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How to Write a Book Review

At Ultius, we know that writing a book review can be a hard task. Not only do you have to read the book, but it requires creative and original thought that takes up valuable time. Check out the writing guide below on how to write a book review, and if you still need some help, we offer the following services:

 
 
 

In order to write a book review that meets high standards of quality and reflects a critical understanding of the text’s main points, a number of requirements must be met. The first step when considering how to write a book review is to select a book to review. The title may be assigned, or chosen by the student and approved by their instructor. The book that is chosen should be short enough to finish in a reasonable time period and exhibit an appropriate reading level and subject matter for the course. Many students choose their favorite book, or a new title from an author that interests them. This practice is generally acceptable; however, the book should always be read in its entirety, whether it is new or familiar. Taking detailed notes while reading can be a very effective strategy to remember key points, passages, phrases, or themes, which can then be deployed as part of the book review. Other authors’ reviews may also be useful to research, but if you do consult other reviews, avoid copying their criticisms or letting their arguments bias your own. A book review is your unique view of the text, including its narrative, the author’s use of diction, tone, metaphor, and other literary devices, as well as your consideration of how effectively the author’s prose provides a meaningful message, how it fits into the genre, and how it relates to other works through allusion, similarity, or thematic concordance. 

Audience is Key

Before writing a book review, remember to think about your audience: is this review for a class? The type of course will impact the level of review. An undergraduate English course likely calls for a review that incorporates lively language and deep analysis of the language used in the book. A history class might call for a book review that includes dates, and weighs the type of rigorousness of historical date the author utilizes, such as considering the issue of primary vs. secondary evidence.  A college newspaper or other book review column review will demand brevity and concise summary above heavy interpretive discourse. Graduate studies in Education requires a book review that considers the existing literature, and ways the book applies to teaching practice and theory. Due to the myriad approaches for completing a book review properly, it is important to tailor the book review to your audience or course instructor by using an appropriate tone and including or omitting certain aspects of the text depending on whether they fit the context of your review. Despite differences among fields, most book reviews follow the same general format.

Important Logistics

A book review should begin by identifying the author, title, and publishing date of the book to be discussed. This should be followed by a summary of the main idea of the book and its place in the literary world, such as its genre, or socio-historical context. For example, a review might begin: Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, published in 1869, is a prominent example of Russian historical fiction that depicts Napoleon’s invasion of Russia through two pairs of lovers’ eyes. This frames the book review by answering the questions who (Tolstoy), what (War and Peace), when (1869), where (Russia), and why (Historical Romance)? 

This topic sentence is followed by supplementary background information, which can be about the author, the creation of the work, or aspects of the text itself such as setting, major characters, motifs, plot points, or other relevant material. For example: The Odyssey was written in dactylic hexameter, giving it a flowing and succinct pattern of verse that lends itself to oral pronunciation. This statement gives an idea about the background and organization of the text, but it is not a main point of the book, and thus it belongs in the introduction. 

Introductory Paragraph

Any information presented in this introductory paragraph should introduce the readers to the book, why it was created, its basic arguments or themes, and, most importantly, lead into a concise and coherent thesis statement. The thesis statement for a book review should argue for a specific critical interpretation of the text’s content and impact. For example: In Dante’s Inferno, Alighieri’s use of allusion, powerful imagery, and beautiful poetic rhythm effectively immerse the reader in an Italian rendition of hell. This thesis statement details and criticizes the methods the author uses to convince the reader of the vividness of the world he has created. Other books may have different messages, and thus require a thesis statement that is tailored to the genre and context of the text. For a review of an educational textbook, for example: Foster’s How to Read Literature like a Professor provides a useful, if pedantic, methodology for readers who wish to understand and appreciate classical and modern literature through a variety of theoretical lenses by identifying symbolism and dissecting the elements of a story. 

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When considering how to write a book review, remember that the thesis format always follows from author to reader, and criticizes the way that the author’s message has been delivered through the text. Within the English department, a glut of literature exists on the ways that authorial intent, readership, and the act of writing and creating and the act of consuming texts intersect. These theories, such as formalism, structuralism, feminism, and others, give way to different ways of interpreting texts, which can be incorporated to lend a stronger argument to your book review. An example of a theoretically charged review might include the following thesis: Through the character of Katniss Aberdeen, The Hunger Games trilogy is Collins’ feminist depiction of the (female) body as a gear in the capitalist machine. The previous thesis statements all implicate the author in the creation of a text’s meaning, but this is not always necessary. For example: The Hobbit explores the meaning of friendship and identity by transforming a humble Halfling into a magical hero. A book review’s thesis statement takes a specific angle on the interpretation of an author’s work and then supports it using key pieces of evidence from the book itself. 

