History 41: The American Colonies Swarthmore College Spring '99

Book Review Assignment

Book reviews will be approximately 1,000 words (roughly 3-4 pages) in length. (Do a word count on your word processor.) An essential feature of a good book review is the reviewer's ability to write concisely so that a comprehensive evaluation of the book can be obtained from a brief reading. So, do not write more, write more concisely -- find creative ways to communicate your critical evaluation of the book in a short essay.

The point of a scholarly book review is not to summarize the content of the book, but to situate the historical merit of the book and to evaluate critically the author's purpose, thesis, contentions, and methods of analysis. Hence, the bulk of the body of one's review essay will be an evaluation of how convincing was the author's presentation of his/her thesis, and a commentary on the book's contribution to one's understanding of important issues in colonial American history.

Here's how the historian Jacques Barzun discussed the importance of the beginning of a book review:

The beginning, we know is important. The first [paragraph] should present an idea of interest to the readers . . . . 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. [Jacques Barzun, The Modern Researcher, 4th ed. (New York, 1985), 290.]

Among the features you will want to include in a strong review are:

Finally, you will want to make references to specific portions of the book to illustrate your evaluation. The challenge will be to do as much of this as possible and yet not let it interfere with the restricted length of the essay. In other words, find creative ways to give examples from the book in a limited space. Obviously, quotations should be kept to a minimum, and should rarely exceed one sentence.

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