Sunday, November 20, 2011

How to write a book review - sample book review

II. Writing a book review

Why a book report?

Before you decide to spend your hard-earned money on a movie, you most likely check your local newspaper to see what the movie reviewer had to say. You know that you can rely on his
ratings – so, you are selective. The same holds true for the book review.We expect the professional reviewers give us their reactions before we decide whether or not to read the book.

Ideally, the function of the reviewer is to let you know if it will be worth your while to read the book. Of course, the reviewer, in order for his judgments to have validity, must have certain
qualifications much as the sports writer must know all there is to know about the sport he is reporting on.

What is a Book Review?

The review is basically a statement of opinion about a piece of writing (or any other work of art, such as dance, sculpture, or music)which is substantiated with specific facts and incidents from the work itself. Its primary purpose is to let the reader know whether it would be worth their while to read the work under discussion. Though you will have to include some information about the content of the work, never forget that the object of the review is the presentation of the reviewer’s opinion.
Thus the primary concern is to make the reader aware of what you think and/or feel about the work of art. When the work is being analysed is literature, the critical essay is called literary
criticism. It is this type of essay that encompasses the book review, and, hence, the primary concern of this section.
In the book review, you as the critic can concern yourself with any one or several of the following:

1. Impressions – What are your reactions to the work? Did you like it? Did it appeal to your emotions, to your intellect, or to both?
2. Analysis – How does the author accomplish his/her avowed objective? Is the style effective? Is the genre appropriate for the subject matter? How effective is his/ her diction? The
character delineation? The choice of setting? Is the work too long or too short? How extensive is the author’s knowledge of the subject matter?
3. Interpretation – What does the work mean? What is the author trying to tell us? Can the work be understood without relying on such extrinsic factors as the author’s background?
4. Orientation – Where does the work fit within the history of literary development? How does it relate - to other works written by the same author? to works on the same subject by
other authors? to comparable works of different time periods?
5. Valuation – Does the work have some general value - some unique value? Is its appeal limited to any special group or would it appeal to most readers? Is its appeal limited in time
or is it universal?
6. Generalisation – What broad, general statements can be made about the work?

Authoritative vs Impressionistic reviews

Book Reviews can be either authoritative or impressionistic.The kinds of reviews you will find in scholarly journals and in literary magazines will generally be authoritative. Here, the writer is extremely well qualified by nature of his/her education, training, extensive reading, and scholarly background to discuss the work with great authority. Such a critic can readily cite other works, critical theories, and literary history to substantiate the views.Needless to say, this is not the kind of review that you are expected to write.

You will be expected to write impressionistic reviews, which are honest reactions to the work you have read. That, of course, is not to say that your review can be superficial; any expression of taste must be substantiated with ample proof. But your review should be an expression of your personal reaction bounded by your experience, your knowledge, and backed up by sound
reasoning and logic. Such reviews, when effectively organised, logically thought out, and cogently presented, are perfectly valid forms of literary criticism.

Subjectivity vs Objectivity

A good review should incorporate both a subjective and an objective view of the work. Although the impressionistic review is essentially a subjective reaction, if the review lacks any kind of
objectivity, it lacks validity. As a reviewer you should be fair to the author, judging his work on how successfully he has attained his objective.

The only thing worse than a totally subjective review is an objective review. Actually, an objective review is not a review at all. At best, it is a report, for the term review strongly implies and demands the reviewer’s statement of opinion.

Remember, then, that a good review is the proper blending of the subjective with the objective; the writer’s opinion of the work, his critical judgment substantiated with details from and about
the book, and the factual density that lends credence to the review. The review should never be only one or the other.


Any expression of opinion – or taste - not backed up with facts or sound reasoning is not very acceptable. You want more than someone’s statement that “that’s a great little car”. You want to know why and you want proof. This is substantiation. Telling someone that ‘The Lord of the Rings’ was the greatest movie you’ve ever seen is not very convincing unless you can also explain why. This is substantiation.

The same holds true when reviewing literature. Reviewing demands a careful thinking and analysis of the work under discussion; it demands that you keep asking yourself why you
reacted the way you did; it demands that you present ample proof to your reader to substantiate your views. This does not mean that your reader will automatically agree with you, but at least she will know on what you based your judgment. It is the substantiation, the citing of specific details and incidents from the work, which lends credence to your impressions and judgments.

Preparing to write the review

Now that you have some understanding and awareness of what constitutes a book review and what qualifications you will need as a reviewer, you are ready for the next step – preparation for the writing. This does not mean that you sit down and jot down whatever comes to mind, making your first draft your last draft. The emphasis here is on preparation, which is getting ready to
write. Good writing requires preparation, organisation, writing, revision and rewriting.