How to Read a Book

The question of how to write a book review begins with asking how to properly read a book. In order to extract the essential details and overarching meanings that the book entails, a deep and thorough reading is highly useful. After the introduction has been prepared, a book review should look at the book’s key points, whether plot points, character developments, themes, or other major aspects of the story. If the book is a textbook or nonfiction work, the same concept applies, where the main points will be the subjects that are explained and the methods the author uses to ascertain and explain the truths contained in the textbook. 

Identifying Themes

Many readers struggle to identify the theme or main points of a book, even after reading it through. If you find yourself completely lost, look to a respected literary critic’s interpretation for guidance, for example, J.R.R. Tolkien’s essay on Beowulf is a useful starting point to develop your own critique of the epic of Beowulf. Harold Bloom has written extensively on critical interpretations of Shakespeare, which may be fruitful to help brainstorm one’s own analytical pathway. These authors have identified what they believe to be the main points, or, alternatively, the subtle and fascinating details, of a given text. As you discover how other readers have interpreted a book, you can react to their criticism by agreeing, disagreeing, or coming to vastly different conclusions. For example: Though many critics have noted the sexuality of Lolita, Nabokov’s text also contains numerous examples of literary parody and satire that can be uncovered through a close and careful reading of Nabokov’s usage of allusion.   

Feelings and Emotions

After you have read a book, think about the feelings that it inspires in you as a reader: does the book cause you to feel wonder and awe, disgust and trepidation, or melancholy and despair? How did the author use language and other tools to conjure those feelings? The text’s main points will come to light as you experience the connection between the words on the page and the meanings and feelings created in the reader. For example: In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl uses humor and surreal imagery to portray a moral lesson about how the protagonist Charlie survives a harrowing competition because of his innocent and curious spirit, while his peers meet a variety of untimely ends due to their personal flaws: gluttony, greed, and shallowness. This sentence explains what the author is doing, how the main points relate to the central theme, and also gives a personal, interpretive spin on the summary. To further solidify your argument, each plot point or character could be discussed in detail. This step helps to empower anyone asking how to write a book review with a procedural way to accomplish the goal. For a scholarly book, the chapter headings and content organization can be explained. For example: In Fundamentals of Nursing, Potter, Perry, Stockert and Hall discuss the roles and core competencies of nurses, providing helpful chapter review exercises and quizzes that help students to understand basic nursing processes and values. Each chapter or major area covered can be discussed in the body of the book review: assessment, medication, charting, etc. This method can be applied to any field or type of book. Some students may question how to write a book review on a book that does not have a main argument, such as a physics textbook. In this case, the review should consider how the book contributes to the field of study, for example: The Feynman Lectures on Physics provides laymen and scientists alike with a better understanding of fields theory, the roots of quantum mechanics, and the way that Einstein and other early physicists transformed mathematics and astronomy.   

Effectiveness of Writing 

Once the main points have been identified and explained, you must critique the effectiveness of the author’s writing in connecting plot and character to a reader’s emotions and understanding. Remember, the author’s message proceeds through the text to the reader who receives and understands it. Your book review should detail how this process occurs, and whether the book is effective at inspiring a feeling, understanding or greater appreciation in the reader. For example: Bram Stoker’s use of journal entries convinces the reader of both the reality and horror present in Dracula — the main character’s use of the related words “gloom” and “dark” in the beginning Chapter 2 contribute to the spooky milieu. An ongoing critique of the effectiveness of the text should be present throughout the review, with each main point reinforcing the thesis, and the conclusion should reaffirm that the book has a valuable interpretation or contribution to the field.

Conclusion

In summary, a book review should detail the author, title, publication date, and subject matter, so that your audience can gain a brief understanding of the text being discussed. Further background information fleshes out this preliminary information. A thesis statement explains how and why the book makes its main points. The main points are then discussed, including details that support the thesis statement. Finally, a concluding statement states whether the book uses language to create meaning effectively. For example: This guide on how to write a book review succinctly explains how to criticize a book on its merits, while providing readers with context and data that supports an informed interpretation of the text.

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