How (and Whether) to Review a Book (Nonfiction)

I teach book reviewing at Regent College. I found it a tremendously valuable discipline as a graduate student and young professor (I started reviewing books for publication when I was 23, a year into my PhD work), I since have published upwards of 60 or 70 reviews, and I want to pass along the blessing of this particular literary form to my students. There is no better way to profit from reading a book than to review it.

Most of my students, alas, initially groan as I outline the assignment in class. I am told that many groan again during, and after, the assignment. I agree: It’s not super-fun.Over the years, however, alumni/ae have written to me from all over the world to say, “You know those annoying book reviews you had us write? I realize now that they were among the best parts of my education there. Could you please send me a copy of that assignment? I’d like to teach/assign/review a book myself.”

Recently, another alumnus asked me to muse more broadly on this weblog regarding reviewing, both how to do it and why. So I’ll start a little series here, maybe two posts, maybe three, and hope that it will be of some help. Book reviewing is a crucial art and a valuable service to others, whether you just jot some notes down on GoodReads or write something for publication. And, as an author as well as a reader, I’m especially appreciative of someone who does it well. I also think it can be quite pleasantly challenging—rather like painting miniatures, or composing haiku. So here goes:

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There are four, and only four, roles one might play in a legitimate book review: judge, plunderer, booster, and enemy.

The first is the most common, most dull, and usually most valuable. Let’s start here, and in future posts I’ll write about the others.

This form of review prizes accuracy and fairness (don’t nod off, now). You start with a mildly grabby opening line or two (no reason to dispense with literary craft entirely) that somehow introduces the reader to the author and his work. Then you specify the central point the author wants to make, the proposition of which he wants to convince his audience, the main message of the book—yes, yes, the thesis.

State that thesis in a sentence or two. You may quote the author, but beware: authors often give you thesis-y-sounding sentences, but surprisingly many never quite get around to saying exactly what they mean in a single, lapidary sentence. If he or she fails to do that, you do it.

Note that the thesis is not the topic of the book, not merely its subject. A topic just sits there, inert, like a brick. A thesis picks up the brick and throws it in a particular direction.

Okay, that’s a lousy metaphor. So let’s switch to an example. “The topic of this book is the Protestant Reformation.” See? Just sits there. The Reformation. Right. Hear the cricket in the back of the room, the coyote howling in the distance.

But now here’s the thesis of the book: The Protestant Reformation was led by women dressed as men. Now that’s going somewhere! Somewhere highly dubious, to be sure, but it’s on the move.

A topic, then, is merely a noun. A thesis, by contrast, is a sentence—indeed, it is a proposition. And here’s a simple test. You can argue with a sentence, but you can’t argue with a noun. Thus you know you have formulated a thesis sentence when you have come up with something someone else can dispute.

“Hey, what’s the topic of your paper?”

“The Protestant Reformation.”

“I don’t agree with that.”

“Well, it really is the topic of my paper.”

“I get that. I’m not arguing about that. I’m saying, ‘I don’t agree with the Protestant Reformation.'”

“Are you Catholic?”

“No, I’m just arguing with the very topic of your paper.”

“How can you argue with a mere topic? This conversation sounds like a poor excuse for a Monty Python sketch.”

And so on, and so on, and so on. But now try this:

“Hey, what’s the thesis of your paper?”

“The Protestant Reformation was led by women dressed as men.”

“I don’t agree with that.”

See? Makes sense to disagree now. Before, it was just weird: all sorts of ambiguities and unintended meanings and the like. Now, you’ve got a good, old-fashioned fight on your hands. Was the Protestant Reformation led by women dressed as men or not? So that’s a thesis: the main proposition of which the author wants to convince the reader.

You also—and right up front, in the first few paragraphs—must specify the purpose of the book. Dumb reviewers think that this is saying the same thing twice: “The purpose of this book is to convince readers of the truth of the thesis.” Well, yeah, that is the purpose of the book. But that purpose is implied by the fact that the author has written an entire book advancing his or her thesis. Presumably, all that effort has been expended to convince the reader.

No, the purpose of the book that you must specify in a review is what the author wants to do for, or to, a particular audience. Note the audience part of that. A good statement of purpose specifies a particular target group, or maybe two (no more than three) that the author intends to address in order to accomplish something in particular.

“This book is aimed at first-year history students as a jocular way of introducing them to the Protestant Reformation.” That’s one possible purpose, prompting a particular kind of book.

“This book propounds a novel view of the leadership of the Protestant Reformation to senior experts in the field.” That’s a different purpose, prompting a different kind of book.

What is the book’s mission in the world? How are things to be different if the target audience reads and agrees with this book? That’s what a purpose statement specifies.

Beware authors’ own statements of their purpose. Some authors are grandiose: “This book is aimed at anyone who cares about life.” Some authors are excessively humble: “It is my intention that in some small way this volume, outlining the fundamental physics of an inexhaustible energy source that is cheap and ecologically harmless, will be of some use to someone, somewhere.” By all means listen to what the author says he or she is doing, but then make up your own mind about what’s going on and specify it to your readers.

In the introduction to your review, make sure you include two other data: who the author is and why we should care (a) who the author is and (b) what he’s trying to do in this book. Significance has to be specified right up front so your reader will, yes, keep reading and will also quickly grasp how to understand the rest of the review. “Oh, so it’s this kind of person dealing with this problem. Okay, then: I shall read on, and with alacrity!”

What follows next is an outline of the book’s argument. In this section, you take each chapter by turn and tell your audience what it argues. Just write, “In chapter one…,” “in chapter two…,” and so on in a nice string of chapter summaries.

