Writing a Historical Book Review Essay Sample

Writing a Historical Book Review Pages
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Writing a book review as an assignment in a history course is designed to promote at least four important objectives: (1) effective writing, (2)) substantive knowledge about a particular historical topic, (3) the development of a historical perspective and an understanding of the nature and use of historical research, and (4) an ability to think critically about the work of others. A typical summary “book report” can at best teach only the first two objectives. A critical book review goes beyond mere summary to inquire into the overall worth of the work. There are six steps to preparing a review of a historical work. With some modifications, these steps also apply to writing reviews of other nonfiction works. NOTE: All submissions will be checked for plagiarism using the software program “Turn-It In.” This program checks each submission against a host of sources including previously submitted papers on the subject at Lone Star College. Academic integrity is a serious matter. If you have a question on this item review the college policy outlined in the syllabus.

1. Select a book.

Three books have been selected to augment the text book for this course. Each additional reading should be read and reviewed during its respective unit of the course as outlined in the syllabus..

2. Determine the purpose of the book and the intended audience.

The best place to determine both purpose and audience is usually in the preface, foreword, or introduction. What demand did the author intend to fulfill with the book? Did the author write because there was no satisfactory work available on the subject? Did the writer feel that he or she had a new point of view on a well-worn topic? Perhaps the author wrote a popular account of a subject about which previous works had been dull and dry. Ascertaining the author’s purpose is important. The writer should be judged by whether he or she achieved what he or she set out to accomplish. Also determine the audience for which the work is intended. Was the work directed mainly at professional historians, college students, or the general public?

3. Learn the author’s qualifications and viewpoint.

Find out the author’s academic background. Is the author a journalist, a professor, or a professional writer? Has this writer published other books on related topics? Consult your library catalog; check Who’s Who in America, Contemporary Authors, Directory of American Scholars, or other directories. Viewpoint, however, is generally more important than credentials, since an author must be judged mainly by the quality of the particular work you are examining. A Pulitizer Prize winner may later write an undistinguished book. But many first books, often derived from the author’s doctoral dissertations, are outstanding. Knowing the author’s point of view, however, may put a reader on guard for certain biases. A Marxist historian will often write from a predictable perspective, as will an extreme rightist. Biographers are often biased for or against their subjects. For example, after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, many of his intimates, most notably Arthur Schlesinger, Jr, wrote biographical works. A reviewer could not adequately analyze Schlesinger’s Thousand Days without knowing something about his close relationship with the slain president. Look for information on point of view in prefatory materials, in the body of the book, and in reference works with entries about the author.

The best place to find information on authors is in the Contemporary Authors database by Gale. Here’s how to get there: From Tomball College Homepage click on Library. Next click Find. Next select Article Databases. Next Databases listed in Alphabetical Order. Next C. Next Contemporary Authors. You will then be asked for your library card number and once you enter it you will be in the database. Once in the database simply fill in the authors name and you will receive a wealth of info about him/her.

4. Read the book.

Read critically and analytically. Be sure to identify the author’s thesis — the main argument of the book. Look for secondary theses and other important points. See how the author uses evidence and examples to support arguments. Are his or her sources adequate and convincing? Does the author rely mainly on primary — firsthand, documentary — sources or on secondary sources? Consider the author’s style and presentation. Is the book well organized? Is the prose lively, direct, and clear? Take notes as you read so that you can return to particularly important passages or especially revealing quotations. Remember that being critical means being rational and thoughtful, not necessarily negative.

5. Outline the review.

The following outline is only a suggestion; it is not a model that you should necessarily follow for all reviews. You may find it appropriate to add, combine, separate, eliminate, or rearrange some points.

I. Introduction

A. Purpose of the book

B. Author’s qualifications and viewpoint

II. Critical summary

A. Thesis of the book

B. Summary of contents, indicating how the thesis is developed (Use examples. While this will generally be the longest part of the review, you should make sure that your paper does not become a mere summary without critical analysis.)

C. Author’s use of evidence to support the thesis and secondary points

III. Style and presentation

A. Organization of the book

B. Writing style (word choice, paragraph structure, wit, readability, length, etc.)

IV. Conclusion

A. Historical contribution of the book (How does the book fit into the prevailing interpretation of the topic? Does it break new ground? Does it answer a troublesome question? Does it revise older interpretations? Does it merely clarify and simplify the standard point of view? You may need to consult other sources when considering this point.)

B. Overall worth of the book (Would you recommend it? For what type of audience would it be best suited? Did the author accomplish the intended purpose?)

