Book reviews matter.
In a free society where people can say and write whatever they want, it’s important to have ‘filters’ in the system to prevent preposterous ideas from taking root.
Book reviewers perform an important service to the reading community. They give credit where credit is due, and point out errors where they exist.
This, not just for the sake of grading someone else’s work, but to help our ill-informed culture to distinguish between serious ideas and drivel a.k.a ‘crap’.
As Tom Lutz, editor-in-chief of the Los Angeles Review of Books says:
“It’s not like we live in a culture that is too well informed. For all the talk of information overload, we are all of us a little behind on our reading. Book reviews, even short ones, provide a service. Longer ones, not because they are longer, but because they can…address ideas more seriously: they end up becoming a more substantial service.”
Some of you may know of my earnest passion for writing book reviews. For now, I am reviewing mostly in the business and marketing category. But that might change one of these days.
Here’s my simple, unambiguous approach to writing book reviews.
I don’t literally name it ‘the Intro’ but this is how I start my reviews: It might be a short story explaining how I met the author, like in this case, or why I was compelled to pick up a particular book, or some other interesting narrative like this one, to build up momentum for the review itself.
I might add too, that this is where I start to build my case for or against the book, and also where I start to examine the significance of ideas presented by the author.
In this section I try to analyse the author’s intention or purpose for writing the book.
Why did he write this book? Was it to teach a new subject, to explain something technical, or to convince the reader of his belief about something? Who is the audience? From what point of view is he coming from? How well does he understand the field that he is writing about (this last one is particularly important for the category of books that I review).
Ultimately the success of the book depends in part on how well the author was able to accomplish his purpose.
What to Expect
Before someone makes an investment to purchase a book, they want to know whether it’s worth their time and their money.
In this section, I give readers a general outlook of what to expect. How many pages, the general theme of the book, an indication of the book’s relevance or appeal, an idea of what they will learn from it and so forth.
This information will help the reader to determine their interest (or lack thereof) in the book. There is no prescribed length for this section. It all depends on how much I want to reveal at this point.
In this section I dig a little deeper.
I summarize the most important ideas or chapters, and describe in some detail the argument that the author is trying to make. In this section I also look at the author’s use of illustrations, images, or other techniques of bringing the point home.
The greater the insights I can deliver here, the more value I give the reader by allowing her to see what the book is really about and whether or not it belongs in her bookshelf.
This is the final judgement and the section where I evaluate the book’s strengths and weaknesses.
I think it’s important to give the reader an honest, objective opinion of what the book is like. I don’t believe in sucking up to the author or trying to score brownie points. However I also recognize that a well-written book review is an excellent way to connect with the author. (Trust me, authors read ALL their reviews).
This is a busy section. Here I respond to the author’s opinions, explain why I agree or disagree with his ideas, if applicable I show why his arguments are inaccurate, indicate what the author might have omitted, I compare the book with other books in the same category, and finally I give the reader my recommendation to read or not to read.
Not everyone gives a rating but I think it gives extra value to the reader. I also think a rating completes your evaluation of the book very nicely. Here’s how I rate books (based on a five-star system):
- 5: Outstanding, difficult to put down, you’d be foolish not to buy/read it.
- 4: Really good book, worth every penny, some very minor weaknesses.
- 3: Good, could appeal to a lot of people, but could be improved on several levels.
- 2: Fair, not very interesting, you won’t miss much if you don’t read it.
- 1: Don’t buy it, don’t read it – no matter what anyone tells you, it’s not worth your time!
Finally, let me say this, there is really no right or wrong way to write a book review. Keep in mind that book reviews are highly personal and they reflect your own opinion of someone else’s work.
However, in order to provide the best service to readers of certain book categories, I think it’s a good idea to have a structured book review that gives your audience all the insights they need to make up their own minds.
Over to you
Do you read book reviews? How much value do get from them?