Book Review of The Wright Brothers by: David McCullough
Guidelines for Writing a Book Review
When you have been assigned to write a book review, also called a critical review essay, you will find it
helpful to recall the words of William of Baskerville in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose: “Books are
not made to be believed, but to be subjected to inquiry.” This is what distinguishes a book review from a
book report: the purpose of a review is not simply to report on the contents of a book (although this will
comprise a small part of the review), but rather to evaluate it and provide a critical commentary on its
Format of the Book Review
The format of a review is generally as follows, although you should always consult your professor about
any specific requirements.
Give complete bibliographical information at the top of the page (title, author, publisher,
place of publication, date of publication, number of pages, and name of reviewer).
Use the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) format. Example:
Weber, David J. The Spanish Frontier in North America. New Haven: Yale University Press,
1992. Reviewed by _____________.
1. Introduction: Identify the book you are going to review. State the author’s credentials
(education, place of employment, previous achievements, etc.) as a preface to giving the
book a serious hearing. Biographical information about the author should be included
only as it demonstrates the author’s competency to write the book. Within the context
of the paper, do not use titles (Dr., Rev., etc.). In most brief reviews, you will likely need
to limit the introduction to one or two paragraphs.
2. Briefly (in one or two well-written sentences) summarize the thesis of the book. This is
a crucial step because the thesis contains the reason why the author produced this
particular book (there may be dozens on the market with similar subject matter). The
thesis will state the author’s basic presuppositions and approach. The critical nature of
the book review will then grow from the reviewer’s conclusion that the book does or
does not achieve the author’s stated purpose.
3. Brief Summary: In the main body of the review, you should begin by briefly describing the
content and organization of the book, along with the most important evidence used. Do not get
bogged down in details here; this section is only intended to prepare the reader for the critical
assessment to follow. Limit the summary to 2-3 paragraphs.
3. Critical Assessment: Evaluate the book’s contribution to our understanding of history. There are
several things you should look for:
Identify the author’s central argument, or thesis. The thesis is not the topic of the book but the specific
argument that the author has made about her or his subject. Sometimes, the author states the thesis
in the book’s introduction, sometimes in the conclusion. Feel free to read these sections of the book first
to determine the author’s main argument. Knowing the main argument will help guide you through the
rest of the book. Finding the central argument or arguments can be like finding the forest in the trees: it
requires you to step back from the mass of information to identify larger themes. Sometimes a book,
such as a general historical survey, lacks an explicit argument or thesis.’ The main body of a critical
book review will be concerned with “thesis development.” That is, did the author achieve the
stated purpose? In this section the reviewer will inspect each of the chapters of the book to see
how the thesis is (or is not) developed. If the author makes progress and develops the thesis
convincingly, providing adequate information and statistical data, the reviewer says so,
providing concrete examples and citing their page numbers in the text.
a) Identify the author’s perspective, point of view, or purpose. This can be approached in a number
of different ways. Ask yourself whether the author has a particular emphasis, such as economic,
social or intellectual history.
b) Is the book informed by an economic, religious or political ideology? If the book describes a
conflict, does the author, either explicitly or subtly, favor one side over the other? Does the
author state the purpose of the book in the introduction or conclusion?
c) Look at the author’s evidence: what sources did he or she use? A history of European witch trials
based only Inquisition records would be one sided. This does not mean that any conclusions
from such evidence would be invalid, but the author should demonstrate an awareness of any
limitations imposed by the sources used.
a. Does the author rely on secondary resources, or are there also primary sources?
b. Does the author rely on a single source more than others?
c. Some modern works of History are now using scientific data, such as MRI scans of
Egyptian mummies, genetic testing of bodies, etc. Is there any such innovative source
among the author’s evidence?
d) Questions the reviewer will seek to answer in this section might include:
a. Is there an adequate, consistent development of the author’s stated thesis? Why
or why not?
b. What is the author’s purpose, i.e., what does he/she hope to accomplish through
this book? Does the author accomplish the purpose? If so, how does he/she do
so? If not, why not?
c. Does the author approach the subject with any biases, i.e., do the author’s
theological, experiential, philosophical, or cultural perspectives influence his/her
d. Does the author properly support his/her thesis? Does the author adequately
consider and refute opposing viewpoints? Is the book relevant to contemporary
e. Does the author have to resort to suppression of contrary evidence in order to
make the thesis credible (slanting)? If so, what additional evidence would
weaken the case?
f. Is the thesis sound but marred by a flawed procedure?
g. Is the author’s case proved, or would another thesis have been more
Conclusion: Assess the organization and style of the book. Is it well-organized and clearly written? Does
the style or the content of the book recommend it to a specific readership? Offer a final evaluation of
the book: How valuable is it? How important is it to read this book? This final summary should
include the major strengths and weaknesses of the book and evaluate its value for readers who
may be interested in that particular field of inquiry. Your primary purpose in this section is to
respond both positively and negatively to the book’s contents and presentation. Needless to
say, this response should be more in-depth than, “This book is a good book that should be
recommended reading for everyone.” On the other hand, “This book is a lousy book not worth
reading” is also inadequate. Central to this is the basic question of whether or not the author
has achieved the book’s stated purpose.
Answer questions such as:
1. What are the strengths of the book, i.e., what contributions does the book make?
2. Why should a person read this book?
3. What did you learn from this book?
4. How might you apply the lessons of this book in contemporary society or why might
it be important to current world conditions?
5. Would you recommend the book to other students? To laypersons? Why, or why not?
The following guidelines are included to counter common style errors:
A. Utilize this suggested outline to guide your book review, but do not include the specific
subheadings (“Bibliographical Entry,” “Summary of the Book,” etc.) in the essay. The
brevity of the review demands a smooth flow from one section to another without
including the subheadings.
B. Use first-person and second-person sparingly; however, you may use “I” when referring
to your opinion of a text.
C. Avoid contractions in formal writing.
D. Use active voice as much as possible.
E. Be clear and concise. A brief review allows no room for wandering from your objective.
F. Use your spell-checker, but do not trust it. A spell-check will not catch the error in such
sentences as, “The whole Congress voted too pass the amendment.” Use your eyes as
well as your spell-checker.
G. Proofread your paper. Finish the paper, and proof it. Lay it aside, and proof it again at a
later time. If you do not catch your errors, someone else will.
H. Remember the page requirement and limit. The review should be five to seven (5-7) total
pages of text. The endnotes do not count towards this limit, if used.
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