The purpose of a book review is a critical reading and analysis which reveals the strengths, weaknesses, usefulness and quality of your subject. Assume your reader is a college student, like yourself, intelligent but with little background in history. The review should give the reader a clear sense of the potential knowledge or enjoyment to be gained from your book. You should always strive for balance, clarity and vigor in your writing. Remember that this is not a book report: be both critical and appreciative, but come to your own conclusions. Like a good book, your review should have a thesis and a supporting argument. If you want examples, look at journals in history, or your own field, or even newspaper book and movie reviews.
This is a chance to study what interests you. History includes economics, religion, culture, warfare, politics, science, music, cinema, literature, etc. There are a few limits on your choice, however. The biggest is that the list of books you can choose from freely is the “For Further Reference” lists at the end of each chapter in Hansen & Curtis. If you have a strong desire to read and write on something not on one of those lists, however, come see me with your suggestion. It would have to be a substantial work of history, with extensive sources and a significant thesis.
- Assignments are due in class. The only the Complete Review will be given a letter grade.
- Lateness will be penalized. Serious illness or equivalent excuses will be accepted only in advance (i.e., call or e-mail before class), with documentation; other classes’ assignments, sporting events and recreational travel do not constitute acceptable excuses for lateness.
- Grammar and spelling count: lapses distract the reader from the impact of your argument.
- I know the individual assignments add up to 2500 words, and the complete review is limited to 2000. These are maximums, not targets, and the complete review should be more than just a cut-and-paste of the previous assignments.
|Book Choice||title, author, publishing info||9/21 (M)|
|Summary||750 words||10/7 (W)|
|Argument and Evidence||500||10/30 (F)|
|Historical/Scholarly Context||500||11/6 (F)|
|Complete Review||2000||12/11 (F)|
Your grade will be based on the quality, clarity, completeness and effectiveness of your writing. Most important is the quality of your review: is your analysis of the book thorough, balanced and convincing? Is your analysis presented with sufficient evidence, and with an appropriate structure? Is it pasted together assignments, or is it a coherent essay? Can your reader learn from your review what is in a book and whether it would be worth reading for their purposes?
The elements of a good review:
Summary: a concise and clear restatement of the basic content of the book. It should include the author’s thesis, if it is a scholarly work; the plot, if it is a novel or drama; some idea of how the book is structured, and what is contained within. The summary should take up no more than 1/3 of the text of the review. Remember that more detail can be included in the analytical sections of the review; this is just introduction.
Context: What is the background of the author? Is their personal background relevant to the subject of the book? What is the historical context, the time period discussed by the book? What other books discuss the same kinds of things, and how does this book compare? Note that your textbook is an invaluable resource for comparisons and context.
Thesis: What is the point of the book? What conclusions does it try to reach, or, what is the underlying message? Is this an ambitious or radical idea, or is it conservative, unexciting?
Argument and Evidence: What kind of evidence or data is presented? Where does the evidence come from? Is it reliable, and is it interpreted reasonably? What kind of conclusions are reached along the way, aside from the main thesis? What is the logic that leads from evidence to conclusion? Does the evidence support the thesis and conclusions? Is there evidence missing, or is it interpreted in a one-sided way? How does the author deal with alternative arguments or scholars who have reached different conclusions?
Evaluation: Does the author achieve the desired effect? Are you convinced by the argument? How much have you learned and is what you learned what the author intended? Are the conclusions strongly supported by the evidence? What are the strengths and weaknesses of this book? How does this work compare or contrast to other works written on the same subject, or around the same time, or by the same author?
Personal Reaction: How did this book affect you? Why?
Recommendation: What would another reader get out of this book? What are the greatest strengths and weaknesses of the book? Would you recommend this book to a fellow student? Why or why not?
“Life must be lived forward, but it can only be understood backward.”
— Søren Kierkegaard
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