The Cold War by John Lewis Gaddis
This is the book title
The Cold War by John Lewis Gaddis
Book is available at the MSJC Bookstore or online at Amazon, Barnes and Noble and Half.com.
These reviews should be two to three pages, typed, double spaced using 12 pt Times Roman or 11 pt Calibri font.
A review is a critical evaluation of a text, event, object, or phenomenon. Reviews can consider books, articles, entire genres or fields of literature, architecture, art, fashion, restaurants, policies, exhibitions, performances, and many other forms. This handout will focus on book reviews.
Above all, a review makes an argument. The most important element of a review is that it is a commentary, not merely a summary. It allows you to enter into dialogue and discussion with the work’s creator and with other audiences. You can offer agreement or disagreement and identify where you find the work exemplary or deficient in its knowledge, judgments, or organization. You should clearly state your opinion of the work in question, and that statement will probably resemble other types of academic writing, with a thesis statement, supporting body paragraphs, and a conclusion.
Typically, reviews are brief. In newspapers and academic journals, they rarely exceed 1000 words, although you may encounter lengthier assignments and extended commentaries. In either case, reviews need to be succinct. While they vary in tone, subject, and style, they share some common features:
First, a review gives the reader a concise summary of the content. This includes a relevant description of the topic as well as its overall perspective, argument, or purpose.
Second, and more importantly, a review offers a critical assessment of the content. This involves your reactions to the work under review: what strikes you as noteworthy, whether or not it was effective or persuasive, and how it enhanced your understanding of the issues at hand.
Finally, in addition to analyzing the work, a review often suggests whether or not the audience would appreciate it.
For more information on writing book reviews, click on the link below.
The Writing Center
What this handout is about
This handout will help you write a book review, a report or essay that offers a critical
perspective on a text. It offers a process and suggests some strategies for writing book
What is a review?
A review is a critical evaluation of a text, event, object, or phenomenon. Reviews can consider
books, articles, entire genres or fields of literature, architecture, art, fashion, restaurants,
policies, exhibitions, performances, and many other forms. This handout will focus on book
Above all, a review makes an argument. The most important element of a review is that it is a
commentary, not merely a summary. It allows you to enter into dialogue and discussion with
the work’s creator and with other audiences. You can offer agreement or disagreement and
identify where you find the work exemplary or deficient in its knowledge, judgments, or
organization. You should clearly state your opinion of the work in question, and that statement
will probably resemble other types of academic writing, with a thesis statement, supporting
body paragraphs, and a conclusion.
Typically, reviews are brief. In newspapers and academic journals, they rarely exceed 1000
words, although you may encounter lengthier assignments and extended commentaries. In
either case, reviews need to be succinct. While they vary in tone, subject, and style, they share
some common features:
First, a review gives the reader a concise summary of the content. This includes a relevant
description of the topic as well as its overall perspective, argument, or purpose.
Second, and more importantly, a review offers a critical assessment of the content. This
involves your reactions to the work under review: what strikes you as noteworthy, whether
or not it was effective or persuasive, and how it enhanced your understanding of the issues
Finally, in addition to analyzing the work, a review often suggests whether or not the
audience would appreciate it.
Becoming an expert reviewer: three short examples
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Reviewing can be a daunting task. Someone has asked for your opinion about something that
you may feel unqualified to evaluate. Who are you to criticize Toni Morrison’s new book if
you’ve never written a novel yourself, much less won a Nobel Prize? The point is that someone
—a professor, a journal editor, peers in a study group—wants to know what you think about a
particular work. You may not be (or feel like) an expert, but you need to pretend to be one for
your particular audience. Nobody expects you to be the intellectual equal of the work’s creator,
but your careful observations can provide you with the raw material to make reasoned
judgments. Tactfully voicing agreement and disagreement, praise and criticism, is a valuable,
challenging skill, and like many forms of writing, reviews require you to provide concrete
evidence for your assertions.
Consider the following brief book review written for a history course on medieval Europe by a
student who is fascinated with beer:
Judith Bennett’s Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England: Women’s Work in a Changing
World, 1300-1600, investigates how women used to brew and sell the majority of ale
drunk in England. Historically, ale and beer (not milk, wine, or water) were important
elements of the English diet. Ale brewing was low-skill and low status labor that was
complimentary to women’s domestic responsibilities. In the early fifteenth century,
brewers began to make ale with hops, and they called this new drink “beer.” This
technique allowed brewers to produce their beverages at a lower cost and to sell it
more easily, although women generally stopped brewing once the business became
The student describes the subject of the book and provides an accurate summary of its
contents. But the reader does not learn some key information expected from a review: the
author’s argument, the student’s appraisal of the book and its argument, and whether or not
the student would recommend the book. As a critical assessment, a book review should focus
on opinions, not facts and details. Summary should be kept to a minimum, and specific details
should serve to illustrate arguments.
