Writing a Critical Book Review in History, by John Jones
On being required to write my first critical book review for an upper level history course I was filled with questions as were many of my peers. I was aware that the discourse is different between disciplines and that each discipline has its own unique requirements. I also suspected that there was a difference in the objectives between English and History critical book reviews. My suspicions were confirmed as soon as I read some critical history book reviews. The objectives in book reviews between the disciplines are different animals. The most difficult part of any assignment is understanding what needs to be done, and how.
Like many of my peers, I was a third-year student in a fourth-year class expected to write at the fourth-year level. The transition to upper level writing across the disciplines can be traumatic for the unprepared. Many of us had never written a critical book review for history, and not all of us were history majors. A number of students dropped out of the course after writing their first critical book review in history simply because they did not know what was required and did not conduct the research to find out. The critical book review in history is unique to the discipline and a skill that is expected to be mastered by history students after their first year. Understanding what a critical book review in history is supposed to consist of is the first step in writing one.
The purpose of the critical book review for history is to share information about an historical topic - it is not a book report that summarizes the content. Historiography is the history of writing on a particular topic. The historical source under review is usually secondary, that is, it is about an event in history that the author has contributed some new information. The review is critical in that it discusses and evaluates the significance of this new information. Book reviews also provide the historian with a thumbnail sketch of the contents - that may be very useful in research work. Writing a book review requires that you assess the books strengths and weaknesses as they pertain to historiography - it is not a literary review. You should also tell the reader why you liked or disliked the book.
Reviewing books is an essential part of the historian’s profession. History students are expected to learn the discipline: to become historians. In order to review a book on history it is essential to have some information on the subject, the region, and the period. The bibliography in the book should supply you with references to sources with related information. Journals are also a good place to find this information and to look for scholarly book reviews that will also help you understand the form, and give you an idea of what your review should look like.
What is a critical book review?
The book review is simply an essay with three parts: an introduction, a body, and a conclusion. The three parts of the critical book review for the historian are: who wrote it, why did they write it, and what do they have to offer. Good historical writing is also an argument. Arguments are intended to extend our knowledge, and also can be described as having three parts: a premise, supporting evidence, and a conclusion.
1 Who wrote it?
Biographical information about the credibility, and expertise of the author must be taken into consideration. Who is the author, what is his or her background, how does the author’s background affect his or her writing? Education, class, ethnicity, nationality, gender, and political or religious affiliations may affect the authors expertise, bias, or interpretation. Is the author an authority or qualified to write on the subject.
2 Why did the author write it?
What is the author attempting to do? What is the theme: the argument? What assumptions has the author made? Is the argument well supported, with good documentation or does it have contradictions? Is the author’s conclusion convincing?
3 What does the author contribute?
What is new or different about this book, or does it offer anything new? Does the author present new information or evidence? Does the author raise new issues or leave unanswered questions for other scholars? How does this book differ from the general understanding of the topic or time?
History and Rhetoric.
Rhetoric is the art of argument, and good historical writing is always argumentative. Good historical writing is also about creating something new. Combine these two and you have, an argument about a new historical perception.
Attempt to summarize the author’s thesis in a single sentence. This may be difficult if the author has merely implied rather than explicitly explained his or her thesis. You might have to read the whole book in some cases to determine what the author’s thesis is. Watch out for transitions or verbs that imply proof. Careful, critical reading is essential. An historical book, paper or essay, such as a critical book review is an argument. Arguments are very important to historians. Books such as Anthony Weston’s, A Rulebook for Arguments, or Trudy Govier’s, A Practical Study of Argument, are very helpful if you are unsure of what an argument is.
2 Take a position
You need a thesis statement of your own to produce an authoritative review. You should take a position pro or con and support it with evidence.
3 Make a statement
Make a relevant statement that clearly states your position and reveals your impression of the book. Your argument should be based on your interpretation of the author’s thesis.
