Unwritten Histories

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How to Write Scholarly Book Reviews

How to Write a Scholarly Book Review

The inspiration for today’s blog post comes from the lovely and talented Dr. Anne Dance, historian and Programme Director of the Parliamentary Internship Programme!

 

Publish or Perish is pretty much academia’s guiding principle. Our careers are, to a large extent, dependent upon our publications (bet you thought it was teaching. Nope!). This is as true for tenure-track professors as it is for sessional instructors. It used to be that graduate students were encouraged to focus on their theses and dissertations rather than on publishing articles. Unfortunately, that is no longer the case, and individuals completing their PhD are often advised to have at least one peer-reviewed publication under their belt prior to graduating (though two is better!)

A good starting point is to do book reviews for scholarly journals. However, as is the case for scholarly articles, there are few guides or resources available on how to do this successfully. Most of us end up learning by trial and error, or by following the patterns that can be found in existing book reviews. So to save you the trouble, in this blog post, I am going to walk you through the basics of writing book reviews. While I am approaching this subject as a historian, the basics apply no matter what humanities or social science field you are working in.

 

Why You Should Write Book Reviews

Book reviews are extremely useful documents for scholars to produce at any stage of their careers. But this is especially the case for graduate students. When we enter our MAs or our PhDs, the only experience that most of us have with writing is producing research essays for our coursework. Book reviews can be a great way to dip your toe, as it were, into the world of scholarly publications. While book reviews do not count as peer-reviewed publications, writing them does provide you with experience in writing in a more formal academic style. The experience will also help you to perfect your scholarly-book-reading abilities, while also helping to familiarize you with how the journal publishing process works (guidelines and such). Again, while book reviews are not peer-reviewed publications, having them in your C.V. is a good thing. It shows that you are a scholar that is engaged in the community and that you have (some) experience writing for a journal. When it comes to applying for grants, and you don’t have any peer-reviewed publications yet, this can make a huge difference! One final advantage: one of the best perks is that you get to keep the book for free! Score!

 

Getting Started, or How to Find a Book to Review

In the field of history, journals follow one of three options for soliciting book reviews. The first is by invitation only. This is the case for journals like the Canadian Historical Review and most journals that are published through the University of Toronto Press Journals. How do you receive an invitation? You will need to be registered in their system. This information can be found on the official home page for each journal, usually under the section called “For Authors and Reviewers.” UTP Journals system uses a system called ScholarOne. All you need to do is register, fill out your information, and wait for a response – though, unless you are already a well-known scholar or happen to research a very niche field, don’t hold your breath.

The other option, which is much more common, is a list of “books received.” Journals like Histoire Sociale go this route. Sometimes this list appears on the journal’s website (as is the case with the Canadian Bulletin of Medical History) or announced on social media and/or H-Net, but more commonly this list appears at the end of every version of a journal issue. The list will contain all of the books that the individual journal has received from book publishers for review. If you are interested in writing a review, you can select a few of the books from the list that look interesting to you, and email the book review or reviews editor stating your interest.

Finally, some journals (such as Oral History Forum) have little to no information on book reviews on their websites. But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t interested in running book reviews! Instead, you will just need to email either the book review or reviews editor, or, if that information is also unavailable, the journal itself. In response, they will either send you a list of books that are available, or direct you to the person who will.

I know this sounds complicated and/or scary. Most graduate students (and, let’s face it, professors) hate talking to human outside of a classroom. I’m thirty-two years old, and I still have a hard time calling in an order for takeout (thank god for my husband, the gopher). But the thing to keep in mind is that 1) the people who work at journals are also academics, and the person in charge of coordinating book reviews is usually a graduate student and 2) this is their job. Besides, I’ve found that while it might seem really scary to email other academics, especially if they are super-stars, they are general ordinary human beings who are just as nerdy about history as you are.

