The art of reviewing a book:Some useful tips (PART2) [Archives:2005/902/Education]

December 12 2005

Dr S Mohanraj
Faculty of Education
Taiz University, Taiz

In the first part of this article, I offered four principles a reviewer needs to observe while reviewing a book. I had almost promised, that I would be back with some suggestions for teaching as well as practicing the art of reviewing a book.

Let me briefly recall the four principles that we discussed last time:

a. Appreciate the Work

b. Be Objective

c. Highlight the strengths without underplaying weakness, and

d. Do not be an examiner.

It is worthwhile to remember these principles always.

What should the learners do?

Let us now get to the pedagogic part. In today's world of Communicative Language Teaching, the learner is more important than the teacher. So let us begin with the learner and see what he/she should do in order to review a book.

Reviewing demands a high level of comprehension. Therefore the first and foremost requisite to write a good review is to read the book thoroughly. Read the book perhaps twice or three times and make sure you have a proper understanding of the book.

While reading a book, you should go through all parts of the book. A book has the following parts:

– Title page – gives the name of the book, author, and publisher

– Press line _ gives the details of publisher's address, year of publication, and ISBN Number (International Standard Book Number)*

– Contents page – tells us what the book includes (number of chapters; stories; topics etc.)

– Introduction – gives us the author's point of view, purpose for writing the book, what is the major theme, how it is dealt with, how to use the book etc.

– Foreword – is generally written by a well known scholar in the field or a well wisher of the author or the author himself/herself

– This is followed by the actual book. (THE MAIN BODY)

– Index – gives a list of important concepts and ideas used in the book, and also of the names of people referred to and where to find information about these ideas, concepts, and people in the main body of the book.

– Bibliography – Gives a list of books the author has referred to.

Besides these, the book has a page for acknowledgement and a blurb. An acknowledgement is space for the author to thank people and organizations who have helped him/her in writing the book. Blurb is opinions about the book offered by different people, and this is generally printed on the back cover of the book. It may also give details about the author and other works of the author. Some books have a jacket (which can be removed) the blurb is given on the inner flap as well. It is necessary for you to read all these parts while reviewing a book, for each part has a function to play and your review needs to be holistic. But a word of caution, please do not choose a shortcut by lifting sentences from the introduction and blurb and pass it off as your review. This is not appreciated.

Parts of a Review

Having read every part, this is how you can organize your review in six parts. I have offered only a few details, and your teacher will give you more information on each one of these.

a. Title of the book.

This should include as many details as possible. Name of the book, name of the author, place of publication, publisher, year of publication, number of pages, ISBN number and the price. Here is an example to make the point clear:

The Lexical Approach – The State of ELT and a Way Forward, Michael Lewis, London, Thomson Heinle: 2002 (pp viii + 196) ISBN 0 906717 99 x [price not stated]

The title of the book is always written in italics or underlined. Please look at the punctuation marks used, these are very essential to follow. This is because of a convention (method) followed internationally. Information on this is given in style manuals. Two well known style manuals available for our use are MLA Style sheet (American) and the Cambridge Style Manual (British). You could use either, but do not mix the conventions.

While giving the number of pages in the book, the convention uses two different types of numbers: small Roman and Arabic. Small Roman numbers refer to the pages where introduction, preface and acknowledgements are written. These are some times not considered as part of the main book and hence numbered differently. Nevertheless, they are important and we need to indicate them while reviewing a book.

b. Relevance

State why you are reviewing the book. In this section you can state your reasons for choosing a particular book for reviewing. Normally the books under review are contemporary publications. But as students, you may choose any book you like, as you are practicing the art of reviewing. What could be the reasons for reviewing a book? Let us look at some possible reasons:

i. the book may be a very new one (you could be one of the first readers)

ii. the book could have created a history or a controversy (e.g. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover)

iii. you might have liked the book very much

iv. it could be the author's first book

v. you may like the author

vi. the book may give some new information hitherto unknown (The Lexical Approach)

vii. or a book may be reviewed for no obvious reason.

Look at the following paragraph which tells you why someone has reviewed The Lexical Approach.

In the last few years serious-minded applied linguists and practitioners have started expressing doubts about the success of CLT. Keith Johnson, one of the pioneers to advocate CLT, in an article in ELTJ (April 2003) has expressed his apprehensions about its usefulness today. Stephen Krashen in his address at the TESOL Convention at Minneapolis (2001) has suggested the need for an alternative approach. The book under review offers a new approach – which to a certain extent seems to be in response to Krashen's suggestion. (Mohanraj S 2004)

The reviewer has chosen to review The Lexical Approach because it is a new approach and seems to be the need of the day. Each of us may have different reason, but state clearly why you are reviewing a particular book. This makes the purpose or objective very clear. Remember one cannot write without a purpose.

c. Information about the Author

This is an optional part. Not all of us know the author personally. We can get some information from the blurb. But that may not be adequate. Information about the author becomes essential when we review certain books only. e.g. A book on Methods of Teaching written by a practicing teacher of English. On the other hand, if this book were to be written by a medical practitioner, then talking about the author may seem really necessary. The information about the author may help us to substantiate certain points we would like to make, or to show how the author has brought his experience to bear upon what he/she says. Let us not elaborate on this too much.

d. Summary of the Book

This is necessary to show that you have read and understood the book. Give the summary briefly, perhaps an outline or listing of the major events or concepts mentioned in the book. Besides proving that you have read the book, it is a reader friendly approach to reviewing. Your reader, who may not be familiar with the book, should be prompted to read the book by reading your review. The reader should also be able to understand the points you make about the book, for which the summary becomes useful. If it is a novel, you could give the summary. With other books, mention the number of chapters, how the chapters are organized, how they have a proper linking and development; if it is a collection of stories, how many stories are included, are they from the same author or is it a collection, how they are organized, according to themes, authors, regions, cultures etc. Providing a good summary or an introduction makes your review highly readable.

e. Your Opinion

State clearly why you liked the book. Did you like the book totally or in parts? Which parts of the book appealed to you and why? If there are some parts of the book you did not like, mention clearly why you did not like these parts. (Generally, we tend to dislike things we don't understand.) Before you express your opinion either way, be sure you have understood what you are saying. And be objective in stating your reasons. Avoid reasons too personal. (e.g. the author is a good friend of yours etc.)

f. Conclusion

Conclude your review by saying whether you enjoyed reading the book. Perhaps you could add a sentence to suggest for who this book would be useful and whether you would like to recommend it. Here is an example:

The book is a good source of theory, a guide to syllabus design, a source book of materials (with its exercises and ample illustrations), and also a training manual. The book thus serves as a good input on a course in teacher education. (Mohanraj S 2004)

These are some of the essential tasks you should do while writing a review. It would not be out of place to suggest here that writing can be learnt only by writing, and similarly you can learn to review a book by reviewing. So why don't you get set and start. Begin with a small book you really like – perhaps a novel or a play that you have read as part of your course either in level II or level III.

* Note:

ISBN means International Standard Book Number. This is a ten digit product number which is specific to a particular title, edition and publication. Searching by ISBN makes it easy to find the exact book you need. ISBN is printed above the bar code on the back cover or on the title page.


Mohanraj S (2004), 'Book Review: The Lexical Approach' in Journal of English and Foreign Languages, Number 33, June 2004, Hyderabad, CIEFL (pp. 117-122), India.