You may choose any book or article on the course Bibliography that has not already been assigned as a required class reading. All optional books and articles are fair game. You may select any book or article the notes of most articles and books we read as a class. You may also select from bibliographies of other assigned books. For the purposes of this assignment, a book will be defined as several chapters in a book (usually the introduction, conclusion, and one or two from the middle) or a long (min 30 pp.) article from a scholarly or scientific journal. Popular magazines, newspapers, and industry journals do not count.
If you want to use a book that does not appear in any of the above places, or if you are not sure about the suitability of a book for this assignment, please ask me in advance. You can save yourself a lot of trouble by picking an appropriate book. If you are writing a research paper for the class, feel free to use a book from your research bibliography for this assignment.
Please do not "double dip" (write the same assignment for more than one course) without asking both professors what their policies are. I will only allow it under exceptional circumstances, by prior permission.
A Model Book Review:
Go to http://www.jstor.org and pick a scholarly journal in the humanities, such as Speculum, Journal of Economic History, American Historical Review, or Reviews in American History. If you do not know how to do this, please ask at the reference desk or come see me during my office hours in the library and I will show you. Browse around until you find the book reviews section, which usually follows the articles. Even easier, go the the journal section of the library and flip to the book reviews of a journal like Environmental History.
Some tips adapted from: Mary Lynn Rampolla, A Pocket Guide to Writing History (Boston, 1995), 4-5 (the pages in the 2d ed. are different).
"Assignments in History"
The writing projects assigned to you in a history course will give you opportunities to learn more about historical issues, events, and people and allow you to contribute your own ideas to the field. This section discusses major types of assignments that you might encounter -- ranging from summaries, book reviews, annotated bibliographies, and short essays to the meatier and more complicated research paper--and suggests some general ways of approaching these assignments.
A book review is not the same thing as a book report, which simply summarizes the content of a book. When writing a book review, you not only report on the content of the book but also assess its strengths and weaknesses. Students sometimes feel unqualified to write a book review; after all, the author of the book is a professional historian. However, even if you cannot write from the same level of experience and knowledge as the author, you can write an effective review if you understand what the assignment requires. In writing a review you do not just relate whether or not you liked the book; you also tell your readers why you liked or disliked it. It is not enough to say, "This book is interesting"; you need to explain why it is interesting. Similarly, it is not enough to report that you disliked a book; you must explain your reaction. Did you find the book unconvincing because the author did not supply enough evidence to support his or her assertions? Or did you disagree with the book's underlying assumptions?
To understand your own reaction to the book, you need to read it carefully and critically.
As a critical reader, you are not passive; you should ask questions of the book and note reactions as you read. Your book review then discusses those questions and reactions. (See pp. 23-25 for advice on critical reading.) Though there is no "correct" way to structure a review, the following is one possible approach.
If you still need some ideas, you can look at the following section on BOOK REVIEWS, adapted from: Jacques Barzun & Henry F. Graff, The Modern Researcher, 4th ed. (San Diego, 1985), 290-291.
As a sample of what such guidelines may be for writers in any of the shorter forms, here is a set of suggestions about the form of the book review. We will assume that it is written for a learned or literary periodical, where the space allotted will usually not exceed 1,500 words--say the American Historical Review or The New Criterion--or for an upper division course at UW Tacoma, say History of Technology.
The beginning, we know, is important. The first of your twelve paragraphs should present an idea of interest to the readers who will leaf through the magazine. If your first words are "This book . . ." they will not be able to distinguish your review from twenty others, and they will be entitled to conclude that you have not expended much thought on enlisting their attention. The opening statement takes the readers from where they presumably stand in point of knowledge and brings them to the book under review. The briefest possible description of its aim, scope, and place in the world therefore follows the baited opening sentence and completes the first paragraph.
The second classifies the book: what thesis, tendency, bias does it uphold, suggest, evince? Paragraphs 3 to 5 go into the author's main contentions and discuss them. Do not repeat anything you said in the classificatory paragraph, but rather give detailed evidence of the grounds for your classification.
Paragraphs 6 and 7 may deal with additional or contrary points to be found in other authors or in your own research; but so far, these only amend or qualify what is acceptable in the new book. In 8 and 9 you deliver your chief objections and summarize shortcomings. If you have found errors, mention only the important ones--do not waste space on typographical or minor slips.
From errors you modulate into the broad field: how is our conception of it changed by the book? What further work is needed to clear up doubtful points? Where have gaps been left that must he filled? You have now used up paragraphs 10 and 11 and you have one more in which to strike a balance of merits and faults, ending with some words about the author--not yourself or the subject.
For with book reviewing goes a moral obligation: you hold the author's fate in your hands as far as one group of readers is concerned. Author and work should, through you, be given the floor, have the last word. What you say in the review will, rightly or wrongly, be taken seriously. You are in honor bound to be scrupulously fair. Never use the author's admissions against him, saying, "Mr. X entirely neglects the foreign implications," when it was he who warned you of this in the preface. Do not expect him to have written the book you have in mind, but the one he had. Recognize the amount of work that has gone into the product and be magnanimous: you may be severe on serious faults of interpretation and inference; but unless they are continual, forget the trifling errors in his text just as you concentrate on them in yours. Book reviewers are not infallible.
If you ever have any doubts about what tone to adopt in a review of
a book you end up hating, consider this sage advice from an unknown editor:
"write your most critical review as though it would appear the day after
the reviewed author's death, without embarrassing you."