How to write an (academic) book review

It’s time for the fourth installment of my month-long series about writing in academia.  Today, I will give what little advice I know about writing book reviews for publication in academic markets.

Some people will tell you that book reviews are a waste of time.  I heartily disagree.  For baby graduate students or junior professors, they can be a great way to begin publishing in academic journals.  They allow you to participate and comment on your colleague’s work in a refereed journal.  Plus, reviews (should be) fun to write–and great to read as a researcher.  They are part of the grease that keeps our profession alive.

My one publication has been a book review for Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies (link above right).  When I wrote that, I knew little about the format of book reviews.  I began by writing chapter summaries, and then tried to restate the book’s argument in my own words.  I don’t think I would have read the book as closely if I wasn’t writing the book review; in a way, then, writing the book review taught me how to read a book for it’s argument.

I think what takes a book review to the next level is the ability to incorporate the book into the existing academic conversation on the subject.  To put it in context.  I wasn’t perhaps ready to do that yet when I wrote my book review, but I will be thinking about techniques to do that for the next one.

Some journals publish book reviews consisting of more than one title.  I think it creates a more interesting review–certainly a more nuanced one.

Above all, be respectful to the author, even if you think the book’s not that great.  The author has worked on it for a long time, and several people (editors, blind readers, colleagues) have looked at the manuscript well before you.  Be honest, but kind.

And don’t write too much.  Unless you’re writing the SEL review (it includes all/most books written, organized by period), reviews should not be more than 2000 words, and many are much shorter than that.  Quotes are nice, but use sparingly.  We are interested in what you have to say about the book.

Good luck!