6. Book Review Information Sources

The Lone Star College library has two great data bases available on line which are great aids for this. To access these databases first go to http://tomball.lonestar.edu/69157and in the left column click on List of Databases. In the next window in the right column click on History and you will see several databases that can be used in exploring history subjects. There are two data bases in this list which are especially useful for viewing professionally written book reviews they are: (1) EBSCO Academic Search Premier and (2) JSTOR.

To use EBSCO click on it. If logging in from home you will be asked for your library card number and once you enter it you will be directed to the database. Once in the database click on Advanced Search at the top of the page. In the next window look for the FIND: block type your book title. In the next block to the right (a pull down menu) select TI Title. In the second line block which has a pull down menu select PS Reviews and Products. Next click Search and a list of available reviews will appear. Select the ones you wish to review and you will get some ideas of how a good review should look.

To use JSTOR click on it. Again if logging in from home you will be asked to enter your library card number and once you enter it you will be directed to the database. Once in the database click on Search. Next click on Advanced Search. In the next window in the block for All of these words type your book title. Next narrow your search by checking the box for Title. In the next line click the box for Review. Next scroll down the page and check the box for History – 15 Journals. To start the search scroll to the bottom of the page and click on Search. Next a list of all the reviews available will appear. You can click on Review to get an onscreen view of the review but if your internet connection is the least bit slow this can be time consuming. Another way to get the info is by clicking on Download in the last line of each review listed. This will bring up a window for you to select the format for the download. I recommend selecting PDF Economy. This will call up the file using Adobe Reader and you can read, print or save the review. Note however this function will require that Adobe Reader software be installed on your computer but it is a free download from the adobe.com web site.

A good book review should contain information about the author to establish his/her credibility. The review should include something about the authors education, examples of other works published, awards received, organizational memberships and current position. This information is readily available from other databases from the Tomball library. To find these databases go to the library homepage at http://tomball.lonestar.edu/69157and in the left column click on List of Databases (Alphabetical). In the next window under the column titled Databases by title click on C and select Contemporary Authors. In the next window you enter your authors name in the box for Authors Name and click Search. Next you will be given a list of authors if more than one is available. Select your authors name and you will be given a wealth of information about the individual.

7. Write the review

Follow your outline. Use standard written English. When in doubt, consult The McGraw-Hill College Handbook or similar reference.

I. Some guidance on how to submit your book reviews. Write your review in a word processor like Microsoft WORD. Save your work in a rich text format (.rtf file). After saving your work enter the course and click on the book review located near the bottom of each unit listing. In the window that appears titled Submission type the title of the book and click add attachments and attach your .rtf file than click submit. I will grade the assignment and return it to you.

II. The cover page should contain in the center of the page the standard bibliographic citation of the work under review. (Reviews seldom have titles of their own.) Below the title should appear your name, History 1301 and the date submitted.

III. The review should be printed double-spaced using arial style 12 point type and the left and right margins should be set at 1.25 inches. The typical review should be no longer than three pages.

IV. If you quote from the book under review, simply follow the quotation with the page number(s) in parentheses. For example: “The author makes the incredible assertion, ‘Jefferson turned out to be America’s worst president’ (p. 345).”

V. If you need to cite other sources for quotations, points of view, or facts, use a standard citation style.

VI. Don’t be afraid to be critical of the book because your professor has selected it to read or you are intimidated by the credentials of the author. If you don’t like the book say so but be sure to explain why you don’t like the book.

VII. Writing this review is not difficult. You can do well on the assignment if you follow the basic guidelines above.


You may find it helpful to read published book reviews as a guide to the preparation of your own review. Most historical journals, including the American Historical Review and the Journal of American History, publish many short reviews at the end of each issue. Reviews in American History, which prints longer reviews, is especially useful. To determine where reviews of the particular book you have chosen have been published, consult the Book Review Digest or the Book Review Index. Assume that your audience is college educated and well read, but do not assume that your hypothetical reader has an in-depth knowledge about the subject of the book under review.

Lone Star College has several services available to help you prepare an excellent assignment. The first is the Extended Learning Centers (ELC) located on each of our campuses. The ELC at the Tomball campus may be accessed at: http://tomball.lonestar.edu/3383/. Each ELC has a section strictly devoted to writing. For the Tomball campus Writing Center go to: http://tomball.lonestar.edu/20077/. For distance learning students who may not have ready access to on of these services an on-line aid is available called SMARTHINKING. For access to this aid go to: http://online.lonestar.edu/121620/. Links to the Writing Center and SMARTHINKING are located in the “My Tools” section of the class.

8. The Rubric

The table below is a rubric that I will use to grade your review. You can also use the rubric before you submit your assignment to “self-grade” your own review. Accomplishing this step will prevent you from overlooking one of the requirements for the assignment.

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