Reading the work to be reviewed

Here is a checklist you can use for your reading:

1. Avoid reading blurbs, summaries, and commentaries prior to the reading of the work.
2. Read only when you are fresh and alert.
3. Read with proper lighting and with a minimum of disturbances and interruptions.
4. Give careful thought to the title of the work and its significance and implication.
5. Read the preface to familiarise yourself with the author’s intent.
6. Look over the table of contents (if there is one) so that you will be aware of the book’s basic organisation.
7. Know the genre to which the book belongs so that you may judge the work accordingly.
8. Get your own copy of the work, if possible, so that you can read actively.
9. If you use somebody else’s book, then keep slips of paper available for jotting down your reactions. Insert these slips within the book.
10. Read the entire book: Get a general impression and think about the work. Let it lie fallow in your mind until you see it in proper perspective.
11. Read the work again, this time for details to substantiate your initial impression or to modify that impression.
12. Be thorough and perceptive in your reading so that you can be fair to the author.

Taking notes

No doubt your normal pattern is to avoid taking notes at all costs, especially if you are reading aesthetic literature. After all, you argue, why destroy the pleasure of reading by stopping to jot down notes. Besides, you feel that your reaction to what you have just read is so firmly implanted in your mind that you will never forget it, certainly not within the next few days. but as experience has probably taught you by now, you know that this isn’t true; that
although you may recall that you had a reaction, by the time you finish reading the work you are no longer quite certain what that reaction was. The only logical solution, then, is to take notes. You will find that the time spent doing so will be very worthwhile in helping you to organise the review when the time comes to write.

Do not begin by taking copious notes on long sheets of paper.Rather, as has been suggested before, try to get a personal copy of the work so that you can underline and make marginal notes. If not, put in slips of paper to mark those pages that you want to refer to later. In
this way, there will be a minimum of interference with your reading pleasure, but do keep that pencil by your side and read actively, much as you would if you were involved in a
direct discussion with the author. Don’t be passive: react, agree, argue, debate and rebut!

Here are some of the items that you should concern yourself with as you read:

1. Point of view – From what point of view is the work written? This is especially important in the realm of fiction writing. Does the writer write in the first person (referring to herself as “I”)? Is the “I” of the work (the person) actually the writer speaking or is it a literary device where the “I” is one of the characters in the work? Would the work be more effective if we could see the story through the eyes of another character? Is the omniscient point of view used?
2. Title and preface – How accurate and effective is the title? Having read the work, do you feel that the title effectively created the tone and mood? Did the title become increasingly meaningful as you continued reading? Was the title mainly a means of capturing the reader’s attention?
Was it too broad or too narrow in scope? How much does the effectiveness of the title depend on the reader’s outside knowledge? Does the title perhaps appeal to only one segment of the reading public and is it the same segment that the work is aimed at? If the author stated her purpose in the preface, how effectively did she accomplish that purpose in the work? Did she adhere to her stated thesis? To what extent did she introduce tangential material? Is the reading of the preface necessary for an understanding of the work?
3. Organisation – How well is the work organised? If the work is fiction, then is the story told chronologically or in medias res (beginning in the middle and relating events through a series of flashbacks as in Homer’s ‘The Iliad’)? If the work is nonfiction, does one chapter logically lead
to the next? Is there ample substantiation? Are chapter titles clear and concise? If the work is a collection, how sound is the rationale for the selection of the shorter works? Are they logically organised? Is it necessary to read the selections in order? If so, is this a weakness in the organisation?
4. Style – What style of writing does the author utilise? Is it formal or informal? Is it apropos to her subject and to the tone? What about her diction? Is it too difficult for the average reader? Does the style tend to appeal to only a select audience, for example, one ethnic group? How effective is the style in furthering the theme, that is, is how the author is saying it an aid or a hindrance to what she is saying? How much effort is required on the reader’s part in comprehending the work (e.g. Joyce’s stream-ofconsciousness)?
5. Theme – What is the theme of the work? How readily apparent is that theme? How effectively does the writer make the reader aware of the theme? Is it logically and/or cogently presented? If the work is fiction or poetry, then how much symbolism does the writer employ and is the symbolism apparent to the astute reader? How convincing is the writer?
6. The ending – The ending of any work should be a logical outgrowth of what has been p esented to that point. How effectively has the writer achieved this goal? Does the ending seem contrived,or deus ex machina? Does the work just sort of stop? Is the main character’s conflict resolved satisfactorily, albeit not necessarily happily? Should the work have been ended before it did? After you have finished reading the work, how do you feel? Do you forget about it almost immediately or does it stay with you for a while?Were you able to guess the ending long before the end of the work?
7. Accuracy of information – Assuming that you are qualified to make such judgments, how accurate was the information in the work? Were the facts distorted in any way? Were the author’s prejudices apparent? Did she omit some significant events, thus affecting her accuracy? Does she document her sources? Are they reliable sources? In works of fiction, does she make ample use of factual density and supply enough facts to make the work credible?
8. Literary devices – What kinds of literary devices does the author employ, if any? Does she use symbolism? Allusion? Figurative language? Are the devices recognisable? Are they effective? If they seem obscure, could it be your misunderstanding?
9. Typography - What about the layout of the book? Is the type too small? If pictures and/or illustrations and graphs are used, do they add anything to the work as a whole or are they simply there to fill out the book? Are the illustrations and graphs clear and readily understandable? Does the work contain an overabundance of footnotes?Are any textual notes clearly and concisely presented on the same page, or must one constantly turn to the back of the book? Is the overall layout attractive? How relevant is the book jacket to the book’s content?