No. That is not what you do. What you do instead is to specify each chapter’s argument in the light of the book’s thesis and purpose. You show how chapter one properly initiates the argument, how chapter two logically follows (if it does logically follow), how chapter three logically follows those two (ditto), and so on to the conclusion. You show, that is, the shape of the overall argument of the book. You do NOT simply string together a set of chapter summaries. If your summary of the book does not show why the chapters could not have been rearranged in just any old order, then you have failed to show the logic of the book’s organization and argument.

Our example, then, would look something like this:

“In chapter one, the author begins with the most famous, and one of the earliest, Protestant Reformers. Martina Luther grew up in a home in which her overbearing father wanted a son and her narcissistic mother neglected her. In her late adolescence, therefore, Martina cut her hair and passed as a young man, eventually becoming a monk who sought to please her difficult Father (= God) while denouncing her self-indulgent mother (= Church)….”

“Chapter two continues to story with the great younger counterpart of Martina Luther, Joanna Calvin. Joanna….”

“Chapter three deals with the Anglican Reformation, under Thomasina Cranmer, while chapter four continues with the Anabaptist movement, the largest branch of which was led by Wilhelmina ‘Minnie’ Simons….”

“The one male exception to this list, Ulrich Zwingli, is described in chapter five….”

“The conclusion briefly sums up the evidence for this novel view of emergent Protestantism, while offering an explanation for why this thesis has been so late in emerging in Reformation scholarship, namely, that there was a friendly conspiracy among the early Reformers, and particularly by the Cranachs, to disguise the true identities of these leaders.”

Having set out, then, the thesis, purpose, and argument of the book, you are poised to offer some evaluative comments. Note, however, that your evaluation must proceed in terms of the thesis and purpose and argument of the book and not according to what you wish the author had argued instead. “This book totally failed to engage my attention, as I expect any good book to include recipes” isn’t a valid response. Likewise, “This book didn’t have many pictures in it!” is not a valid criticism of a scholarly treatise, unless illustrations are essential to its argument. (Come to think of it, a book arguing that the Protestant Reformation was led by women dressed as men would be much enhanced by pictures truly depicting the Reformers as they were…. Okay. Moving on—)

Did the book argue its thesis in a way convincing to the target audience? Is it the right kind of book to achieve its purpose? That is the main burden of your evaluation: to answer those two questions.

If you think the book is badly evidenced, poorly argued, unclearly written, weirdly documented, intolerantly impatient with other viewpoints, or boringly obvious, then by all means say so. But always say so in terms of the book’s own thesis and purpose, on the book’s own terms. Again, you can’t properly chide a book for not thrilling you if you are not a member of the target audience, or if the purpose of the book is to inform you rather than excite you. You must review the book it is, not the book you wish it had been.

Now, conventional reviews would end here, ideally with a mild rhetorical flourish. (If you can evoke the first few lines of the review, all the better.) But increasingly over the last couple of decades, reviews even in academic journals have increasingly opened up to the reviewer speaking personally to the reader about one or more elements of the book that particularly impressed him or her.

Rather, that is, than speaking as the “general reviewer,” the reviewer now speaks as a man or a woman, a Canadian or a German, a husband or a sister, a very particular person who found very particular parts of the book remarkable and now wants to remark on them. To speak so particularly used to be bad form: one was supposed to contain one’s particularities behind the mask of A General Reviewer, but in this postmodern age of self-disclosure, such personal revelation is increasingly expected. So do liven up the proceedings, if you like, with a couple of these incidental observations toward the end:

“As a wife and mother of three, I found it rather incredible that Luther could have ended up in a sham marriage to Katie, adopting all those children and passing them off as their own…” or “I confess that as a long-time Anglican it makes wonderful sense to me that the more lyrical parts of the Book of Common Prayer, particularly the collects in times of grief or suffering, would come from a woman’s hand and heart….”

(Beware, of course, of giving too much of yourself away: You want your reader to take you seriously, so drawing connections between the sixteenth-century ecclesiastical upheavals and the struggle of the Autobots against the Decepticons, or the ongoing travails of your favourite “Real Housewives of Wichita Falls,” might be TMI.)

That, then, is how to write a judicious, conventional review for an academic journal, magazine of ideas, or serious website. You’re the judge, and you’re expected to act like one.

Judges, however, seem to have very little fun. It’s important work that they do, and everyone (except criminals and their unscrupulous advocates—and you can easily guess whom I mean in these metaphors!) is grateful when they do it well. But if you’d like to sneak out the side door of the courtroom for some high jinks, my next post on reviewing will teach you how to enjoy the other three modes.

 

6 Responses to “How (and Whether) to Review a Book (Nonfiction)”

  1. isaac

    this is really great and I plan to review this article before my next book review. it strikes me though that this procedure would result in quite a long book review. I guess the question is why you are reviewing the book. sketching out the logic of the entire book including every chapter might be a good idea for your own understanding of the book. But what if it is a book you don’t want to understand at that level. Lots of books are best remembered simply by their best parts rather than the logic of the whole book. What few things did this book add to my life?

    • John

      Ah, you’re a plunderer! I’ll talk about that mode soon. But if you’re writing a proper book review, for an academic assignment or for publication, it better look like what I’m suggesting…!

  2. Alex

    Thanks Dr. Stackhouse! I’ve learned (and been entertained) a lot. Look forward to what comes up next.

  3. DJ

    Never mind your tutelage on writing reviews, John – I totally agree that the Protestant Reformation was led by women, just like pretty much everything else good that’s ever happened in the church. I’m glad to hear that finally some of you men are starting to admit it.

  4. Mark

    Perfect timing on this post – I’ve just been working on a judge-style review. Thanks for the invaluable advice. And by all means, keep the posts coming!

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