Book reviews are often assigned to college and seminary students because they encourage careful reading of the course content and engage the critical thinking process. A good book review should not only summarize what a book is about, but also assess whether or not the book successfully achieves what it sets out to accomplish.
Three things to do before you write:
Read the book! (Yes, it is necessary!)
Take careful notes as you read.
Download the SBTS book review template: http://digital.library.sbts.edu/handle/10392/4049
Book reviews are typically divided into four primary sections: introduction, summary, critical evaluation, and conclusion.* Make sure you thoroughly read your professor’s instructions for the assignment, which are more important than the information given below. The following guidelines should be helpful for a basic book review assignment. Suggested section lengths are based on a 5-page book review. *More information can be found in the Southern Seminary Manual of Style (4.0.4), chapter 3.
Introduction (one to two paragraphs, one-half page maximum)
Often book reviews include the book’s title and the author’s name in the first sentence of your book review. In the introduction, briefly give information about the author that shows why he/she is an authority on the given subject. Only include pertinent information about the author’s life, education or professional experiences that show your reader why the author is qualified to write the book. For example, unless the book is about family ministry, including information about how long the author has been married is not relevant to the review. Introduce the reader to some main themes of the book, and if applicable, explain why the book is important in its subject area.
Editing questions to ask: Is the biographical information about the author pertinent to the book topic? Are the main themes of the book obvious in my introduction?
Summary (two-page maximum, often less)
What is the thesis (main argument or central theme) of the book? The thesis (usually found in the book’s introduction) should be your guide to what to include in the book review. Who is the audience—who is it written for?
What is the purpose of the book, or why did the author write it? The purpose of the book is different than the thesis. For example, an author’s purpose in writing a book may be to teach future pastors how to preach from the Old Testament. That’s purpose. But the author’s thesis might be that sermons based on Old Testament passages should be tied into the biblical metanarrative to show the passage in a gospel context.
Briefly describe the author’s main ideas that are meant to support the author’s primary purpose. Do not use “I” or “you” in this section. This is supposed to be an impartial and fair representation of the author’s content.
The key to writing an effective summary: You want to make it clear to the reader that you thoroughly read the book, understand the material, and can succinctly and accurately share the book’s content.
Common mistakes people make in this section:Many writers feel the need to include too many details, down to chapter titles and technical jargon; this results in a lengthy summary section and little room for evaluation later. This section can also become a collection of quotations, which is ultimately not helpful to someone who has never read the book in its entirety. This section is best reserved for describing the primary purpose of the book, in addition to overarching or recurring themes throughout the work.
Editing questions to ask: Does this section represent the primary purpose of the book, including the major themes; or, does it include too many minor details, down to chapter titles and technical lingo? Is this section unbiased or do I insert my opinion into it? Are the author’s ideas paraphrased, or did I overuse direct quotations?
Critical Evaluation (largest section, typically one-third of paper or more)
Evaluate the book, giving your opinion on how effectively the author fulfilled his/her purpose in writing the book. You are not being asked to agree or disagree with the author, but rather, to decide how successful the author was in his stated purpose.
Analyze the author’s argument. Does the author give sufficient and effective support for his ideas? What do you think are the strengths/weaknesses of the book? Give specific examples of these strengths and weaknesses, divided into clearly organized paragraphs. You don’t have to quote from the book word-for-word. Instead, summarize and put the page number(s) in parentheses.
If you are familiar with other books on the topic, you can compare them to this book in this section. You may also show how the time in history in which the author wrote affected his/her view of the topic, though this is optional.
You may use “I” in the summary section when absolutely necessary.
The key to writing an effective critical evaluation:Make sure you clearly and fairly engage with the primary strengths and weaknesses of the book, organizing your assessments well. Identify where you find the book exceptional or lacking in its research, arguments, or conclusions. This section should look very different from the book summary.
Common mistakes people make in this section: Many people struggle to clearly articulate whether or not the author(s) achieved their purpose or made a convincing argument; thus the book review becomes a list of trivial grievances the student has with the author, or a naïve affirmation of everything the author says. For students who struggle to think critically, book reviews often default to lengthy book summaries which lack substantive evaluation. These are pitfalls to avoid.
Editing questions to ask: Does this section make a clear assessment of whether or not the author achieved his/her purpose; or does it dismiss, or alternatively, affirm everything the author says? Does this section contain genuine evaluation, or is it simply a long summary with no real assessment offered?
Conclusion (one to two paragraphs, one-half page maximum)
What is your final conclusion about this book? Did it have any impact on you personally, or on your ministry? Is this book one you would recommend to a certain type of person? In a certain ministry context?
Editing questions to ask: Did I include a brief concluding section, in which I discuss the book’s influence (or lack thereof), as well as describing who would find the book useful? Did I restate my overall evaluation of the book and reiterate the author’s success or failure in proving his/her thesis?