Now consider a review of the same book written by a slightly more opinionated student:
Judith Bennett’s Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England: Women’s Work in a Changing
World, 1300-1600 was a colossal disappointment. I wanted to know about the rituals
surrounding drinking in medieval England: the songs, the games, the parties. Bennett
provided none of that information. I liked how the book showed ale and beer brewing
as an economic activity, but the reader gets lost in the details of prices and wages. I
was more interested in the private lives of the women brewsters. The book was divided
into eight long chapters, and I can’t imagine why anyone would ever want to read it.
There’s no shortage of judgments in this review! But the student does not display a working
knowledge of the book’s argument. The reader has a sense of what the student expected of the
book, but no sense of what the author herself set out to prove. Although the student gives
several reasons for the negative review, those examples do not clearly relate to each other as
part of an overall evaluation—in other words, in support of a specific thesis. This review is
indeed an assessment, but not a critical one.
Here is one final review of the same book:
One of feminism’s paradoxes—one that challenges many of its optimistic histories—is
how patriarchy remains persistent over time. While Judith Bennett’s Ale, Beer, and
Brewsters in England: Women’s Work in a Changing World, 1300-1600 recognizes
medieval women as historical actors through their ale brewing, it also shows that
female agency had its limits with the advent of beer. I had assumed that those limits
were religious and political, but Bennett shows how a “patriarchal equilibrium” shut
women out of economic life as well. Her analysis of women’s wages in ale and beer
production proves that a change in women’s work does not equate to a change in
working women’s status. Contemporary feminists and historians alike should read
Bennett’s book and think twice when they crack open their next brewsky.
This student’s review avoids the problems of the previous two examples. It combines balanced
opinion and concrete example, a critical assessment based on an explicitly stated rationale, and
a recommendation to a potential audience. The reader gets a sense of what the book’s author
intended to demonstrate. Moreover, the student refers to an argument about feminist history in
general that places the book in a specific genre and that reaches out to a general audience. The
example of analyzing wages illustrates an argument, the analysis engages significant
intellectual debates, and the reasons for the overall positive review are plainly visible. The
review offers criteria, opinions, and support with which the reader can agree or disagree.
Developing an assessment: before you write
There is no definitive method to writing a review, although some critical thinking about the
work at hand is necessary before you actually begin writing. Thus, writing a review is a twostep
process: developing an argument about the work under consideration, and making that
argument as you write an organized and well-supported draft.
What follows is a series of questions to focus your thinking as you dig into the work at hand.
While the questions specifically consider book reviews, you can easily transpose them to an
analysis of performances, exhibitions, and other review subjects. Don’t feel obligated to address
each of the questions; some will be more relevant than others to the book in question.
What is the thesis—or main argument—of the book? If the author wanted you to get one
idea from the book, what would it be? How does it compare or contrast to the world you
know? What has the book accomplished?
What exactly is the subject or topic of the book? Does the author cover the subject
adequately? Does the author cover all aspects of the subject in a balanced fashion? What is
the approach to the subject (topical, analytical, chronological, descriptive)?
How does the author support her argument? What evidence does she use to prove her
point? Do you find that evidence convincing? Why or why not? Does any of the author’s
information (or conclusions) conflict with other books you’ve read, courses you’ve taken or
just previous assumptions you had of the subject?
How does the author structure her argument? What are the parts that make up the whole?
Does the argument make sense? Does it persuade you? Why or why not?
How has this book helped you understand the subject? Would you recommend the book to
Beyond the internal workings of the book, you may also consider some information about the
author and the circumstances of the text’s production:
Who is the author? Nationality, political persuasion, training, intellectual interests, personal
history, and historical context may provide crucial details about how a work takes shape.
Does it matter, for example, that the biographer was the subject’s best friend? What
difference would it make if the author participated in the events she writes about?
What is the book’s genre? Out of what field does it emerge? Does it conform to or depart
from the conventions of its genre? These questions can provide a historical or literary
standard on which to base your evaluations. If you are reviewing the first book ever written
on the subject, it will be important for your readers to know. Keep in mind, though, that
naming “firsts”—alongside naming “bests” and “onlys”—can be a risky business unless
you’re absolutely certain.