Of course, you will not be able to incorporate all of the foregoing into any one review, nor should you. But even though some of these items may not even be applicable to the work you
are about to review, it is good to keep them in mind as you read. Which of these you will use will depend on the work and on your reaction to the work.

Once you determine which of these items you will utilise, look the book over again (better yet, reread it) and begin marshalling the details, incidents, examples, quotations, and paraphrases to help you substantiate your viewpoint. Choose your documentary evidence carefully.Avoid citing or quoting portions out of context so that the author’s meaning is distorted. Do not focus on minute points. In quoting, quote accurately, and be sure to punctuate the quotation correctly; but do not over-quote. Avoid lengthy quoted passages.

At this point, do not be overly concerned with the relevance of your notes. You should be taking many more notes than you will actually use in the writing of your report. The main purpose at this time is to collect all information that might have some potential value for you and that will help you later on in formulating your thesis and in outlining your paper. Where possible, avoid
taking notes on separate sheets of paper, but utilise the margins of your copy of the work. Or insert slips of paper with such comments as “Quote from ‘Humble to language’ in last para”, or “good example of humour” or “ridiculous argument”. Don’t hesitate to use abbreviations, since these notes are there only to serve as reminders to you.

Sample review

The following is a sample review. In reading this sample, concentrate on how the reviewer presents his/her thoughts.

Sample review – novel

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. By Mark Twain. Edited by Henry Nash Smith. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1972.

Those who have been attacking Mark Twain’s ‘Adventures ofHuckleberry Finn’ for almost fifty years for its racism and anti-Negro stance are totally wrong: they have missed the essence of
Twain’s work – the humanism of Jim, the runaway slave. The book, written in 1885, a mere twenty years after the end of theCivil War, is a strong indictment of slavery – certainly stronger
than Stowe’s ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ – and of society’s view ofBlacks. Jim is the only character in the book who does not change; he is a good person throughout. It is Huck’s perception – and ours along with his – that changes, making us realise that Jim is a kind, compassionate human being, more so than any Caucasian in the book. Through the characters of Huck and Jim as they travel down the Mississippi, Twain, with humour and pathos, makes us aware of the conflict between the individual mores and society’s mores.

It is to Twain’s credit that through deft characterisation of Jim we become fully cognizant of Jim’s humanity. At first, we perceive him as the stereotypical slave – lazy, superstitious, and subservient. But Jim is like this because these are society’s expectations. Once on the raft with Huck, however, he seemingly takes on a new personality, much to Huck’s amazement. The raft, symbolising freedom from society’s restrictions, enables Jim to be himself. He selflessly shields Huck from knowing that the body in the house floating down the river is that of Huck’s Pap by throwing some rags over it. He teaches Huck about human dignity by making him aware that “…. Trash is what people is datputs dirt on de head er dey fren’s en makes ‘em ashamed” (73), so ashamed that Huck humbled himself to a “nigger”, and he “… warn’t ever sorry for it afterwards, neither” (74). We are truly touched when Jim recounts how bad he felt after punishing his daughter for not listening to him only to realise that she was deaf. Then there is Jim’s native intelligence in pointing out that the famous story of Solomon’s wisdom in resolving the conflict of the rightful mother wasn’t so wise. After all, Jim points out, it is in the way Solomon was raised: “…….. a man dat’s got ‘bout five million chillen runnin’ roun’ de house …….. as soon chop a chile in two as a cat” (67). A careful reader of the book will realise that Jim is innately good.

It is through Jim that Huck unconsciously learns about Jim’s humanity and counteracts society’s attitude that Blacks are unfeeling property. Huck’s limited education was not sufficient to
instil society’s corrupt values in him, but enough to make him think that when he did something good in our eyes that it was bad. For example, in the most powerful moment in the book he has to decide between returning Jim to his owner or go to Hell for “…… people that acts as ………[he’d] been acting about that nigger foes to everlasting fire” (178). After thinking about all that he and Jim had been through together and how good and kind Jim had been to him, Huck makes the most difficult decision of his life: he would rather go to Hell than return Jim to slavery. This is all the more significant when contrasted with how the “good” people looked upon Blacks. Aunt Sally is a good, kind, woman; she’s no Simon Legree. But when she hears that a Black was killed in a boat accident, she responds, “Well, it’s lucky; because sometimes people (emphasis added) do get hurt” (185). Here, again, Twain has managed to capture society’s mores, emphatically emphasising Huck’s heroic decision.

There can be no doubt that Mark Twain has written a sharp, clear indictment of slavery and society’s attitude towards Blacks as well as the corrupting influence that society can have. No other character in the book exemplifies natural goodness, as does Jim for he rises to heights of natural dignity. This is especially noteworthy, for most of the other characters tend to be cruel,
wittingly or unwittingly. As Huck so often observes, “Human beings can be awful cruel to one another” (194). Through Huck we can see that man’s natural mores are superior to those of society. By all means, read ‘Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’; it is, as considered by many,Twain’s finest work.

Task 1: Read the book reviews in English dailies.

Task 2: Read at least two books of your choice from your school/ local library and write reviews keeping in mind the points dealt with in this section.

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