Book reviews are short and concise, they may vary from half a page to several pages depending on the assignment. The introduction is extremely important, it must be short, effective, and it must contain your thesis.
Developing a good thesis is often the most difficult part of writing. What happened, why is it interesting, why or how did it happen? The answers to these questions should set up the body of your thesis. Develop a hypothesis and then look for weak or vague words that detract from a strong, concise statement. Summarize the author’s thesis in a single powerful sentence if possible. Your thesis should appear in the last sentence of the first paragraph. Note - In a book review the conclusion should appear in the introduction unless you are posing a question, because your conclusion or question, is the argument that you are discussing. Often you cannot write a good thesis until you completed the first rough draft of your paper. Rewriting and refining are the keys to producing a good thesis.
I have included a book review for illustration purposes. In my first attempt to do a critical book review I examined a number of critical book reviews in history in search of the common elements. Examining the work of others can provide invaluable information. I would recommend that you read a number of book reviews if you are uncomfortable about writing. I think the following book review is a good example of a critical book review in history. The entire review is less than two pages, approximately 650 words, that also fits the criteria for most upper level assignments.
A New Look at the Slavery Issue
A book review by Danny Yee (firstname.lastname@example.org), Copyright © 1998
One of the things that has always puzzled me about the history of the United States is how a civil war could be fought and won to end slavery, but full civil rights not be granted to blacks until a century later. Tenzer's The Forgotten Cause of the Civil War suggests that one of the major contributions to tension between North and South - and hence one of the causes of the civil war - was white slavery, or the perception of slavery by Northerners as a personal threat.
Tenzer begins with the legal definition of slavery and of terms such as White, Black, and mulatto (which often differed from the social definitions). The partus sequitur ventrem rule made the offspring of a slave mother slaves, regardless of their colour. (No slave could be White, of course, so white slaves were classified as mulattos.) Chapter two looks at the consequence of this rule, the presence of white slaves in the South. Tenzer makes no attempt to provide quantitative figures here, stressing instead the accessibility of accounts of white slaves in the North (notably advertisements for runaway slaves who could "pass" as white). However many of them there actually were, the idea of slaves indistinguishable from free whites was widespread in the North.
Chapter three looks at Southern racial theory, in particular the fabrication of figures for insanity in the 1840 census and Dr Nott's idea that mulattos were unhealthier and shorter lived than black slaves. This leads to a chapter on the illicit slave trade, which Tenzer argues is the explanation for census results showing an apparently higher "fecundity" for black slaves than for free blacks and mulattos. His argument for an extensive illicit slave trade (continued in an appendix) is indirect but persuasive.
The 1850 Fugitive Slave law allowed runaway slaves to be reclaimed without due process, creating the possibility that free whites could be seized accidentally, or even kidnapped. This was perceived as an attack on freedoms inside the North and many states passed personal liberty laws in response. The political power of the South and events such as the destruction of the Missouri Compromise and the Dred Scott decision also raised fears of slavery being extended into the territories and Northern states. Mixed with ideas that "capital should own labor" and that slavery was right, regardless of colour, this produced an explosive atmosphere. However seriously leaders in the South may have contemplated the nationalization of slavery or the possibility of enslaving free white laborers in the North, there was enough evidence for this to make it a major theme in anti-slavery campaigns and Republican political propaganda.
Detailed references and some of the argument are left to the endnotes, and The Forgotten Cause of the Civil War is accessible to the non-specialist - despite having only a slender background knowledge of the period I had no trouble following it. I found Tenzer's thesis convincing: it resolved my perplexity about a war being fought to end slavery without blacks being granted civil rights. In any event, The Forgotten Cause of the Civil War, with its extensive quotations from newspapers and other texts of the period, both Southern and Northern, paints a vivid picture of attitudes to slavery in the decades before the Civil War.
Disclaimer: I received a review copy of The Forgotten Cause of the Civil War from the Scholars' Publishing House, but I have no stake, financial or otherwise, in its success.