Writing the review
Once you have made your observations and assessments of the work under review, carefully
survey your notes and attempt to unify your impressions into a statement that will describe the
purpose or thesis of your review. Then, outline the arguments that support your thesis.
Your arguments should develop the thesis in a logical manner. That logic, unlike more standard
academic writing, may initially emphasize the author’s argument while you develop your own in
the course of the review. The relative emphasis depends on the nature of the review: if readers
may be more interested in the work itself, you may want to make the work and the author
more prominent; if you want the review to be about your perspective and opinions, then you
may structure the review to privilege your observations over (but never separate from) those of
the work under review. What follows is just one of many ways to organize a review.
Since most reviews are brief, many writers begin with a catchy quip or anecdote that succinctly
delivers their argument. But you can introduce your review differently depending on the
argument and audience. The Writing Center’s handout on introductions can help you find an
approach that works. In general, you should include:
The name of the author and the book title and the main theme.
Relevant details about who the author is and where he/she stands in the genre or field of
inquiry. You could also link the title to the subject to show how the title explains the subject
The context of the book and/or your review. Placing your review in a framework that makes
sense to your audience alerts readers to your “take” on the book. Perhaps you want to
situate a book about the Cuban revolution in the context of Cold War rivalries between the
United States and the Soviet Union. Another reviewer might want to consider the book in
the framework of Latin American social movements. Your choice of context informs your
The thesis of the book. If you are reviewing fiction, this may be difficult since novels, plays,
and short stories rarely have explicit arguments. But identifying the book’s particular
novelty, angle, or originality allows you to show what specific contribution the piece is
trying to make.
Your thesis about the book.
Summary of content
This should be brief, as analysis takes priority. In the course of making your assessment,
you’ll hopefully be backing up your assertions with concrete evidence from the book, so
some summary will be dispersed throughout other parts of the review.
The necessary amount of summary also depends on your audience. Graduate students,
beware! If you are writing book reviews for colleagues—to prepare for comprehensive
exams, for example—you may want to devote more attention to summarizing the book’s
contents. If, on the other hand, your audience has already read the book—such as an class
assignment on the same work—you may have more liberty to explore more subtle points
and to emphasize your own argument.
Analysis and evaluation of the book
Your analysis and evaluation should be organized into paragraphs that deal with single
aspects of your argument. This arrangement can be challenging when your purpose is to
consider the book as a whole, but it can help you differentiate elements of your criticism
and pair assertions with evidence more clearly.
You do not necessarily need to work chronologically through the book as you discuss it.
Given the argument you want to make, you can organize your paragraphs more usefully by
themes, methods, or other elements of the book.
If you find it useful to include comparisons to other books, keep them brief so that the book
under review remains in the spotlight.
Avoid excessive quotation and give a specific page reference in parentheses when you do
quote. Remember that you can state many of the author’s points in your own words.
Sum up or restate your thesis or make the final judgment regarding the book. You should
not introduce new evidence for your argument in the conclusion. You can, however,
introduce new ideas that go beyond the book if they extend the logic of your own thesis.
This paragraph needs to balance the book’s strengths and weaknesses in order to unify
your evaluation. Did the body of your review have three negative paragraphs and one
favorable one? What do they all add up to? The Writing Center’s handout on conclusions
can help you make a final assessment.
Finally, a few general considerations:
Review the book in front of you, not the book you wish the author had written. You can and
should point out shortcomings or failures, but don’t criticize the book for not being
something it was never intended to be.
With any luck, the author of the book worked hard to find the right words to express her
ideas. You should attempt to do the same. Precise language allows you to control the tone
of your review.
Never hesitate to challenge an assumption, approach, or argument. Be sure, however, to
cite specific examples to back up your assertions carefully.
Try to present a balanced argument about the value of the book for its audience. You’re
entitled—and sometimes obligated—to voice strong agreement or disagreement. But keep
in mind that a bad book takes as long to write as a good one, and every author deserves
fair treatment. Harsh judgments are difficult to prove and can give readers the sense that
you were unfair in your assessment.
For further reading
A great place to learn about book reviews is to look at examples. The New York Times Book
Review, the New York Review of Books, and the Book Review Index can show you how
professional writers review books.
Drewry, John. Writing Book Reviews. Boston: The Writer, 1974.
Literary Reviewing. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1987.
Teitelbaum, Harry. How to Write Book Reports 3rd ed.. New York: Macmillan, 1998.
Walford, A.J., ed. Reviews and Reviewing: A Guide. Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press, 1986.
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