Writing a Book Review of a Work
of Pseudohistory or Pseudoscience
What is the purpose of book reviews? There are many different types of book reviews, and they have somewhat different purposes. They appear in newspapers (Beaumont Enterprise), popular magazines (Newsweek), scholarly journals (Journal of American History, The Historian), and in specialized review publications (New York Review of Books, Choice, or History: Reviews of New Books).
For this book review, you will be reading a work of pseudo-history or pseudoscience. These books are generally not considered to be serious works by academics, so they are not reviewed in academic journals. They are just ignored. But such works can sometimes become bestsellers as the works of Graham Hancock and Gavin Menzies have demonstrated.
Your book review should look at one of the works of pseudo-history or pseudoscience in a critical way. Is the book convincing? Is the book an honest piece of scholarship. What are the strengths and weaknesses of the research or the argument? Your review should give your classmates a useful summary of the contents of the book and a historical and scientific judgment as to the reliability of the book’s conclusions. The guidelines listed below will help you to do that in your book review.
All book reviews exist to tell the reader something substantial about the book, and by doing so, spare the reader from having to read it themselves. As a result of reading the review, the reader may want to buy the book and read it, check it out from the library and read it, buy it for a library so that the library patrons can read it, or ignore the book because its subject is of no interest or because its quality is poor.
In the case of the book review for our class, you will be sharing your work with your classmates so that everyone’s knowledge of the topic will be expanded. Be sure to give them a good idea of what the book is about, its reliability, and its usefulness.
The audience for book reviews will vary by publication. Newspapers and popular magazines publish book reviews to let their readers know about important or interesting new titles. They are aimed at a popular audience and review works of fiction and non-fiction, works that are often not at all scholarly in its intent.
Some publications are a bit more highbrow than others. New Republic, New York Review of Books, TLS [Times Literary Supplement, and New York Times Book Reviews tend to publish more scholarly reviews as their readers are professionals and intellectuals. Of course, it is important to keep in mind that reviews appearing in the New York Review of Books often spend more time talking about the book reviewer's ideas on the subject than those in the book.
Other book reviews are written to tell librarians about new books. These reviews generally are very short, providing a brief (100-200 words) description of the contents of the book and an evaluation.
Finally, there are scholarly reviews of books. These appear in scholarly journals. Such reviews are 500-1,500 words in length. They basically evaluate the books for other members of the profession. Book reviews written for this class will follow the pattern of a scholarly review.
A book review is not a summary of the contents of a book. Book reports summarize contents, and they belong in high school. A good book review is a commentary on the book. It analyses, evaluates, and judges the contents of the book.
What to Look for in the Text
- 1) Find the author's point of view. This is often clearly stated in the introduction or preface.
- 2) Identify the author's major hypothesis, point, or contention. There may be more than one or there may be a main one accompanied by several lesser but still important hypotheses. Again, most authors will state their point or hypothesis in the introduction and the conclusion of their book.
- 3) What types of evidence does the author use? Look at the footnotes, endnotes, and bibliography.
- 4) How is the book organized to present its argument? Is the organization effective?
- 5) How does the author use the evidence presented in the book? Is the evidence sufficient, is it convincing, is it appropriate?
- 6) Is the author's point of view appropriate? Is there a discernible bias, or is the author objective? Is the author true to that point of view in the way the book has been written? Always remember to respect how the author wrote the book, as long as it is appropriate. Do not criticize an author for writing a book (or article) differently from how you would have written it. If you feel so strongly about it, write it yourself.
- 7) How does the book fit in to the existing literature? Are there other books on this topic? Is the book revising them, enhancing them, or contradicting them? Or is this book unique?
- 8) Based on the organization, argumentation, and evidence presented, do you find the book contains a convincing argument?
- 9) If possible, compare the book with other books on similar topics.
- 10) Do you recommend this book to others? Why or why not? Comment on readability, whether the book grabbed your interest, was it useful?
The Structure of a Book Review
- I. Supply a brief summary or overview of the book's hypotheses and contents.
- II. Assess the nature and the quality of the evidence presented.
- III. Compare the work with similar titles.
- IV. Comment on the author's presentation: organization, writing style, illustrations, tables, bibliography, index.
- V. Conclusion with final assessment and recommendation to readers.
When reviewing a book, there are several other key words that can guide your efforts. Ask yourself, what is the author's purpose for writing this book? That question encompasses both point of view and hypothesis. Ask yourself, what is the scope of the book? That question deals with what the book is about. What is its subject (person, time period, place)?
It is also important to know something about the author. The keyword for this is authority. What is the author's authority? Does the author have expertise or a reputation in the subject? Beginning students will know little or nothing about the authors they are reading. That is why it is a good idea to look them up and learn about them. All the people on your reading list are well known, significant historians who are the subjects of entries in biographical reference works.
Beginning students do not know where a book fits into the historical literature. One way to quickly find out where it fits in is to locate book reviews written by other scholars. How do they evaluate the book and why? Where do they say it fits? Their word is not necessarily gospel. Be sure you find good scholarly reviews, not simple library selection reviews, which are too short and lack detail for this purpose.
Remember, when writing your review, your audience is your classmates and your professors.
Your book review should be 4-6 pages long. Provide complete bibliographic information at the front, i.e., author's name, title, place of publication, publisher, year of publication, pages. Put your name at the end of the review. Look at various reviews published in scholarly journals and see how the pros do it.
The review is due on the date listed in the course syllabus. It will be graded and returned to you.