A Guide to Writing Book Reviews

I. Introduction

What's the point of this assignment? This is a fair question to ask, especially since the answer is the key to a successful book review. The goal here is for students to read a monograph, an historical essay/argument about a specific topic. Such books by historians are rarely bland recitals of facts; they are, instead, presentations of a point of a view. Our purpose in this assignment is to learn—by the very doing—how historians “play” with facts, and to realize that even the simplest narratives are hardly ever...well...simple.

I have transcribed below two book reviews (one with commentary on the side) which are intended to provide students with suggestive models for their own reviews. Students need not imitate my own juvenile efforts slavishly. They are not perfect examples, nor do they fit uniformly the many different types of studies we have available. Let the monograph itself suggest something of the format of the review; this may come about from the very structure of a study or from the choice of how to present a book’s arguments.

II. Goals and Expectations

The basics of the assignment are this: a three-page, double-spaced, 12-pt, review of a pre-approved historical monograph in which a student should outline the author’s thesis, critique the evidence presented in the study, evaluate the strengths and weaknesses in the author’s argument, and finally, assess whether the historian successfully presented his/her case.
Do not be thrown off by the format of the examples below; you should not double-space twice between paragraphs, but you should indent your paragraphs. The single-spaced look below is just easier to set up on a webpage.

How do I find the thesis? The thesis is the author’s central argument. Some authors try to be kind to their readers, and they state explicitly (“My thesis is....”) what they will be arguing throughout the book (and just in case they have been unclear, may well repeat themselves in the conclusion). Others are not so forthcoming. In these cases, the reader has to ferret out the author’s thesis by analyzing the claims made throughout the book in conjunction with the type of evidence presented. This careful analysis should be applied even to the thesis-providing scholar, who may very well be arguing for something more important underneath the cover of the stated thesis.

What evidence? How do I critique it? There is no real limit on the variety of data which historians assemble into their narratives. The two samples below rely on quite different types of evidence and exhibit highly divergent approaches. Trexler has looked at anything that speaks of ritual (city documents, accounts of parades, initiation rites into many different groups, the theories of social scientists) because he was building a model of Florentine society. At times, his proposed model seems to determine the evidence rather than the other way around. Is this bad? Hmmm... In Boxer's review, the approach is more traditional as he presents evidence from which a thesis suggests itself. Has he given us enough facts? Hmmm again.

Question Authority. Just because it is written, even published, it is not necessarily true. Test what the author has written against your own knowledge of the subject, against your own common sense and logic, and against your assessment of the evidence. Is the thesis convincing? Why or why not? As always, be specific in your critique. Do not be afraid to take scholars to task; they do make mistakes. Where they do something commendable, point it out. Negative critiques are not necessarily preferable to positive ones.

Do I have to look at other reviews? No, you do not have to. On the other hand, they could prove useful on a number of fronts: determining a book’s thesis, fitting the book into current historical debates, learning the author’s qualifications to write such a work, and so on. Be on guard, though, not to let such reviews take over your own review. Besides robbing me of the chance to enjoy your original critique, it could potentially smack of plagiarism (shudder of horror). Remember: to commit plagiarism is to fail the entire course, not merely this one assignment.
Once upon a time, we hunted down reviews by looking in either the The Book Review Digest, The Book Review Index or The Humanities and Social Sciences Index. Of course, in this, the Internet Age, you will doubtless be inclined to look online. Thanks to Longwood’s subscription to databases like JStor or Project Muse, you can look in those sites for stored reviews. (N.B.: reviews on Amazon.com or similar booksellers do not count! These reviews tend to be either from anonymous contributors or the publishing house trying zealously to sell the book.)

III. Choice of Books

I have compiled two lists of suitable books available in Greenwood Library that you may choose from. The first list simply covers the first half of our material; the second one just as obviously covers the latter half of class. Neither list is closed; however, in order to review a book not on a list, you must bring it to me in person for permission. More than one student may in fact review the same book; your reviews, however, had best not be the same. There are over 100 more books listed than I have Western Civ students, so you should find something in your area of interest.

