The art of reviewing a book: Some useful tips [Archives:2005/898/Education]

November 28 2005

Dr S Mohanraj
Faculty of Education
Taiz University, Taiz

How do we review a book? The question may seem a little intriguing. Why does one choose a topic like this to write on? Here is my reason. I have been following the columns written by Dr M N K Bose with care and interest. I envy his tenacity to be able to write in a sustained manner for close to eighty weeks. I have particularly liked his letters on teaching writing which appeared recently. Though he has discussed teaching different types of writing, he has refrained from discussing teaching writing of book reviews. This piece I thought could come as a supplement (fully aware that it would be a weak one) to his despatches.

I am writing this with students at the undergraduate level as my focus. Almost all the universities in Yemen have a course in Advanced Writing Skills at this level. Topics discussed on this course restrict themselves to providing practice in writing paragraphs, letters – both formal and personal, reports including research reports and summarizing. Reviewing which is an essential skill is ignored. Reviewing has a dual objective. It motivates the learners to read and at the same time hones their writing skills. Hence I consider this a very important skill.

Writing a review is very much part of the writing skills at the advanced level. All writing should necessarily be simple. The reason for this is also simple. You should not strain your reader, or make demands on him or her. In modern parlance we call this 'writing in a reader-friendly' manner. Who can dispute this? Here I am reminded of what A G Gardiner says in his essay 'On Habits'. He says, if you are speaking to someone, and if he/she asks you to repeat what you said more than three times, (in the course of a conversation and not in a sequence) it certainly indicates you are a bad speaker wanting in manners. (This is summarized from memory, and not an actual quotation.) While speaking to others, we need to observe some etiquette such as – not to speak too softly or too loudly (either of which could be a strain on the listener's ears), not to speak too rapidly (when the listener has to be more than attentive to understand whatever you have been saying), not to use too complex words and thoughts etc. Exactly similar principles can be applied to writing. When you write:

Write clearly – so that someone can read easily;

Avoid a complex word and thought;

Avoid repetition and rigmarole; and

Organize your ideas properly.

These features help a reader to understand you easily. It is best that all our students adhere to these principles in the best possible way they can.

Now let me get back to the review. A review comments on a work of art. The work of art could be a piece of writing, a painting, a dance recital or a music concert. The list can certainly be longer. What do we do when we look at a piece of art?

a. We appreciate it

The dictionary defines the word 'appreciate' as 'to recognize and enjoy good qualities of something'. This is an essential aspect of a review and a minimum courtesy the audience, spectator or a reader can give to the artist. So principle number one of a good review is APPRECIATE the work. The creator has put in a lot of effort. Recognize that effort. Also recognize the fact that not everyone can do this.

b. Look at it objectively

Objectivity is another essential feature of a review. Matthew Arnold, noted critic, and scholar of the last century observes in an essay called 'The Function of Criticism at the Present Time' as follows. A critic should “look at an object as in itself it really is.” This to me is the hallmark of objectivity, and a review should not be very different. This again in some ways shows the respect we have for the creator or the artist. An artist, a creator, an author has his/her personal point of view. He/she finds a medium to express it. We as readers have the right to accept or reject it, but I am afraid we have no right to say that something should have been added or deleted from the work of art. We neither have the right or propriety to offer such suggestions. The second principle is “Be objective.”

c. Highlight strengths without underplaying weaknesses

It would perhaps be appropriate to begin a review with a good summary. This gives a holistic view of the work to a reader who may not be familiar with the piece under review. I would perhaps go to the extent of saying this is obligatory. As such an introduction would facilitate understanding the review better.

Having provided a summary, one should attempt to list all the strengths of the work under review (for these could obviously be more in number – though there may be exceptions) and also illustrate where necessary. Weaknesses are part of any creation. Nobody, other than God can be perfect and as mortals we are subject to our trespasses. Therefore, a reviewer necessarily needs to look at the work more empathetically and perhaps reason out why these weaknesses could have occurred rather than come down heavily on them. I wonder if any doctoral thesis has been produced in this world to date which is 100% error free!!! If the highest academic document can have errors why not a piece of creative writing. Third principle says, be empathetic to the author and highlight strengths. Don't ignore weaknesses, but don't overplay them.

d. A reviewer is an observer – not an examiner

I would not like to elaborate on this point for I also belong to that genre of examiners. (Occupational hazard). Examiners are a breed who inherit qualities of nitpicking. Suffice it to say reviewers belong to a more noble tribe. In other words, a reviewer cannot make demands on the artist and dictate terms. A work of art on the other hand can make demands on the reviewer and can give a direction to the review. The relation here is that of a mother and a child. A child would not be a reality unless the mother exists. Principle number four 'Reviewer, do not be an examiner'.

I have tried to elaborate on four points a reviewer should bear in mind. Finally a reviewer should thank the author for having been given an opportunity to go through his/her work. Gandhiji said, “Welcome a customer in your premises. He is not an interference in your work, but he is the cause of it.” How true!

Let me conclude by saying something about the types of reviews. Reviews can basically be of three types:

a. Academic Reviews which belong to the tribe of teachers, examiners or the pedagogues. These largely provide a detailed summary and a couple of comments. These are often exercises undertaken to fulfill obligations rather than written out of commitment. The types of answers you write in your examinations is a good example of such reviews.

b. Critical Reviews are largely in the form of treatises which can change the course of our thinking. Sankarbhashyam is one such example. Since this is not a familiar example to you, let me give you another example. Dalton the great scientist said “Atoms are indivisible”. But Rutherford who came later critically reviewed his theory and said “Atoms are divisible” This changed the history of atomic studies and our understanding of Physics and Chemistry. Similarly Skinner's theories of language learning as stated in his book Verbal Behaviour was critically reviewed by Chomsky and today our understanding of language learning has changed. These are the most difficult and cannot be taught in the classroom.

c. Journalistic Reviews are perhaps the most popular forms of reviews. These are published in newspapers, magazines and journals and help people to become familiar with the books published recently. In today's world the number of books published are quite a few, but the number of books we can read are hopelessly small. We can become familiar with what is happening in the publication world by reading journalistic reviews published in newspapers, journals or even on the net. This has relevance to all of us, and we need to learn this in our classrooms.

Writing a review of any type is an academic exercise. It demands certain amount of discipline. It is a useful exercise in comprehension and criticism for students interested in the art of writing. (Barrass R 2003) The attempt made here is to help you, the young learners to cultivate good habits of reading and also reviewing. Nothing is said about how to teach the writing of a review here. This will soon follow.

Till then, happy reading every one.

Barrass R (2203) Writing at Work London, Routledge