 

Book Reviews versus Book Reports

So, you’ve got your book. Yay! Before you sit down to read your book, however, you need to understand what it means to write a book review for a scholarly journal. This is not the same as that book report your wrote in your high school English class. The main difference is intent. A book report is generally written with your teacher in mind, and is basically a summary of a book, maybe with some additional detail. A book review, instead, is a professional assessment of a piece of scholarly work designed for an audience of your peers. The basic goal of a book reviews is to communicate to your journal’s readers the basic content and approach of the book, what it adds to the field, what is missing, and who might be interested in reading it. In short, should anyone else read this book?

 

Anatomy of a Book Review

As with most academic documents, book reviews generally follow the same basic pattern every time. They are prefaced with a full citation of the book or books in question, often in bold. The text itself will be somewhere between 600 to 1000 words. The text will then follow the same basic structure:

  • Introduce the book
  • Summarize the argument
  • Summarize the chapters
  • What you liked
  • What you didn’t like
  • Conclusion

Yes, it is that simple. Let’s go through each one of these at a time.

 

Introduce the Book

Just like any other text, you need to have a solid introduction in order to capture the interest of the reader, what you might call a ‘hook.’ Remember, since this is such a short text, it shouldn’t be more than 100 or so words. There are several ways to do it, but the most common are historiographical or anecdotal.

When writing a historiographical introduction, what you are basically doing is situating the book you are about to review within the context of its field. Was the book written to address a gap in the literature? Was is intended to put a new spin on an old topic?

Anecdotal introductions are more common in other fields and tend to be more frequently used by senior scholars, but they can be quite fun. Anecdotal introductions will basically introduce the book review in one of three ways: a) a short anecdote from the reviewer’s life as it relates to the book; b) a short anecdote from the book itself — something catchy or interesting; or c) making reference to current events that relate to the book itself.

 

Summarize the Argument

When I say summarize, what I really mean here is to identify the basic qualities of the book:

  • What is the thesis statement?
  • Which topics are addressed?
  • Which sources are used?
  • Which methodology is used?
  • What is the overall goal of the book?
  • What was the impetus behind the book?

Another way to think of it is, if you only have 3 or 4 sentences, how would you describe the book to another scholar? I often begin by discussing the history of the book, as outlined by the author itself. Does this come out of a research project? Was it inspired by specific research? Is there something that the author is trying to accomplish with this book?

Then I move on to discussing the main argument of the book. In most scholarly works, there are really two arguments. The first relates to the subject matter itself, while the second relates to the philosophy of the field. Both are important to acknowledge, but only the first is really called the thesis. This should be no longer than a single sentence.

The second argument, or what I sometimes call the ‘goal’ of the book, refers to the tendency that most academics have to ensure that their book makes a statement. Sometimes this relates to their field, in that they are making a point about approaches or sources. Otherwise, the book is a commentary on current or past events. Next, I describe the types of sources that are used in the book, and I often make reference to whether or not the author discusses what some of the advantages or disadvantages of these sources are. The same goes for the methodology, or the author’s approach to understanding their sources.

 

Summarize the Chapters

This is probably the hardest part, but what you really need to do is squeeze a 300-page book into one paragraph. Don’t try to cover everything. Instead, I find it helpful to go chapter by chapter and identify the essential points of each. If you are dealing with an edited collection or a really large book, you should only focus on a few of these — usually the ones you liked best or you felt most people will be interested in reading.

 

Judge the Book

The next two paragraphs will be your specific assessment of the book. Generally, book reviews discuss the strengths of a book first. When I say strengths, I don’t mean whether or not you enjoyed the writing style. Instead, you should answer the following questions: Does the book accomplish what it sets out to do? How does this book contribute to its field? Did the book do something particularly innovative with its research, sources, or approach? Who will be most interested to read this book?

Next, you should discuss the weaknesses of the book under review. Before I go any further, I should note that there are always weaknesses, and a book review that only says nice things lacks credibility. Academics, like other people, are only human, so inevitably there will be gaps, whether these are sources that were missed, an angle that would have added to the argument, and parts where the argument isn’t as effective as it is elsewhere. Be fair, but don’t be afraid to be critical.

