with published theses that receive little or no editing by the publisher)
e. Is the work overly agressive against a particular author – is their argument ad hominem (which seems to bias the author too much)? Has the author arguing against straw men?
f. Arrangement – is the material arranged in a useful manner; or are the chapters scattered thoughts?
g. Sources – Does the author use primary sources responsibly or just as ‘proof-texts’? Does he/she demonstrate serious competence in the original literature being studied?
h. Originality – Is the argument original? Does it seem to just rehearse what someone else has already said?
6. Front/Back Matter – sometimes the book has useful indexes or charts in the front or back and these may be worthy of mention.
7. Text-book ideas: Ocassionally, it is worthy of mention that a book would make a good textbook for a course.
If you are a non-expert, writing for a more general-audience periodical, chances are the review is going to be relatively short – don’t try to do too much. Just give a good summary that gets at the heart of what the person is arguing, and offer some pluses and minuses.
TIP: A tenured scholar gave me the advice that you should be careful not to be too polemic in your review – certain allegiences are formed around particular disciplines and if you are labelled an opponent of the discipline you might find yourself in bad standing with the whole group. Be honest in your review, but in a respectful way!