October 2001. Revised September 2003.
History instructors have three good reasons for assigning reviews, whether of books, films, exhibits, tours, or other works. First, a review requirement ensures that students will do the assigned reading, or whatever else is being reviewed. It is much harder to fake familiarity with a work when one is required to write about it. Second, reviews are logistically easy. Students assigned a research paper will necessarily spend a lot of time hunting for a topic, finding sources, and wandering down dead ends. In contrast, if an instructor assigns a review of required reading, the students begin with a topic and their sources, so they can spend their time reading, thinking, and writing. Third, and by far most important, review essays provide practice in one of the most valuable skills offered by a liberal arts education: the skill of critical reading. When I assign a review, it is this skill that I hope to see displayed.
The first step in a review is to describe the work and its topic. For example, if you were to review a biography of Charles Lindbergh, it would be appropriate to give your reader some idea of who Charles Lindbergh was, and why someone might want to read a book about him, before you gallop off to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the book itself. The trick is to provide the necessary summary in as short a space as possible. You will repeat the book author’s ideas, not your own, so this section should only be a small part of your review.
The second task is to describe the work itself. That is, rather than telling the story of the Erie Canal, you are now telling a story about how Carol Sheriff wrote a history of the Erie Canal. Here you will ask the sorts of questions I suggested in another essay, “How to Read a History Book.” Why did the author choose this topic? Who is her audience? What sources does she use? What arguments does she make? Is the book more analytical or narrative? Is it just words, or pictures too? In short, what was the author trying to do?
Having determined the author’s goals, you now explain whether the author achieved those or other goals. For example, if an author states in his first sentence that his “book represents an effort to recast the history of the Second Industrial Revolution,” then by all means, your review should at some point evaluate his success in doing so.1 But it is also perfectly appropriate to go beyond the author’s stated goals to ask whether those goals were appropriate to begin with. For example, the U.S. Congress recently expressed concern that the National Park Service was doing a fine job of explaining military history to visitors to Civil War sites, but it was doing little to educate them about the root causes of the war, notably slavery. In this case, the Congress functioned as exhibit reviewer and made the case that the function of Park Service interpretation needed to be reconsidered.
While you do not need to like the work you are reviewing, please remember that criticism is more than complaint. Book authors have a limited number of pages, curators have a limited amount of exhibit space, and everyone is constrained by finite time, money, and sources. Before demanding that a historian take on an additional task, you might think about what portions of a book, exhibit, or film could have been eliminated to make room. Before complaining that the historian focused only on one group of people, ask if other groups left the records the historian would need to tell their stories as well. It may help to imagine that you are giving advice to a historian about to create a work similar to the one you are reviewing. What constructive lessons can you provide?
If this sounds formulaic, it is. Sometimes formulas have their merits. Indeed, perhaps the best preparation for writing a review as a college assignment is to read other academic reviews. Among the best are the review essays (not the capsule reviews) published in the American Historical Review and Reviews in American History. If you are affiliated with a university, you can read back issues of both journals at JSTOR and more recent issues of Reviews in American Historyat Project Muse. Regardless of your affiliation, you can read similar reviews, though less uniformly excellent ones, at H-Net Reviews.
The important thing to remember is that a book, exhibit, or other scholarly work is a tool with a specific function. To evaluate the tool, you must first understand the function. And having done that, you must explain it to your reader, answering the question, what is this book good for? Along the way, you will find yourself ripping the book apart to see how it works, imagining how it could have been written differently, seeing it from the author’s point of view, and, perhaps, comparing it to other works. And that is critical reading.