Wednesday I finished up a book that I've been asked to review -- just over two weeks before the review is due! (Of course, in those two weeks, I'm going to be on holiday for 10 days). If I were to capitalize on this virtuousness, I'd start writing the review right away. Am I going to do that? No....instead, I'm going to write about writing book reviews.
When I was in grade-school, my mom assigned me a set number of book reports to write every year (usually around six, so it wasn't very onerous), and I hated it so much. (One year, I even wrote a report on a book I had written. Ah, Cyclesta, a triumph of 8-year-old authorship. It had a character in it named after my dentist.) I remember railing against the assignment as being useless for adult life: Never ever ever will I ever need to write a book report as an adult ever ever.
I have had the pleasure the last couple of years to have had a steady stream of requests to review books, all of which are books which I would have otherwise purchased myself and for which I appreciated very much having a concrete deadline to ensure I actually read them. (With rare exception, it seems like nowadays the only philosophy or logic books I read cover to cover are ones I've been asked to review.) Writing a review of them is a small price to pay for a free book and the actually having read it, and I've developed a pretty good system for writing reviews that I am now going to share.
Most books I'm given for review come with a 4-6 month deadline. The first thing I do is wait until about 1-2 months before the review is due, go "oh, geez, I really need to read that book!", count up the number of days (either working days or working days + weekends) I have left before the deadline, subtract 2-3, and divide the number of pages in the book (the complete number, including introduction and all bibliographies, indices, etc.) to find out how many pages I need to read per day to finish it on time. I keep two post-it notes in the book while reading, one for where I am at, and one for where I should be at (sometimes I read ahead, and then get to feel quite smug). While I am reading, I take detailed notes about content:
This is for the "summarize what is going on in each chapter" part of the book review." I also used this to highlight any questions I have or things that were said that I want to follow up on because I'm not sure if I disagree with them. It also allows me to start drafting fragments of the review; these fragments usually go on the back of the pages with the notes.
Once I've finished reading the book and writing these notes, then it's time to start drafting. What is it that you want to put in a review? Depending on the book, I include answers to a subset of the following (often, but not always, in roughly this order):
- What is the main argument or goal of the book? (In generally 2-3 sentences.)
- How is it organized -- does it have an introduction? What is in the introduction? How many chapters does it have and what are the contents of each? Does it have a bibliography? How long is it? Does it have an index? What is it an index of? Is there more than one index?
- If the entire book is a translation of another text (e.g., a translation of a 14th C treatise on logic), how good is the translation? If I don't have access to the original Latin, can I at least say something about the readability of the translation, and whether technical terms are translated uniformly?
- If the book is a translation, does the introductory material provide commentary on the content, or only on the context of the translated text?
- If foreign language sources are quoted, are they translated into English? Is the original also given?
- What criticisms do I have of the content?
- Did I enjoy reading it? Was it pleasantly written or awkward? Are there problems with the English?
- Are there any problematic typos?
- Are there any other relevant comments about the publishing?
- Who is the book's audience? Is it for specialists, non-specialists, students? Would it work as a textbook?
And answering those questions, I find, generally fills up my word count pretty quickly.
Did I miss anything? Is there anything that you look for in a book review that I've forgotten/neglected to to mention?