The Forgotten Cause of the Civil War
%S A New Look at the Slavery Issue
%A Lawrence R. Tenzer
%I Scholars' Publishing House
%O paperback, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 0-9628348-0-7
%K history, United States
“One of the things that has always puzzled me about the history of the United States is how a civil war could be fought and won to end slavery, but full civil rights not be granted to blacks until a century later. Tenzer's The Forgotten Cause of the Civil War suggests that one of the major contributions to tension between North and South - and hence one of the causes of the civil war - was white slavery, or the perception of slavery by Northerners as a personal threat.”
This introduction in two sentences is short. The first sentence injects the writer into the work with a question that catches the reader’s interest,
“One of the things that has always puzzled me about the history of the United States is how a civil war could be fought and won to end slavery, but full civil rights not be granted to blacks until a century later.”
The second sentence identifies the author, the book, and the authors thesis; the issue of white slavery.
“Tenzer's The Forgotten Cause of the Civil War suggests that one of the major contributions to tension between North and South - and hence one of the causes of the civil war - was white slavery, or the perception of slavery by Northerners as a personal threat.”
The writer has clearly identified both the authors thesis and his own. In this example the writer’s thesis is presented as a question that is being covered by the writer and the reader can expect the conclusion at the end.
The body of the essay explains the theme of the book in three paragraphs that elaborate on points made in the introduction. The first paragraph explains the colour and physical characteristics of White, Black, and Mulatto slaves. The second paragraph compares Mulatto to Black slaves, and the illicit slave trade. The third paragraph discusses slave laws and the possibility that free whites could be seized accidentally, or even kidnapped. The author’s thesis, the case for Northern concerns being sufficiently aroused to provoke the civil war, is wrapped up in the last two sentences of the third paragraph.
“Mixed with ideas that "capital should own labor" and that slavery was right, regardless of colour, this produced an explosive atmosphere. However seriously leaders in the South may have contemplated the nationalization of slavery or the possibility of enslaving free white laborers in the North, there was enough evidence for this to make it a major theme in anti-slavery campaigns and Republican political propaganda.”
The concluding paragraph states the writers thesis and answers the question asked in the first line. The conclusion also provides the writer’s opinion of the author’s work and recommends the book to readers with little knowledge of the period. This book review provides enough insight into the contents of the book for the reader to get a snap shot of the entire book.
It is important to identify the historical genre of the book. The genre may be characterized by style, form, or content as: biography, cultural, demographic, economic, environmental, ethno-history, feminist, intellectual, labour, legal, military, diplomatic, political, psychohistory, religious, social, or urban.
A clear distinction must be made between primary and secondary evidence. Evaluating a book for history requires detective work and critical evaluation. Books are usually secondary evidence, but good books are supported by adequate primary evidence. The credibility of the author also must be considered.
Primary evidence is contemporary to the problem being studied.
Journals, diaries, letters, autobiographies, personal papers, government publications, maps, census reports, newspaper articles, pamphlets, treatises, sermons, oral histories, and artifacts.
Secondary evidence is a synthesis of primary sources written by a historian for the purpose of argumentation or explanation. The quality of the synthesis is very important.
Scholarly books, journal articles, and theses.
Academic Historians are ranked by their degree, B.A., M.A., or Ph.D..
Amateur Historians may have been journalists who write history and maintain high standards. Lawyers, politicians, civil servants, and fiction writers may also turn to writing history.
Non-Historians may be propagandists, holocaust- deniers, and those who deliberately falsify history for many different reasons.
Documentation is extremely important to Historians. Proper documentation is easy if you have a guide. If you do not want your professor to have a hairy fit, and use a lot of red ink, pick up A Handbook For UCC History Students and use it. This guide was written by the History Faculty at UCC for history students. Another useful guide for documentation, and recommended by a member of the history faculty at UCC is A Pocket Guide To Writing In History, by Mary Lynn Rampolla.