The reviewing of books has been for two hundred years one of the major intellectual activities of the English-speaking world. Publications consisting entirely of book reviews are among the most significant journals on any library shelf, and book reviewers are (at least potentially) among the most honored of intellectual laborers. The publication industry could not function without the reviewing industry. It is therefore incumbent upon you to learn something about the craft of reviewing.

Think first of the function of the review. As reviewer, you are mediating between a book and a person who has not read it, and your purpose is to guide the potential reader to an intelligent decision about whether or not to read it (or even purchase it, in extreme cases!). You must therefore identify and criticize the book, and perform these tasks in such a way as to expose your own standards of judgment. Obviously, the sequence of your argument and the organization of the essay need not fit a prescribed order, it is up to you to develop your own line of approach. Let us look at each of these stipulations in some detail:

  1. Identify the book. There are several components to this process. First, you specify the argument or thesis of the book. There may be more than one thesis to a book; often there are one or two main theses supported by minor arguments. You do not tell what the book is about (e.e. this book is about Elizabethan government) but rather what the books says (e.g. the author argues that Parliament was not an important element of Elizabethan government). This step in identification is rather like a book report, but here all similarity between a report and a review ceases. Secondly, you identify the kind of book it is: is it a narrative, is it topical and analytical, is it deductive and theoretical, etc.? Sometimes we call this identifying the explanatory framework of a book. Thirdly, you look at the evidence that supports the book. Fourthly, you place the book in the context of the other books you have read in the same general area. There may be other elements of identification that are important to a particular book in a particular field, but these four will do for most.
  2. Criticize the book. Criticism means simply the application of standards. It is entirely possible that a reviewer could apply his standards and find nothing negative to say about a book; being critical does not always entail being negative. In fact, the process of judgment usually reveals flaws in a work; authors are no less fallible than other humans, and reviewers like to show that they have very high standards; it is nevertheless useful to recognize that judgment can cut both ways. Critical appraisal does not require that one be an authority in the field. Obviously, your job would be easier if you were professionally familiar with the subject, but everyone reads books all the time in areas where he is relatively uninformed, and the obligation to be critical never ceases.

Criticism is sometimes divided into internal and external criticism. Internal criticism asks questions that can be answered without reference to anything but the book itself. Is the evidence appropriate? Is the research exhaustive? Is the argument logical? Do the conclusions follow from the evidence? Is the argument intelligible? Is it gracefully written? What are the author’s values and assumptions, explicit or implicit? External criticism asks questions derived from the consideration of the field in which the book falls. How does the book stack up with recent publication? Does the book employ any startling new method or theory? Is it a contribution to a controversy? Is it part of an identifiable school of historical interpretation? Does it advance our knowledge of the subject in any way?

Reading a book critically brings you face to face with the distinction between fact and interpretation. The distinction is not an easy one to make, partly because many historical “facts” are actually generalizations or interpretations that have attained the status of facts because historians no longer dispute them. The great Reform Bill became law in 1832: that is an undoubted fact. The passage of the great Reform Bill headed off a potentially revolutionary situation by expanding the electorate: that is an interpretation that has attained the status of act. The great Reform Bill was a carefully engineered measure that changed the workings of Parliament and government hardly at all and does not deserve the attention it has been given: that clearly is a matter of interpretation. It is particularly important to recognize this last category of statements and demand of the author an adequate demonstration of the points he makes in support of them.

You will notice that each of these questions will require you to develop some standard by which to judge the book. Answering a question about appropriate evidence implies that you know what appropriate evidence is. It will not do simply to assert that an author uses inappropriate evidence — you will have to demonstrate that he does, in part so that the reviewer can see what you consider to be appropriate evidence. To be effective, criticism must reveal the critic, and the reader of the review must see that the standards the reviewer is applying are appropriate to his own purpose. The informed personal response of the reviewer is therefore germane. We do not want to hear merely that the reviewer likes the book (or does not like it), or that the book is good (or bad) — simple expressions of opinion are only a waste of precious time, space, and effort. But if a reviewer examines his own response to the book, inquires of himself carefully and searchingly why he likes (or does not like) the book, then both his response and legitimation of it become matters of interest to the reader of the review. Recognize that a review is a personal statement, accept your obligation to make it an informed personal statement, and you will be well launched on the enterprise.

Finally, a word about tone. Nothing is more infuriating to read than a casual and airy dismissal of a book by a sophomore whose best effort at writing has been a 15-page term paper. There are bad books, books that deserve rough treatment from critics, but they can be given the treatment they deserve in the course of a serious and even respectful review. And even in the worst of books there is generally something good. Charity, humility, and the assumption that where you and another person differ you are at least as likely to be wrong as he is — these are attributes to be cherished in all conversation, and not least in the reviewing of books. A respectful review may be more than you think you owe some books, but it is never more than you owe yourself.

– Eleanor Zelliot