What is a book review?

A book review focuses on one book-length text and briefly summarizes its contents, identifying its thesis or main argument(s), and establishing the degree of success with which the author supports his or her claims.

Notice that the criteria of such an assignment far exceed the requirements for book reports, with which you are probably familiar from high school. A high school book report merely asks you to summarize the contents of a book and to conclude with your subjective opinion on whether you "liked" the book, and why. Such a high school-level book report is not a book review, which requires far more. Again: for a book review, you need to establish the argument(s) of the book you are writing on, the manner in which the author attempts to support that argument, and his or her success in so doing.

A well-executed book review will also hone your critical reading skills by inviting you to identify the author's perspective: does the author seem prone to bias or prejudice? How does the author's slant (if any) find expression? Does he or she challenge other writers' work and, if so, is this done in a persuasive manner, or does it seem motivated by petty professional or personal rivalry (this also opens issues of historiography). Is there anything in the author's own biography that may help explain (though not necessarily justify) any bias you have identified? All these are questions a well-executed book review will take into consideration.

To see the above-cited criteria applied to a book, click here.


Critical reading skills aside, the basic objective of a book review assignment is twofold: 1.) it gets you to read and write about a complex, fully-developed argument and, 2.) in so doing, heightens your awareness of how a good (or bad) argument can be constructed and supported, thus offering possible strategies and approaches you may want to pursue (or avoid) in your own writing.

When reviewing a book, you may want to answer some of the following questions:

  1. What is the book's main argument?
  2. Who seems to be the intended audience for the book?
  3. How is the book structured?
  4. Does the structure of the book (its various parts and chapters) reinforce its larger argument? How?
  5. What kinds of sources, or examples, does the book offer in support of its argument, and which are most (and least) effective? Why?
  6. Does the book engage other writers' works on the same subject and, even if not, how would you position the book in relation to other texts you are aware of on the same subject (texts you have read for class, for example)?
  7. Does the author seem biased or prejudiced in any way and, if so, is that prejudice or bias the product of the author's own background, as far as you can tell?
  8. How persuasive is the book (if certain aspects are more persuasive than others, explain why)

A Sample Book Review

Let us assume that the text assigned for your book review is Iris Chang's The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II (New York: BasicBooks, 1997). This best-selling work of narrative history describes in graphic detail the imperial Japanese army's 1937 attack and occupation of the Chinese city of Nanking, which, Chang claims (in accordance with most Western historians) resulted in a six-week massacre of the civilian population marked by widespread rape, pillage, murder, and other atrocities. This event is often referred to as "the Rape of Nanking." On this text, see also historiographic essays and evaluating contradictory data and claims.

Below, we briefly respond to each of the bulleted questions above:
  1. The book's main argument is threefold:
    1. most determinedly, that the Rape of Nanking, disputed by some Japanese historians, did occur;
    2. that the Japanese government, post-war Japanese historiography and, therefore, the Japanese population as a whole, have failed to fully acknowledge and apologize for the massacre, and indeed deny it;
    3. and, 3.) that what Chang refers to as the Japanese "cover up," the effort "to erase the entire massacre from public consciousness, thereby depriving its victims of their proper place in history" is an example of revisionist history equal to Holocaust-denial (14).

    While her hoped-for objective, in this context, is that the book "will stir the conscience of Japan to accept responsibility for this incident," the larger argument is that history, including horrific history, needs to be told truthfully in order for us to learn from the past (16).

