What is a Good Academic Book Review?
A good academic book review summarizes a monograph’s thesis and evaluates its place in the historical literature for scholars who have not yet read the work. As you craft your book review, imagine that you are writing it for a graduate student or professor who is interested in the field of modern American history, but who has not read the book that you are evaluating. What would that academic want to know about the book that you have read?
As you write a book review, identify the author’s thesis and then note the way in which the author supports his or her argument. What is the structure of the book? Is it a chronological narrative or a thematic treatment? What type of sources does the author use? Do the arguments seem persuasive? Tell your readers what the book does and does not do, and evaluate its effectiveness in meeting its stated goals. Summarize the narrative themes of the book, but do not lose sight of your main argument. A strongly focused book review that makes a coherent argument will probably be a much better essay than one that does not have a central theme. Good organization of your points and a strong writing style are important.
To get a better sense of how to write an academic book review, look at some of the reviews in any issue of the American Historical Review, Journal of American History, or Reviews in American History. (You can access these journals through the JSTOR database on the university library’s website). Note the way in which academic book reviews quickly summarize the main themes of a monograph while also giving readers a sense of a work’s contributions to the field. Also note the way in which each academic book review is structured around a strong central thesis.
If you are reviewing a primary, rather than a secondary, source, you should evaluate the way in which that source reflects the views of a particular group during a specific time period. How would you situate that work in its historical context? How might historians use it as a primary source in their research? What are its arguments? What aspects of the past might this work help us to understand?
The ability to evaluate scholarly works and secondary sources in a tightly focused, insightful essay is an important skill that will serve you well in your study of history, because it will help you develop your analytical and reading skills and improve your understanding of the books in this field.