IV. Sample Review I: Trexler

No need for a cover page. For this header info on page 1 only, single-space these lines. Student Name
Class Name/Number
Use a Chicago/Turabian Style bibliographic reference as the title of your review. Trexler, Richard C. Public Life in Renaissance Florence. New York: Academic Press, 1980.
Here we have an example of a thesis within a thesis. Trexler argues that public ritual is the key to understanding Florentine society. More important, though, is his assumption that Florence, the aberrant republic, feels a need to justify itself. When Richard Trexler examines public life in this book, he is specifically looking at public ritual, that formal behavior through which people contract and exchange with one another. In the case of Florence, he "describes the way in which Florentines from Dante to Michelangelo interacted with one another, with foreigners, and with their divinities" (xiii). In all four parts of the work, he covers these categories. They are the means by which he shows the underlying premise of his thesis. Trexler is convinced that Florence suffered from an inferiority complex; by displacing its nobility, the commune had no credibility which the powers of the time, including themselves, could respect. They turned to public ritual to find new honor, according to Trexler. "Public ritual was a means by which Florentines attempted to resolve the central problems of the city's political and social order: trust, honor, and credit at home and abroad" (365).
Here, an explanation begins of how Trexler will use the evidence (much of it still to come) and on which types he will rely. In the first two sections of the book, Trexler takes an anthropological look at the Florentines. He skims over the political structure (noting who was really politically active, but not how they were active) to study Florentine attitudes to religion. Trexler determines that Florentines, by venerating images, relics, etc., were their own arbiters of the sacred. Even though they originally relied on clerical involvement in the commune to lend the government legitimacy, the stage was set for the Florentines eventually to give honor to themselves.
Trexler's own organization, focusing in this instance on privately focused ritual, suggested this paragraph's theme. Note that Trexler's method is not without stumbles. Trexler accentuates the importance of ritual by showing how it permeated even the most private levels. In four relationships (friendship/patronage, father and son, religious communities, and the ritual of public death) he gives examples of how much Florentines practiced ritual behavior. Highly interpretive and yet insightful, this section is greatly weakened by the monastic portion; copious excerpts with no explanation leave some confusion about what Trexler wants to point out.
Having set out Trexler's foundation, the review can now examine his model of public ritual across several centuries of Florentine history. In part three Trexler turns to the heart of his work. Reaching back into the 1200s, he shows the development of the classical commune's rituals: the intertwined religious and civic feasts and processions, the more privately oriented Carnival, diplomatic ceremonies, and rites that dealt with crisis. Ritual becomes the thread Trexler follows to relate to events of Florentine history. Even without a nobility, the Florentines maintained feudal overtones in their jousts and companies of competing citizens. It was a sign of the times that the commune's government took a more active role in these festivals—especially that of San Giovanni—as it felt more legimate. The pomp given to diplomacy was a deliberate declaration of Florence’s prowess to visitors, but was also an attempt to assume some of the honor of the visiting noble. (Eventually Florence would feel secure enough to honor thus the Medici, one of her own). Finally, during crisis the city's rituals reflected the unease of the populace; many groups entered the processions, symptomatic that the small class of political males was being questioned.
Finally, the climax of Trexler's argument as the end of the republic is actually the culmination of a long, unconscious effort by Florence to achieve respect among her Italian peers. By inference, along the way, the Renaissance happened. Trexler finishes by showing the dramatic changes in Florentine ritual from about 1470 to 1530. Starting with Lorenzo the Magnificent, ritual began to center more around charismatic individuals rather than the commune as a whole. Thus, Trexler sees Lorenzo, Savanarola, Soderini, and Giovanni de'Medici as a part of a ritual continuity. At the same time, groups once outside the public process began to more into active roles: first the young men (giovani) under Lorenzo, then the boys of Savonarola, the plebs, and finally the real prominence of the giovani. Once they splintered, it was the last rite of the republic. The ascension of the Medici dukes gave Florence the credit and foreign prestige she had always strived for.
Again, reviews are optional. In this case, they almost served only to increase confusion. Reviews of Public Life in Renaissance Florence varied a great deal. No two agreed on the thesis. Evaluations of its flaws and strengths sometimes clashed. But there was a definitive consensus that this is a ground-breaking study which historians need to take note of. Tremendous in the many disparate elements which it had to bring together, the work still keeps a simple style which readers can follow. There was strong criticism of Trexler's use of evidence. Two reviewers felt he used facts from outside the right time period to describe the classical commune. Indeed, there is a feeling at times that Trexler is unconcerned with historical accuracy.
At the last, an assessment of Trexler's argument. After a few reservations, I admitted that I bought his case. This idea derives from the purpose of the book, its size, and how Trexler used his sources. While overwhelming in his documentation, Trexler is more concerned with his model of Florence than with minute precision. Therefore, his primary sources are overshadowed by a reliance on readings in sociology, anthropology, and comparative religion. In some cases he is content to let others' historical interpretations stand as fact. But where he does bring forth material from eye witnesses, it is pertinent and quite informative (except as noted in part two). As reviewers pointed out, Trexler has some glaring weaknesses, but his mistakes still do not outweigh the book's contribution to Florentine historiography.

Reviews Consulted

David Herlihy. Review of Public Life in Renaissance Florence, by Richard Trexler. In Journal of Interdisciplinary History 12 (Nov. 1983): 289-91.

Edward Muir. Review in Catholic Historical Review 70 (Apr 1984): 303-305.