  2. The book's intended audience is a non-academic American readership, generally uninitiated into the events described. The book can fairly be called a work of popular narrative history directed at a mass audience.
  3. The book is divided into three parts, each subdivided into several chapters.
    • Part I briefly sets the scene by historicizing the Japanese codes of warfare and honor, then describes in detail the campaign waged by the Japanese and their many atrocities against the civilian population of Nanking in 1937. Many of these graphic descriptions are corroborated by eye witness accounts both Japanese and Chinese.
    • Part II describes the ensuing Japanese occupation of the city. An important aspect of this section is Chang's description of the lengths to which the Japanese government and military went to limit media access to the city in order to prevent news of the massacre from spreading (she calls this "Japanese damage control" [147]). This section ends with the liberation of the city and the Allied war crimes tribunals, as a result of which seven high-ranking Japanese officers were condemned to death by hanging, and executed.
    • Part III describes the efforts of post-war Japan, led by its politicians and historians, to cover up the events at Nanking, efforts Chang strongly condemns. She concludes with the observation that although, at the time of the massacre, it was "front-page news across the world, ... yet most of the world stood by and did nothing while an entire city was butchered." She likens this to "the more recent response to the atrocities in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Rwanda: while thousands have died almost unbelievably cruel deaths, the entire world has watched CNN and wrung its hands" (221).
  4. Chang chooses her three-part structure in order to communicate the diversity of voices that need to be heard in order to fully comprehend the events in Nanking: the victims', the perpetrators', and the historians'. That history has largely failed at its task to tell the full story is integral to her argument. Thus she likens her three-part structure to that of the Japanese film Rashomon, in which different witnesses of a rape recount its story, each from their own perspective (including the victim's, the rapist's, and that of an eyewitness). The accounts, of course, vary considerably: "It is for the reader to pull all the recollections together, to credit or discredit parts or all of each account, and through this process to create out of subjective and often self-serving perceptions a more objective picture of what might have occurred. This [film] should be included in the curriculum of any course treating criminal justice. Its point goes to the heart of history" (14).
  5. The book cites eye witness accounts on all sides, including Western eye witnesses: much mileage is generated by the memoirs of American missionaries who were on the scene at the time of the massacre. The book also provides a map of the city, marking specific locations of individual massacres, and twenty-four pages of photographs. Without a doubt, the graphic verbal accounts of those who witnessed the event are most effective: they are searing and hard to forget. Some of the photographs, too, are extremely graphic (they include multiple images of nude victims of rape, beheadings, corpses and the desecration of corpses, and severed heads); while these are very effective primary sources, their veracity has been retroactively challenged, which diminishes their effectiveness (see Historiography and Evaluating Contradictory Data and Claims). The map, which appears prior to any of the main text, is ineffective: it shows no scale, does not identify Nanking's location within the larger landmass of China for the intended uninitiated readership, nor the troop movements of the Japanese army as they entered the city or the remnants of the Chinese army as they fled. These are events the book describes, but which find no visual correlation on the map itself. The sites of specific massacres visually identified on the map are simply marked "X" (there are approximately forty-five) but are not identified by name, and can therefore not be linked to specific events described in the later text.
  6. On the issue of other, related works on this subject, please follow the link to Historiographic Essays. Generally, there was no large body of literature on the Rape of Nanking prior to the publication of Chang's book, although the book itself has spawned a large number of responses, many of them in general agreement with Chang, some critical (these, mainly generated by Japanese scholars), and a few that denounce her book as an outright fabrication. Again, follow the link to historiographic essays and contradictory data and claims on this. Chang does not provide a bibliography. Part of her argument, of course (in 1997, the year of her book's publication) is that the Rape of Nanking had been a generally-forgotten event prior to her own efforts.
  7. Chang does seem prejudiced against the Japanese version of the event (again, this is integral to her argument and she openly reveals the animus she feels towards Japanese historians from the start; given the nature of her project, it would seem difficult for her not to feel these sentiments). Her personal background as the grandchild of former residents of Nanking (her grandparents escaped just weeks before the massacres began) undoubtedly contributes towards her perspective. Here, again, she makes no effort to conceal her position. Indeed, the manner in which she personalizes her account in her introduction is an important and effective "hook" that draws the reader in: "I first learned of the Rape of Nanking when I was a little girl. ... Their voices quivering with outrage, my parents characterized the Great Nanking Massacre, or Nanjing Datusha, as the single most diabolical incident committed by the Japanese. ... Throughout my childhood Nanjing Datusha remained buried in the back of my mind as a metaphor for unspeakable evil" (7, 8).
  8. Overall, the book is effective, in part because of its sensational and unfathomably horrific subject matter. A strange moment of cognitive dissonance is created, however, by the fact that, as cited above, Chang claims that the massacres occurred before the eyes of the world (the event, she states in her conclusion, was "front-page news across the world ... splashed prominently across the pages of newspapers like the New York Times" [221]), yet she cites only very few of these news articles to back up her claim. (In fact, she cites the same one multiple times: "Japanese Atrocities Marked Fall of Nanking After Chinese Command Fled," The New York Times, December 22, 1937, p. 38 - hardly "front-page news"). Nevertheless, the book is memorable and powerful, and as evidenced by its bestselling status, succeeded in its day in bringing to the world a story previously largely unknown, denied, or ignored. As such, it stands as a success, although the controversy it generated upon publication has slightly diminished its overall legacy (see Historiographic Essays and Evaluating Contradictory Data and Claims).