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Wordsto the Whys: CraftingCriticalBook Reviews

RobertBlackey

CaliforniaState University,San Bernardino

"MY FAVORITECHARACTERIS..." and "I recommendthis book


because..." are typical phrases that characterizethe traditionalbook
report,but they also epitomize the kind of directionthat provides little
preparationfor the critical evaluation and review of books that often
awaits studentsin manyof theirhigh school andcollege classes. How can
we as teacherstranscendthe simplicityof book reportsandtheir minimal
demandsupon our students'intelligence and abilities?How can we teach
book reviewing, a task that encourages the development of the more
sophisticated,higherorderthinkingskills (e.g., the full evolution of ideas
and the explanationandjustificationof reactions-the whys in the title)
that have an educationalvalue beyond the dimensions of the assignment
itself? What follows are some thoughts and practical suggestions for
answeringthese questions.
Book reviews, whetherfor professionaljournals, newspapers,or our
classrooms, generally have two aims in common: to inform the reader
aboutthe contents of the book and to providean evaluationthatpresents
the reviewer'sjudgmentof the book's quality.This two-fold task is often
none too easy for many students. Since the degree to which students
succeed-or fail-as they complete assignmentsis due as much to the
clarity of directions as to their intelligence or experience, I have devised-and here expand upon-a set of instructions(batteries not inThe HistoryTeacher

Volume 27 Number2

February1994

RobertBlackey

160

cluded) that is aimed to make composition and thought development


easier. These instructionsarean integralpartof my course syllabi;thatis,
the section of my syllabusdevotedto the book review assignmentincludes
threeparts:1) a discussion of the natureof book reviews and the goals of
the assignment,plus advice on how to proceed;2) a descriptionof what a
summaryis and how it can be composed;and 3) an elaborationupon the
essence of a critique and the variety of possibilities (in the form of
questions) that can be explored. Teachers can, and should, modify my
suggestions both to suit their own needs and to adapt them to the perceived ability levels of their students.In addition,I always include inclass oral elaborationand time for questions, both when the syllabus is
distributedand again a week or so before the assignmentis due.
Discussion and Preparation
A productiveway to preparestudentsfor whatis expectedof them is to
discuss the natureof book reviews.Whatis the purposeof a review?How
shouldit informthereader?I encouragestudentsto exchangeideasaboutthe
kind of informationthatshouldbe includedin-or excludedfrom-a book
review, the variousways a review might be organized,and the degree to
which a review ought to be used to forwardthe reviewer's own ideas.
Teacherswill haveto establishtheirown guidelinesandboundarieshere,but
as much as possible I try to allow for significantlatitudesince diverse
approachesusuallycan be takento reachthe samegoal. We also talkabout
assumptionsthe reviewershouldor shouldnot makeandaboutthe audience
(read:level of sophistication)forwhichwe arewriting.As a readerof a book
review,I ask students,whatwouldyou like to know thatwouldhelp you to
makean intelligentdecisionaboutwhetherto readthe book?
I also recommendthat studentssit with paper,pencil, and instructions
close at handas they readtheirbook so they can note any andall reactions
precisely as they come to mind.Justas one who observes a crime will be
a more credible witness if what is seen is recordedimmediatelyrather
than recalled later on the basis of memory, so students should have a
clearerfix on theirthoughtsif they note them when they occurratherthan
wait to gatherand organize them after the book has been completed. In
this way ideas cannot be lost, forgotten, or abridged, and when the
reading has been completed students ought to be in possession of a
thorough set of notes from which to craft a review. Waiting to collect
one's thoughtsuntil afterthe book is read is likely to result in shrugged
shoulders and a shortage of ideas. Instead, taking notes along the way
should produce more material than is needed. The resulting harvest,
inevitably,yields more of substance-and withoutthe need for fertilizer.