Albert Rabil. Review in Church History 52 (Sept 1983): 359

Randolph Starn. Review in Speculum 57 (Oct 1982): 944-47.

IV. Sample Review II: Boxer

I have not marked up the review below as I did with Trexler, but the overall system should still be evident: a statement of the author's thesis, an analysis of how the author uses historical data to prove that thesis, and finally, a critical assessment of how successful he was.

Student Name
Class Name/Number

C.R. Boxer. The Dutch Seaborne Empire 1600-1800. Hutchinson, 1965; reprint, London: Penguin Group, 1988.

C.R. Boxer has taken an analytical approach to the creation of the Dutch colonial empire, its heyday, and its supposed decline by the end of the eighteenth century. He has focused on a number of general traits that he examines in the Netherlands itself as well as its holdings in Indonesia, Ceylon, Formose, Brazil, Africa, and North America. Such a span of time and variety of regions makes any thesis on the nature of the Dutch empire difficult. As his major theme, Boxer instead focuses on the meteoric rise and decline of Dutch power. By considering Holland and Zeeland separately from the rest of the United Provinces, Boxer thinks he has the key to how the Dutch emerged so triumphantly and later fell so low. He argues that these two provinces reaped huge commercial profits from maritime activities. These profits enabled them to acquire power both abroad and inside the decentralized government of the Netherlands. When their commercial enterprises lagged, the decline was felt throughout the Republic and its empire.

Beginning even in the course of the Eighty Years War, the "burger-oligarchs" of the Dutch Republic gained the lion's share of the maritime profits to be had in Europe. The expulsion of Calvinists from the Spanish Netherlands gave Amsterdam ascendancy over Antwerp in mercantile networks. This influx of merchants, the introduction of a new ship design, the fliut, and advances in marine insurance combined to make Amsterdam's shipping fortunes soar. By 1648 the Dutch were carrying one-half to three-fourths of the commodities of the Baltic trade. At the same time the Republic turned on newly-independent Portugal and moved into regions once colonized by the Portuguese; the East Indies Company (VOC) was chartered in 1602 and its western counterpart (WIC) in 1621. Quite often operating independently of their homeland's directives, these companies--especially the VOC--firmly established themselves in areas of high-profit trade to the benefit of shareholders clustered in Holland and Zeeland.

The bulk of Boxer's book deals with analyzing the operations of the Dutch empire. Despite the variety of methods used and different conditions encountered, one theme is constant. The oligarchy of wealthy merchants were able to ensure that profits continued flowing in to them, so that they could finance the Netherlands' fleets, armies, and cultural flowering. Within the country, the farmers and developing proletariat received little benefit other than a general rise in conditions that the whole country enjoyed. Seamen were in an even worse position as the VOC often cut their rations to increase profits. Foreign subjects suffered economic exploitation and slavery; besides the African trade, the Dutch moved large numbers of Chinese, Indonesian, and Indian slaves across Asia and eastern Africa. Boxer explains that the strong Calvinist strain in the Netherlands did not extend to the colonies. Few missionaries went out, and they were often stymied by the prior success of Portuguese missionaries. Boxer thus finds the supposed Calvinist impetus to commercial expansion acutally quite negligible. Along with the failure to make many converts, the Dutch also found their assimilation policies breaking down. In Cape Town, however, the importation of a white population turned that colony into a profitable venture.

Despite the failure of the WIC, the Republic's non-European trade continued to flourish in the 1700s. To explain the Dutch decline, Boxer returns to Holland and Zeeland's performance in Europe. He notes a generally conservative attitude had set in that blunted new developments. The French and English took the lead from the Dutch in whaling, cartography, navigation, and ship-building. These setbacks affected Holland and Zeeland directly. The Zaan region had built 306 vessels in 1707; it averaged one ship after 1793. Once they lost their economic prominence, the two maritime provinces were unable to control the fractious States-General; thus the Dutch government actually became an obstacle to overseas commitments.

Boxer's work was well-received by reviewers. One criticized him for slighting political history. Boxer did examine political structures, however; he declined to give a poltical narrative. Another felt that Boxer relied too much on quantitative data, although there are numerous quotes from contemporaries on conditions, attitudes and such. In fact, Boxer relies heavily on contemporary diaries, correspondence, and travel guides for information. He appears to accept much of his numerical evidence from secondary sources, however. One thing Boxer might have done was to give more information on the West Indies Company. Its failure should have had a measurable impact on the Dutch economy; the slight attention it gets leaves an impression that Boxer may not be wholly correct in finding the cause of Dutch decline in Europe.

Reviews Consulted

Christopher Lloyd. Review in History Today XV (Dec 1965): 883.

Review in Times Literary Supplement, Feb 17, 1966: 125.