Scholarly Book Reviews
Assignment: Write a detailed book review over a monograph that covers a relevant topic in American history. The assignment is worth 100 points. Target length: 3-5 typed pages (12 pt Times New Roman, double-spaced, 1” margins). The paper should be written in standard academic English, proofread with few or no typos, grammar or spelling errors. Include a bibliography at the end, giving full bibliographic information on the book reviewed, formatted according to the Chicago Manual of Style. You will submit this assignment to the appropriate Turnitin link on Blackboard.
How to Write a Scholarly Book Review. This book review assignment asks you to write an essay in which you convey information about, and evaluate, a significant academic source for a specific topic in American history.
Note that the assignment asks for a “review,” not just a “report.” Certainly, you should include some information on the content of the book. This doesn’t mean summarizing all the topics included in every chapter of a book. Content descriptions should usually be short ones, to set the scene for what else you must say. And that means evaluating the book – giving your review of it. This will include pointing out any flaws you see in each book, but also its achievements, its audience level, writing style and organization, and its author’s academic qualifications and slant (if any). In other words, you are being asked to assess not only what the book is about, but also what kind of book it is, how well and in what way its author is qualified to write it, what sort of evidence and sources he or she used, and how well it all turned out.
Patrick Rael of Bowdoin College, in his Reading, Writing and Researching for History, offers one of the best excellent brief description of what should be in a good book review. He says:
Your review should incorporate the three parts outlined below, but will weave them together rather than discuss them separately. A book review is an essay; it should be structured like one, with an introduction (including thesis), body, and conclusion.
The first purpose is primarily descriptive, and includes the following information:
· Bibliographical information (this means author, title, publisher, place of publication, publication date.)
· Author’s background, consisting of pertinent information necessary to understand the author’s purpose and frame of reference.
The second is evaluative and interpretive. It includes the following information:
· The author’s purpose: According to your interpretation, why did the author write the book? What did she hope to demonstrate?
· Argument and evidence: Does the author offer logical reasoning and reliable evidence to support her thesis? Are the arguments relevant?
· Does the author answer questions raised by her sources? Does she omit or mishandle key questions and issues?
The third function of the essay is to examine the book’s relevance to the appropriate historical period or theme. It includes the following information.
· The author’s view of history: Is the author employing an overarching paradigm (this means pattern, like gender, Native American studies, labor, etc.) of historical interpretation?
· The author’s contribution to study of the period or topic: How does the book contribute to our understanding of the period or topic? What does he add to existing scholarship?
Unfortunately, there is no one formula for how to do this. It all depends: on what array of points you want to make, and on your own writing style. But almost all successful essays do have a few basic elements, which are strongly recommended here.
Introduction. Your paper should begin with a brief introduction, which usually is just one, but sometimes can be two, paragraphs. One classic definition of an introduction is that it should be a brief arrow pointing to your conclusion. In other words, it should very briefly introduce the major interpretations or themes that you will be developing throughout the body of your paper.
Body. The body makes up most of your paper. This is where you present, in an organized, effective way, the specific content you have selected, along with your accompanying explanation and analyses. In planning the body, it is best to start with an outline. Try several organizational approaches. Within this section you might focus on why the book took an interpretation of controversial events or why certain events/issues were not prominently featured. Then you might talk about areas of strengths for the book.
In terms of writing style, pay attention to how your text divides into paragraphs. Paragraphs generally are supposed to contain at least two sentences, and usually are at least three to five. On the other hand, they aren’t supposed to go on forever! Each paragraph should group a limited number of sentences together to explore one focused topic. Classically, paragraphs begin with a topic sentence that does just what it sounds like: establishes the topic to be explored by the coming paragraph. If your paragraph gets too long, it probably is exploring a topic that is complex enough to deserve a second paragraph.
Conclusion. This, like your introduction, should be brief. That does not mean, however, that it isn’t important. Often students, exhausted by the final push to finish a paper, end by saying something like “and that’s the way it was,” thereby missing their great chance to end the paper on a memorable high note. Here is where you brilliantly – and briefly – restate your core thesis, supported by brief references to your best arguments and evidence. If possible, in a book review, finish by giving your own (informed and thoughtful) sense of how the book fits into the larger world of relevant scholarship. This does not mean that you must go out and read another four books on the subject, to say how yours fit in with them. But if you’ve read other books of the same sort for other classes (or just your own information), how do they stack up? About the same? Extraordinarily dull? Opened new vistas? Do they leave you hungry for more, and if so is this a mark of success (their own ability to connect to larger themes) or limitations (very skewed towards only the political)?
Adapted from Washburn University/Sara Tucker’s Women’s History Guidelines