Words to the Whys: CraftingCriticalBook Reviews

161

Like any piece of writing,be it an examinationessay, a termpaper,or


something else, a book review reads best when it is launched with an
introduction. This can take a variety of forms, including a personal
anecdotethat can be relatedto the subjectof the book, a brief story from
the book itself thatcan be used to introducethe broadercontent,or even a
clever quotation on which to build an introduction-all of which can
serve the useful function of capturing a reader's attention. There is,
however, simpler and more fundamentalinformationthat an effective
introductionshould minimallycontain in orderto preparethe readerfor
what follows: an overview of the book thatincorporatesboth an encapsulated summary and a sense of the reviewer's general judgment. Thus
armedwith this equivalentto a thesis statement,the readeris preparedto
wade into the body of the review.
The Summary
A successful summaryconsists of a discussion and highlightingof the
majorfeatures,trends,concepts, themes, ideas, and characteristicsof the
book in as much detail as space limitations,establishedby the instructor,
will allow. This can be as brief as a single sentence-if such brevity is
what is desired (if not, the essence of such a sentence can otherwise be
included as part of the introduction,say as a topic sentence)-or a
paragraph,or it can go on for two, threeor morepages. I find thata threepage limit (or half the total length of the review) works best in that it
allows studentsenough space to describe the book without their losing
sight of the purpose of the review. Since shortersummariestend to be
more difficult to write (i.e., because so much more has to be coherently
compressedinto fewer words), it is probablya good idea for teachersto
restricttheirlengthas muchas conventionalwisdom and studentabilities
dictate.
In the actual writing of the summary,I instructstudents to use their
own words, to combine ideas and story line into new sentences and
phrasing of their own. While quotationmarksshould be placed around
words and sentences taken directly from the book, for the most part
using the exact language of the author should be avoided because it
undermines original thinking. That is, summarizingis a good way to
learn and to assimilate and explain material, but the process doesn't
work especially well unless what is read and digested is translatedinto
the student'sown language,and thatit is done in a way that makes sense
to the student.
In addition, it is often best for studentsto present the summaryin a
mannerthat reflects the organizationof the book, to write it as if the

RobertBlackey

162

entirebook were to be viewed throughthe wrongend of a telescope. That


is, since one of the purposesof a review is to demonstratehow effectively
a book is organized, summarizingin such a micro-reflectiveway will
help to achieve this. In other words, the presentationof a true but
condensed picture of a book should include the way in which it is
organized, althoughchapter-by-chaptersummariesare to be avoided in
favor of a unified essay that highlights significantfeaturesand narrative
thrust.
Finally,summarizinga book,despitewhatsome studentsmightimagine,
does not ordinarilyenable the reviewerto providea particularlyincisive
understandingof the contentsas a collection of hypothesesor arguments
based upon any numberof suppositions.1Even our telling studentsthat
they must reachbeyond summaryinto the realmof analysisis not enough
in and of itself. Instead, in something akin to the directions that often
accompanychildren'stoys in needof assembling,we mustofferguidelines
thatconstitutea methodologythatwill help themto turnup the volume of
theirthinking.
The Critique
Studentstend to be wary of undertakinga critiquefor several reasons.
First, because they are neitherprofessionalhistoriansnor experts in the
subject matterof the book they are reading,studentsoften assume such
an assignmentis beyond theirlevel of knowledge. "Howcan I be critical
of something I know nothing about?"is a common response. Second,
since they have little or no experience with critical writing, they do not
believe they possess such ability.Third,too often they have been allowed
to get away with a level of thinking that is superficial,that places few
demandson their intellect, thatdoesn't pressurethem into trying harder.
One of ourjobs as teachersis to lead studentsforward,to show them how
to do whatappearsbeyondthem, andthatis whatI try to accomplishwith
these instructionsand the questionsthat follow.
To begin with, I make it clear, in the introductoryparagraphto this
section of my syllabus, just what a critique consists of-thoughts, responses, and reactionsto what is read. Such a critiqueis not expected to
be of a caliber similar to a professional historian's or to reflect an
expertise not likely to exist-although, with experience,one can learnto
review a book on the basis of one's generalknowledge and one's ability
to follow an argumentor to test an hypothesis. I also try to dispel the
notion that all criticismmust be negative. In fact, I assurestudents,there
is nothing wrong with having only positive things to say; the "trick"is to
justify and supportwhateverposition is taken.

