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Study Aids - Suggestions for Analytical Book Reviews

The purpose of the analytical book review is to share information about a secondary historical source. It is not a summary or a description of the book. It is not a book report. In fact, most book reviews describe very little of a book's content. It is analytical in that it is a thoughtful discussion of the work, its benefits and shortcomings, and its significance. A review evaluates the author's thesis, arguments, evidence, and, perhaps, writing style. It also comments on how the book fits in with other works written on this topic. In short, an analytical book review is one that employs "analytical thinking."

The book's author has several hundred pages to make his or her point, but you will have only a few pages to explain your analysis. You will have to reorganize what the author has said into your own review and present your analysis according to the topics which you think are important. The following questions should help you to analyze the book and structure your review. Do not think that you have to answer all of these questions. Instead, select those which you think are the most important for your analysis.

Remember that a book review is an essay; it should be structured like one, with an introduction (including thesis), body, and conclusion.

Book Reviews: Questions to Consider

What are the author's stated goals and achievements?
1. Does the author intend to write about one thing, but ends up writing about something else?
2. In order to achieve the goal, should the author logically include certain topics? Does the author miss topics which should have been included?
3. Does the author follow his or her goals throughout the book?

What is the author's frame of reference?
1. What is the author's personal background? Does the author project his or her perspective into the book's organization, argument, or overall interpretation?
2. What was the climate of opinion at the time the book was written? Could the author have written the same book ten years earlier or ten years later? Why?
3. Does the author have any specific biases or interests that affect his or her work?

What is the author's writing style and how does it fit with his or her goals?
1. Does the author's writing style add or detract from the book's main argument? Why?
2. Is he or she clear?
3. Does the author have a certain viewpoint, voice, or organization, and is it explicit, obvious, or appropriate?

What is the author's agenda?
1. What are the author's moral or political judgments and how do they fit into the book?
2. For what political, moral, intellectual, or other purpose does the author argue and shape the material? How does the author connect these to the book's contents?
3. Does the author discuss these forces openly or merely imply their importance? Does the author deny that some of these forces are important?

What does the author presume about the social, economic, or political arrangements in the society being studied?
1. How are social, economic, or political groups divided, explained, or interrelated?
2. How many groups are there and what is the nature of these groups?
3. What does the author explicitly or implicitly argue about the relations of these groups?
4. Is one or more of these groups perceived to be better, stronger, more important than the others or are they equal?

How does the author use evidence to prove the argument?
1. What kind of evidence does the author use in the book?
2. With what types of sources is the book constructed?
3. Is the evidence compelling? Is there enough evidence?
4. Does the author rely on assumptions or evidence to prove arguments?
5. What methods does the author use and are they properly used?
6. Does the author have weak evidence to prove a strong thesis or the reverse?
7. Is there missing evidence or should the author have consulted other sources to present a more balanced account?

How does the author tell his story?
1. From whose viewpoint does the author tell the story or make the argument?
2. What "plot" does the author adopt?
3. Do all events move towards a "better tomorrow" (progress), or a worse one (decline)? Or does history repeat itself?
4. When does the story begin and end? Why? What divisions of time does the author use? Why does he "periodize" his topic as he does?
5. Who are the "actors" in the story and how are they viewed - as heroes, villains, tragic figures?
6. Does the author perceive his or her story to be part of a larger interpretation?

What does the author assume about human behavior?
1. Does the author assume that people change or that they never do?
2. Can people change easily or with extreme difficulty?
3. Do people change themselves, or does the "environment" change them?
4. Are all people basically alike in their interests, outlooks, and capacities?
5. Do human drives vary by individual, culture, class, or time?
6. Is human nature universal or culturally or temporally specific?

What is the authors' contribution to existing scholarship?
1. How does the book contribute to our understanding of the period or topic?
2. What does the author add to existing scholarship?

(This guide was adapted from the work of Professors Robert F. Berkhofer, Jr., Robert F. Berkhofer III, Steven Deyle, Sally E. Hadden, and Patrick Rael.)

 


Robert F. Berkhofer
Dept. of History
4301 Friedmann Hall
Western Michigan University
1903 W. Michigan Ave
Kalamazoo MI 49008-5334

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Last Revised:
January 26, 2005