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.”