Words to the Whys: CraftingCriticalBook Reviews

163

What I do expect from studentsis a reactionto the book, but since not
knowing what to react to is part of the problem, I present a significant
number of questions that I encourage them to keep in mind before,
during,and afterthe book is read.Collectively, these questionscomprise
the bait to lure studentsaway from the security of inexperienceand the
easy way out, and toward developing their minds and critical thinking
abilities. They are not, I insist, to be answered seriatim, taken like
numbersin a store by customerswaiting their turnto be served; in fact,
there are many more here than any single review could hope to address.
Instead, they are meant to prod, to prime intellectualpumps, to suggest
avenues of explorationfor those who are new to the domainof criticism.
Teachersshould review this list and choose to include as many as would
be considered appropriateguides for their students. Students, in turn,
shouldbe instructedto select severalof the most useful (say, five to seven
for a three-pagecritique) on which to concentrate.Thus, answers to as
many of the questionsas are fitting shouldformpartof a smooth-flowing
essay, complete with topic sentences andtransitions.Effective criticism,
in other words, also involves writingthat is clear and coherent.
1. What is your overallopinionof the book? On what basis has this
opinionbeenformulated?Thatis, tell thereaderwhatyou thinkandhow you
arrivedatthisjudgment.Whatdidyou expectto learnwhenyou selectedthe
book?To whatextent-and how effectively-were yourexpectationsmet?
Did you nod in agreement(or off to sleep)? Did you wish you could talk
backto the author?Amplifyuponandexplainyourreactions.
2. Identify the author's thesis and explain it in your own words.
How clearly andin whatcontext is it statedand,subsequently,developed?
To what extent and how effectively (i.e., with what kind of evidence) is
this thesis proven?Use examplesto amplifyyourresponses.If arguments
or perspectives were omitted, why do you think this might have been
allowed to occur?
3. What are the author'saims? How well have they been achieved,
especially with regardto the way the book is organized?Are these aims
supportedor justified? (Aims are usually found in the preface or introduction to the book, or sometimes in the opening paragraphsof the first
chapter.If they are not found, whatdoes this tell you aboutthe book and/
or the author?Were you able to discernthem anyway?If so, how?) How
closely does the organizationfollow the author'saims, whetherstatedor
implied?
4. How are the author's main points presented, explained, and
supported?Whatassumptionslie behindthese points?Whatwould be the
most effective way for you to compress and/or reorder the author's
scheme of presentationand argument?