 

Conclusion

When concluding, you will need to answer one basic question: Should the reader read this book? In other words, do you recommend this book, and if so, to whom? You should also address how the book fits into or contributes to its field of study and what it adds to our understanding of a particular field. And, again, keep this fairly short, under 100 words. And that’s it!

 

Don’t Forget to Follow the Guidelines!

As I said earlier, book reviews generally follow the same pattern no matter where they are published. That said, it’s important to remember that each journal will have its own specific submission guidelines. This usually refers to the presentation of the book review. Remember all those requirements for 12 pt font, using serial commas, double-spacing, etc… that your university essays had to follow? Well, they’re back! While professors in graduate school tend to be a little more relaxed about this, as long as you properly cite your sources, book review editors are not. You will be expected to follow those guidelines to the letter. Do not ignore them, or think you can fix them later. When you submit the book review, it should be in its final form, ready for publication. Failure to follow these guidelines will often result in a rejection of the book review.

 

Some Additional Thoughts….

Submit your book review on time

Academics are notorious for being terrible with deadlines. However, while book editors may be willing to overlook a late paper from an established academic, new scholars should not presume to be accorded the same courtesy. Send the review in the by deadline your editor gave you.

 

You Didn’t Write the Book

One thing to keep in mind is that you need to judge the book as it is written, not by how you would have written it. It’s one thing to point out weaknesses, it’s another to say that “it should have been done like this.” This is a hard thing to remember, even for seasoned academics, but it is crucial. And, in a related point, don’t spend too much time talking about what should have been included. No book can cover every possible angle of a specific topic.

 

On Quotes…

Quotes in book reviews should be minimal to the point of invisibility. There should be no block quotes of any kind, and in-text quotes should be minimal and only used if there are no other options or it’s a really awesome sentence.

 

If You Don’t Have Anything Nice To Say…

As undergraduates and graduates, we are generally taught to be quite merciless in our critiques of other people’s work. This is partially due to the nature of teaching students how to be critical readers. But when it comes to book reviews, it’s important to keep in mind that a) the book was written by an actual human being, who you may or may not encounter, and who may read the review and b) that books are rarely entirely good or bad. While it is fair to point out problems in approach, gaps in the book, and areas that you disagree with, it is important to moderate your language. Be compassionate – someday someone will evaluate your work too. So find something you like about the book.

 


That’s really all there is too it! Scholarly book reviews, like other scholarly publications, can seem very intimidating, but they definitely don’t need to be. I hope you enjoyed this latest blog post. If you did, please consider sharing it on the social media platform of your choice! And don’t forget to check back on Sunday for our regular Canadian History Roundup. See you then!

 

 

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7 Comments

  1. I recall a scholar once saying that “people (junior scholars) should not be allowed/asked to write book reviews until they’ve written a book themselves.” I’m curious as to other’s opinions of this statement.

    • I don’t agree. As long as a person has read well in their field they should be able to assess the book/article in an objective manner

    • Andrea Eidinger

      April 5, 2017 at 9:47 pm

      I agree with Evelyn. I think that as long as you have a brain and a good handling of the subject area, you are just as entitled to review a book as any other scholar.

  2. I work in government but my heart is in historical research so to keep one foot in the academic world I’ve always thought writing reviews might be a good way to stay current but also hone my writing and critical analysis skills. Also, I’ve thought that doing so would look good should I ever apply for future graduate work…

  3. I review alot of European scholarly articles that are translated to English for the purpose of review. Anyone have any tips on overcoming the barriers to reading translated articles?

    • Andrea Eidinger

      April 5, 2017 at 9:51 pm

      Hmmm… that’s pretty tough. My first language is English, but I was educated as if my first language was French. So I know how bad translations can be. I would always try to read the original if possible, or find someone who can tell you what the discrepancies are. Unfortunately, we’re mostly at the mercy of the translators, and the quality can vary tremendously. My sympathies!

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