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Writing a Critical Book Review for History Students: Getting Started

A special topic guide on how to locate and use library resources to help you write your critical book review

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Book Review Contents - Dr. Tammy Whitlock

A critical book review is a long-form essay that is both descriptive and analytical in its contents.  It is not a mere summary of the book (e.g., book report). 


The description in a critical book review usually includes the following:

  • Listing of the author or editor, complete title, translator (if any), publisher, place of publication, date of publication, and number of pages.
  • A statement regarding the author, their qualifications or special interest, former works or experience, occupation, and any circumstance which may affect their outlook—party affiliation, nationality, religion, school of historiography. Consult a biographical reference.
  • Some description of the book outline and contents (usually a couple pages)
  • The range of the work. What period does it cover?  Is it a complete history of a period or an account of one particular subject?  Is the author’s approach institutional, chronological, biographical, or other?
  • A summary.  Not a retelling of the story but a summary the main points of the book.
  • Some information on the organization, sequence, structure, style, personal or impersonal, scholarly or journalistic, verbose or concise, detached or emotional, etc.  


The analysis in a critical book review should answer some of the following questions (making specific references where applicable—do not forget to use citation):

  • Is the book important? Why or why not? A consideration of sources will be helpful here. Is the work based on documents, printed, or unprinted material, or is it a summary of the research of other scholars? Observe references in the footnotes and consult the bibliography at the end of the work.
  • What questions does it answer or fail to answer? Reasons?
  • What is the author’s point of view? Does he or she argue a thesis? Does he or she sustain the thesis?
  • Does the book offer new information, new ideas, or a fresh approach and interpretation? Has he or she presented new material?
  • Does the author show prejudice or do they plead for a special view? Does this mar the book?   
  • Is the book credible? Does the author fulfill his expectations? Why or why not?

Note: As part of the analysis and in order to respond to the questions above, it will be necessary to examine other books and articles on the same or similar subject. For adequate information on the author, it is recommended that biographical sources be consulted such as Contemporary Authors or Who’s Who. In examining other sources, you are looking for differences in interpretation, factual discrepancies, adequacy of scholarship or sources, etc. The analysis may pursue a theme or themes, concentrate on a particular aspect, or examine the subject generally.


Conclusions may be enhanced by consideration of some of the following points:

  • Is the book valuable and to whom? Does it have current or more permanent interest? Is the book to be recommended over other works on the same subject or is it simply one of equal merit with many others?


Book reviews should be concise (not over five, double-spaced pages). Avoid using phrases from the guidelines in writing the review. Organization need not necessarily follow the above, but should consider all the item in some fashion. Attach a bibliography. Footnotes may be at the end of the paper.

History Librarian | Coordinator of Digital Scholarship

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Jennifer Hootman
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Subjects: History