On writing book reviews

tssbooks.jpgOne of the fan-favorite features of TSS is our book reviews. Sometimes I get questions from readers who want tips about how I write book reviews.

Well, I certainly don’t consider myself an expert on writing them so I can only offer general thoughts on the process that come to mind.

Also, since I only review non-fiction works some of these thoughts may be more or less useful to reviewing fictional literature. I’ll try to go back to my old Liberal Arts education tools to recall what I learned about works of fiction and see if I can look at reviews both the perspective of a non-fictional work and a fictional one.

Here are some thoughts …

1. Setting standards.
Book reviews are an act of literary criticism whereby a specific book is assessed and evaluated from a standard set by the reviewer and the reviewer’s audience. So, for example, the theological works I typically review are first compared to their biblical accuracy, then compared to other works by the same author, and finally compared to other works covering the same themes.

In the past month I’ve read 5 books on evangelism — one was very poor, two were okay, one was very good, and one was excellent. I came to this conclusion by comparing all five to Scripture, and each to one another. Reviewing any literature (and especially fiction) will require standards of evaluation just the same. A work of fictional literature may be compared to other works covering the same themes, compared to the works of other authors in the same era, or compared to a specific work of the author’s other works.

At some level you will need to answer the fundamental question, What am I comparing this book to?

2. Cultivating critical thinking.
I love writing book reviews because it forces me to cultivate the rigorous discipline of critical thinking. By critical thinking, I don’t mean that I want to be a critical person. Rather, it means I am forced to ask and answer several discerning questions like the following:

(1) What is the overall purpose of the author?

(2) What question, ethical standard, social custom or problem is being confronted, questioned or solved by the author?

(3) What assumptions do the authors bring into the discussion? Are they writing from a Christian or non-Christian worldview? What is assumed without argument? What worldview do they champion? What school of thought do they represent?

(4) What is the author’s point of view? Is the book written from the perspective of an adult or child? Rich or poor? Preacher, evangelist, or scholar? Where did the author live and what did they experience in life? For me, determining where the author serves as a professor or pastor helps me to understand the individual and the perspective.

(5) What events, information, and evidence does the author use to make her case? Is it strong and clear information, or weak and assumed? Every conclusion must be backed by a series of events and dialogues (fiction) or facts and evidences (non-fictional).

(6) What are the implications and consequences of the author’s arguments? Assuming the author is right, what must change?

These questions help me unlock even the most subtle messages embedded in literature and art. And one great way to put these six questions into action is by looking at an advertisement in a magazine. Every ad has a target audience, a worldview, and a means to persuade. Who is the target audience, what worldview does it embrace, and what is the basis of the persuasion?

It’s only because we are made in God’s image that we have the self-conscious awareness to bring literature under critical thinking and discernment. A true gift from God Himself.

3. Getting at the main point. Let me revisit this point a bit further. I believe every author, painter, advertiser, sculptor, commentary writer, songwriter, and poet is trying to convince you of something. That’s the nature of communication — someone taking a message he is passionate about and seeking to convince others of that message. The big question is, what is that individual trying to communicate?

In literature this may be on the surface. For example, C.S. Lewis in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe makes fairly obvious points — sinful greed corrupts our hearts, this sin negatively impacts our family and those closest to us, and Christ is our sufficient substitute — the One who breaks the power of sin and Satan. However in Lewis’ novel Till We Have Faces, the meaning is much harder to discern (I’m still scratching my head over this one). J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is another really tough (but rewarding) adventure to attempt to ‘crack.’

Or consider, say, an adventurous novel written about a boy’s hitchhiking travels across the country one summer. It may be a fun adventure filled with surprises, threats, and interesting characters, but it may also have a much deeper intention. Perhaps it was written by a man who was born and raised in New York City and written as a criticism of the way large cities impair childhood development?

You get the idea.

The goal is to understand the author behind the work. Did they live through a world war? (To think of it, perhaps Aslan’s victory in the battle for Narnia is Lewis’ way to comfort children in a time of world war?) So get to know the author, and get to know the world of the author.

But don’t assume that fictional works are disconnected from reality. The truth is that authors with strong convictions have frequently chosen fictional literature to get their messages out. Some consider fiction the best means to communicate reality.

4. Getting at a biblical worldview. Christians are perched on a distinct view of reality because our worldview is informed by God’s eternal revelation in Scripture. We are therefore at a great advantage to evaluate every work of literature as it correlates or contradicts this eternal reality. Finding where themes, worldviews, attitudes, and ethics correlate or contradict Scripture is one of the most interesting disciplines (and downright addictive!).

Centering everything around Scripture also helps me interpret popular literature I disagree with. For example, I obviously don’t agree with existentialism, but I am surprised how fully their writers can communicate the hopelessness and despair of the human condition.

Holding a biblical worldview makes literature reviews quite interesting!

5. Read more than you review. Typically, of all the books I receive in the mail only about half are interesting enough to read. And of those books I read, only half get reviewed. Reviewing half (or even less) of the total number of books I read gives me tremendous freedom to review and invest time thinking through the very best books. There is value to reviewing books you don’t like, but I’ve tried to isolate the books I love and spend my time reviewing those titles. So read much more than you expect to review.

6. Now write.
Every review will look differently. Don’t try and force your review into a grid or pattern, just write about what most strikes you about the particular book. After asking all of the questions above, you should have a lot to talk about.

Finally, I cannot help but be reminded of my Liberal Arts prof that impacted my life to a great degree on these things. And since Dr. Joseph Wydeven recently retired, this is a great opportunity to thank him for his work at Bellevue University in Nebraska. He was a tremendous blessing in my intellectual development and growth in critical thinking. Thank you, Dr. Wydeven!

Blessings, TSS readers! Tony


Related: More on critical thinking here.

Related: Here are my top five favorite books on writing:

  1. The Elements of Style by Strunk and White
  2. On Writing Well by Zinsser
  3. Keys to Great Writing by Wilbers
  4. Hypnotic Writing by Vitale
  5. How to Write a Paragraph by Paul and Elder

6 thoughts on “On writing book reviews

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