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RobertBlackey

5. How effectively does the authordraw generalizationsfrom the


materialbeingpresented?Areconnectionsbetweengeneralizationsandthe
supportingmaterialand evidence made clearly and logically? Use examples to supportyour evaluation.
6. Whatconclusionsdoes the authorreachandhow clearly are they
stated?Do these conclusions follow from the thesis and aims and from
the ways in which they were developed?In otherwords, how effectively
does the book come together?
7. Identifythe assumptionsmadeby the authorin boththe approach
to and the writingof the book. For example, what priorknowledge does
the authorexpect readersto possess? How effectively are these assumptions worked into the overall presentation?What assumptionsdo you
think should not have been made?Why?
8. Are you able to detect any underlyingphilosophyof historyheld
by the author(e.g., progress,decline, cyclical, circular,linear,random)?
If so, how does this philosophyaffect the presentationof the argument?If
not, what kind of thinkingor attitudesappearto drive the author?
9. How does the authorsee historyas being motivated:primarilyby
the forces of individuals,economics, politics, social factors,nationalism,
class, race, gender, somethingelse? What kind of impactdoes this view
of historicalmotivationhave upon the way in which the authordevelops
the book?
10. Does the author's presentationseem fair and accurate?Is the
interpretationbiased? Can you detect any distortion, exaggeration, or
diminishing of material?If so, for what purpose might this have been
done and what effect does it have on the overall presentation?
11. Does the dateof the book's publicationvis-a-visthe contentreveal
anythingabouthow theperiodin whichit was writtenmighthaveinfluenced
its thesis? For example, books writtenduring the Great Depression,or
duringWorldWarII,orduringtheColdWarmightbe affectedby prevailing
attitudesor perceptions.In other words, since every age writes its own
history,to whatextentdoes the book reflectits time?
12. Does the author'snationality,gender,race, ethnicity,class, and/
or age (to the extent these are known) affect the writing?Does the author
acknowledge any obvious or not so obvious biases?
13. Does the materialpresentedraiseyourcuriosityaboutthe subject,
and is there anything especially distinctive about the book? Might the
book have some impact upon the course of your educationalor other
pursuits?What are you most likely to rememberabout it in a week, a
month, a year?Here, too, elaborateupon your responses.
14. Is there enough informationin the book? Is the subject treated
thoroughlyor summarily?If you were the author'seditor, what would

Words to the Whys: CraftingCriticalBook Reviews

165

you add to render the book more thorough and well rounded?What
would you subtractthat might be extraneousor distracting?Explain why
you would take these actions.
15. Where and how does the book fit in relativeto the content of the
course for which it was read?Does it add or contradictanythingyou read
in other books or texts or what was discussed in class? How would you
explain, and possibly resolve, these differences?
16. How well is the book written?If you wish to use quotationsto
illustratea particularstyle or point, keep them short,preferablyno more
than one sentence.
17. If the book includes graphicmaterial(e.g., pictures,charts,diagrams, appendices), how easy are these to follow or read? Are they
referredto in the narrative?If so, are they used to enhance both the text
and your understanding?If you had difficulty utilizing this material,
explain why.
18. How useful are the footnotes (or endnotes)to you as a reader?If
you made use of them, explain how. If morethanjust sourcecitationsare
included in these notes, what purposedo they serve?
19. What is the quality of the bibliography provided? With the
book's date of publicationin mind, does the authorseem familiarand up
to date with the literaturein the field? Upon what kinds of sources does
the authorseem to depend?Whatkindof primaryandsecondarysources?
To what degree are you impressedby the use of these sources, and why?
20. If you had occasion to make use of the index, how easy was it to
use and how useful was it in finding whatyou were looking for? Did you
find any subjectsmissing?
Armed with these questions-veritable written stimulantsto reflection-students have morethanenough directionwith which to formulate
and organize a critical book review. Ignorance as to how to proceed
cannot be an excuse, and better students can use this direction to be
creative.It even becomes possible for studentsto develop skills whereby
they are able to integratesummaryand critiquein a way thatdiscourages
these two componentsfrom being presentedas separateand distinct.
Moreover, by being aware of and thinking about these questions,
studentscan learnto readmorecritically andto thinkaboutwhat historians do and why they do it. Every bit as important,learningto think and
write critically in history can be carried over into their work in other
disciplines, just as it also can, in general, furthertheir development as
educatedand thinkingcitizens.
Without the experience of writing critical book reviews, studentsare
likely to thinkthe task is beyondtheirability.But with these signposts in
the form of directions and questions to guide their thinking, many dis-

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RobertBlackey

cover and develop in ways hitherto unknown to them. To the extent it


works-and it has worked effectively for my students, especially as I
have refined these instructions over the years-the experience becomes
both a profitable and exciting exercise.

Note
For an excellent look at how to teach students to analyze works of history
1.
critically, see Robert F. Berkhofer, Jr., "Demystifying Historical Authority: Critical
Textual Analysis in the Classroom,"in History Anew: Innovationsin the Teaching of
History Today,edited by RobertBlackey (Long Beach:The UniversityPress, California
State University,Long Beach, 1993).