Wednesday, 2 July 2014

How to write a book review

Strangely, to me at least, I’ve been asked to write 5-6 book reviews this year (or offered to do them). That’s not meant, in any way, as a boast. It’s just that over the previous 5-6 years I’ve neither asked to review books nor got invited to do more than one or two by any academic journals (the latter I turned down for one reason or another). These fallow years coincided with my transition from PhD studenthood to early career academia. Maybe I’m now entering mid-career academia, as scary as that may sound(!), which makes me (intellectually, if not physically) attractive as a reviewer – who knows … well, I guess book review editors!

Anyway, I thought I’d do a brief blog about book reviewing for PhD students and early career academics because it’s one of those arts that can be useful for getting your name known by journal editors, which means – even though it shouldn’t – that you probably get a little bit more leeway when it comes to the real writing game (i.e. writing journal articles – you can tell I was socialized in the British academic world, even if I’m no longer there!).

So, here is my simple formula for a good – or, at least, adequate – book review, whether it is a short 500-word review, or a longer review essay. 

  • Start with a paragraph (or two) on current or relevant debates in the subject area of the book; say how the book fits in those debates and reference a key text or two (or three …) if allowed. It’d probably be helpful to say what contribution the book makes – or doesn’t – to these debates. Be theoretical if you like, rather than throw in ‘real world’ examples.
  • Then, make sure you write a paragraph or so on the overall argument of the book – what’s it about, generally speaking? Use specific examples or quotes to illustrate your comments. 
  • This brings us to the meat of the review, the outline of the chapters. It’s probably a good idea to tell readers what is in the book by going over the contents of the chapters, even if this sounds somewhat dry. It helps to do it chronologically, but it’s not always necessary to provide the same detail for each chapter, and you can also combine chapters if it makes sense. Again, it is probably best to highlight specific examples and use specific quotes to illustrate your comments. 
  • Finish with a brief summary – what contribution does the book make? – and some brief critical comments. This doesn’t mean tearing the book apart, which can be seen as bad form, but you can criticize elements of the book and its argument that you think are weak, or needed development, or missed key issues, etc. Sometimes a book might really rile you up, but it is probably best not to be too acerbic – as I was sorely tempted to be recently.
That’s about it… 

Oh yeah, for any readers in science and technology studies, the journal I work on, Science as Culture, is always looking for book reviewers … plug, plug!

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