Reviewing a book and Writing a book-review
If writing an essay is a bit like designing and building a house and taking someone on a memorable journey through it, then writing a book review is a bit like a tourist guide or brochure. It gives the reader a very quick guide through a palace or house built by someone else.
Aims: a book review has at least four objectives:
· To give a sketch-view of the of the book and its contents. This is useful to those who are wondering whether or not they want to buy or read the book.
· To explain and analyse the author's argument and approach. Every approach offers its own opportunities and limitations. There would be an obvious difference between a book on chocolate written by a plump child with bad teeth and one written by a thin and jaundiced dentist.
· To place the book in the context of its time, and in the context of the wider debate on the subject: What do others think about the subject? Who did the author address? What is the book’s relevance?
· To give the reviewer's assessment of the book. Is it a good book? Why do you yourself think it is a good (or bad) book? What are its qualities and what are its deficiencies?
If these are the objectives of a book review, the main objective of the reviewer must be to be as clear and compelling as possible.
One well-proven way to write a successful book review, and the one we will be practising, is described below. It consists of two active parts 1. Reading, and 2. Writing. In each section I have outlined the kind of questions you have to ask and find answers to.
Reading the book
The main questions that have to be answered in a book review are:
What does the book set out to do? or to put that
question in another way: what is the book’s project?
· Does the book have a clear problem to address and does it know how and from what angle it will address that problem?
· Has the book got a proper thesis? i.e. Does the book have a clear view on how to solve the problem? What is it?
· Has the main thesis been properly worked out? Is it properly supported by evidence?
· Has the author been sufficiently critical with regard to his own subject? Does he sound like a cigarette salesman selling the virtues of smoking or is he a scientist assessing the consequences of smoking?
· It is all very well to promise something in an introduction but: Does the author actually manage to accomplish what he or she sets out to do? Does the book satisfy its own objectives? Usually you will find those objectives formulated in the introduction. It is up to you to decide whether the project is a success as measured against the book’s own objective and as measured against your own expectations.
· Is the book enjoyably written? Even the most serious books do not have to read like a funereal speech.
Now, the trick is to read the book with these questions already in the back of your mind. Pay particular attention to the beginning sections of the book, the prefaces, introductions and acknowledgements. That is where you will find the stuff about the author and his intentions.
Who is the Author?
Find out who the author is. What does the author do for a living? What other books has he or she written? Does the author belong to a particular philosophical, political or religious group? How would that affect the author’s outlook?
Finding a focus
All these things tell you something about the book. But there are other things you have to do in preparation for your review:
While you are reading you should look out for a particular theme or casus within the text that you think is illustrative of the book as a whole and one which illustrates the author’s concerns. Most important is that that theme or casus interests you.
A casus is sort of like an example or case-history. It is a short example from the book, a particular issue within the argument as a whole that is representative of the argument put forward in the book and the way that the author argues his case.
around the book
Dip into other books and articles on the same subject or by the same author; find other reviews of the same book. What do they think?
Always look up words you do not understand. This is important for two very good reasons one of which is positive and one which is essentially negative:
A good and properly applied vocabulary helps you increase the resolution of your view of the world.
Not knowing a word in the
beginning will probably mean that you will misunderstand what follows. Oneirology, to take an example, looks
difficult. But it stands for something very every-dayish, something one does
while looking in the mirror and brushing one’s teeth in the morning. One even
does it while sleeping. But if you fail to look it up you will most probably
misunderstand the author who uses this word completely.
Anyway, reading a text without understanding it has a peculiarly deadening effect on the brain. Reading is a very creative activity, you are constantly building images in your brain as you read. Those images affect your own grasp of what you experience in every-day life after you have read the text. Everything in your minds shifts according to the perspective created by the new points of reference you have absorbed. Therefore it is imperative that your understanding of a text be as complete as possible.
When you have read the book and made a selection of the points you want to discuss in your review we come to the writing phase. I have outlined this phase in a series of easily followed steps.
Step 1: Preparation.
Sort out what information you
want to include in your review and what you want to exclude.
Avoid listing everything that the book or a chapter in the book discusses or mentions. It is better to extract one example -the casus- that is representative of the book as a whole.
Have you discovered how -in
what sequence- you want to present your information?
Have you formulated an opinion about what you have read?
Make sure the structure of the book review you have conceived is clear and transparent. Concentrate on anticipating the questions people will want to ask about the book.
Step 2: Your title.
As the title of the book review you should give your own characterisation of the book as well as the publication details: the author's name, the title of the book, by whom, where and when it was published, whether it is part of a series. and so forth.
Step 3: Introduce the book.
Introduce the book as you
would introduce two guests who may have a professional interest in each other.
Start by giving a very short sketchy and grabbing description (two sentences or so) of the contents of the book, explaining in broad terms what the book is about and why it is significant.
Step 4: Look at the book as an object.
· How large is it?
· How much does it cost?
· Is it a hardback or a soft cover?
· Is it attractively produced, what is it made of, what is the quality of the lay-out, does the lay-out help the reader or confuse?
· What about the reproductions, are the photographs clear or grainy, are the drawings helpful or puzzling?
· And the typography; what font is the book set in, are the letters easy to read?
· What about the cover? Does it try to convey something about the contents?
· Remember that people always judge a book by its cover.... and remember that your nose is closer to the page than your eyes. Smell the book, does it smell nice?
Step 5: Now it is time to introduce the author properly.
· What does he or she do for a living?
· Is the author an architect, a historian, a critic, a neurologist interested in architecture, big-game hunter?
· What is the author’s background, how might that affect her argument?
· Why should he or she be interested in the subject?
· What other books has the author published?
Step 6: Give a short analysis of the title of the book.
· Does the title cover the contents of the book?
· What does the title try to convey and how does the title try to convey it?
· How has the author phrased the title? Why do you think he phrased it like that? Does that say something about what the author thinks about the subject?
Step 7: Analyse the introduction.
· Does the introduction manage to explain the problem?
· Does it set out the author’s main argument?
· What is that argument?
· Does the introduction explain what the book is about and who it is written for? Well does it? What is it about and who is it written for?
· Why did the author feel that the book needed to be written, i.e. has the author sufficiently justified the book’s existence?
· What is the author’s justification?
· Does the author describe the limits or scope of the book? What is the book’s scope?
Step 8: The contents page.
· How is the book structured? Chronologically, thematically, or in some other way?
· How do the themes of each chapter relate to each other? Is there a clear pattern?
· Why do you think the author structured the book in this way?
Step 9: The main body.
Give one or two salient examples “Casus” of the author's argument and the way he illustrates that argument. Describe the main argument of the book using that casus you found while reading. Confine your description to that particular theme. Do not list everything there is to be found in the book, the index does that already.
Step 10: The conclusion.
Is there a clear conclusion? Does it tie back into the introduction? Is there something about the book which has wider implications for other disciplines? Where has the book left the subject. In other words, where do we go from here? If it is an older book, you are reviewing did it have a significant impact, did it influence people?
Step 11: Your Conclusion.
· What did you think of the book?
· How will it be useful to people like you?
Lastly, a reminder
Your reader is your guest to a day at a theme park. You have to infect him with a curiosity about the book, you have to maintain his or her astonishment. It is important to the reader to know what you think about the whole thing.
Make sure your written text, like the book you are reviewing, has a clearly defined beginning, middle and end.