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GER 494/598; ENG 494/549; HUM 494
Spring 2003, Daniel Gilfillan


A good book review contains these four elements:

  1. A description of the author's project. What was the author's aim and conception in writing the book? How did s/he frame the questions? This is something different than the content of the book. Often the conception will be stated explicitly by the author, but sometimes you will have to supplement that statement and occasionally infer it altogether. In order to assess a book fairly, part of what you must do is to enter into the author's project and describe it for your audience. (However, in the final analysis you may or may not take the author's conception as the last word in approaching the issue or the material at hand; see point 4 below.)
  2. Synopsis. You should summarize the contents and main findings of the book. What is the book's thesis, and how does it make an argument for it? While this may seem a simpler, more straightforward task than the other three points, judgment is called for here as well. You want to convey the major topics covered by the book without lapsing into an overly long, mechanical (read: tedious) recapitulation of the argument.
  3. Methodology. What sources and methods were employed by the author? Were they appropriate to the material and the questions raised? Think about how the author interprets the sources and/or constructs them into an explanation. For instance, in a work of intellectual history, is the approach an "internal" history of ideas, an "external" sociology of knowledge, or perhaps a combination? For a work of social history, is it primarily a chronicle, or does it employ concepts and techniques from, say, a particular school of cultural anthropology or of modernization theory?
  4. Critical evaluation. Your critical evaluation may take a wide variety of forms depending on the case. For instance, is the book primarily a building-stone, a contribution to an accumulating body of knowledge within a paradigm? Or is it a path-breaking reinterpretation? Does the evidence presented (or not presented, but known from other works) support the conclusions offered? Is the work well conceived? well argued? well written? Where does it stand in the author's body of work? Finally, and very importantly, where does it stand with regard to debates taking place in its field, in the discipline at large, or among an even wider public? In any case, remember that a critique is not necessarily synonymous with negative criticism.

A final thought: think of these as elements of a book review, not as a recipe with a fixed proportion of ingredients. Beyond covering the basic issues, part of the art of reviewing a particular book consists in deciding how much space to give to each of these elements and in combining them elegantly rather than rehearsing them mechanically.

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Arizona State University ASU Dept. of Languages and Literatures