Think, reflect, act — helpful hints from a book reviewer: An Interview with Charles Howlett, Ph.D.

Charles Howlett

Charles Howlett

Books Not Bombs

Charles F. Howlett is Associate Professor in the Education Division at Molloy College. In 2005, his book, History of the American Peace Movement, 1890-2000: The Development of a New Academic Discipline was awarded Choice’s “Outstanding Academic Title.” He is the author, co-author, and co-editor of twelve books including: Troubled Philosopher: John Dewey and the Struggle for World Peace; The American Peace Movement: References & Resources; and Books, Not Bombs: Teaching Peace since the Dawn of the Republic. Presently, he is editing a new centennial edition of Nicholas M. Butler’s The International Mind and co-editing a forthcoming book titled Patriotic Protest: Peace Activism and Anti-war Dissent in World War 1 America—A Reader. He has written numerous reviews and is a member of several editorial boards of academic journals.

Here Howlett discusses how writing book reviews can be as beneficial to the reviewer as it is to the book author and readers.

TAA: In your opinion, why is it important for faculty authors to write book reviews?

Charles Howlett: “Naturally, it is far easier to write a book review than a book. Nonetheless, the ease by which one may be able to write a book review is by no means the only reason for accepting such an assignment, yet it is an extremely important one. In terms of publishing, writing a book review requires one to refine their process of thinking based upon a deliberate effort in order to achieve the common objective that what we think must live in ink! Despite the pressures of large class sizes, student demands, committee assignments, and the expectation to write articles and that ‘magical’ book for tenure or promotion, it is also important for the instructor to keep in mind that regularly writing reviews also demonstrates continuing intellectual activity.”

TAA: How does one become a reviewer?

CH: “Most academic journals maintain files of potential reviewers who they may periodically assign books. In many instances, the book review editor of a scholarly journal will attempt to invite younger practitioners into the fold as opposed to going to the well once too often with more established academicians who have already contributed a number of reviews. However, one should bear in mind that the seriousness of the work would merit the choice of reviewer. An important work by a noted scholar may result in a reviewer of equal merit knowledgeable in that field. Nonetheless, many journals are constantly seeking to expand their reviewer files and having your name placed in the file will be most welcome.

Generally speaking, the greater number of professional organizations with scholarly journals you belong to the greater chance you have to have your name listed. However, not being a member of certain organizations should not preclude you from inquiring. In either case, the first step is to develop a list of potential journals you are interested in and find out whether particular information or an application form is required. If so, contact the book review editor, indicate your desire to review books for the journal, and request an information form, although, in most instances, no form is necessary. Selectivity is a virtue in that certain journals will focus on specific subjects and only review books on that topic. Stick to your strengths and knowledge of your subject-area for the best results.”

TAA: Do you have any hints for writing a good book review?

CH: “Perhaps the most important hint to keep in mind is the art of writing a good book review.

First, it must be interesting and to the point. Some journals will specifically limit the number of words you can write. Embrace it as an opportunity, not a restriction. Just keep in mind that your review is a creative composition. It should be neither a transcription of the book’s contents nor a disguised summary of what the dustcover says. Bear in mind it is a review, not a report. Therefore, in a few brief paragraphs bring the larger work into focus through applying your understanding of the subject and importance of the book. Whether the review is critical or praiseworthy, always keep your audience in mind. Readers of book reviews are not interested in your own predilections or predispositions. They want a thoughtful evaluation, which will hold you as accountable as that of the book’s author. Bear in mind, as well, that you should indicate the page numbers of any passages you choose to quote in your review. Accuracy adds to authoritativeness.

Second, is to make sure you address the most important points a book reviewer should cover. The primary obligation is to describe the author’s purpose in writing the book; was the book’s objective achieved? Assess the book’s strengths and weaknesses while also addressing whether one aspect of the work dominates the others. Make sure to place it in the context of other works on the same subject in order to establish its significance or failure to measure up. You may also want to expend a few words about the author in terms of his/her qualification in the field. Has the author written on the same subject before? Are there any biases inherent in the author’s observations about the topic written? Reflect, as well, on the book’s utility to the readership. For example, is this a work that can be used in a survey class or is it more suited to an advanced course? Does the cost of this work prohibit its widespread use in the classroom?

Third, if this is a new edition of an old work, your professional obligation is to discuss the extent to which the work has been revised from the previous edition and does its significance still remain worthy of consideration. Very often new editions of classic work will have a new foreword by the editor of the latest reprint. If that is the case, then in what ways has the editor of the new edition shed additional light on its continuing contribution to the literature in the field? Are there differing viewpoints in terms of the revisionist literature in the field?

Finally, be sure to spot-check the book’s accuracy with respect to basic facts. Are the quotations accurate and, most importantly, are the citations proper? Does the work contain a comprehensive list of references or annotated bibliography, or are some important sources not included that should be? Is the book’s physical appearance helpful to its promotion? Does it have appropriate images and are they clearly reproduced to enhance the work’s quality? Equally important, is the editing first-rate or are there mistakes, which are readily apparent? In addition, be sure to note whether there is a foreword, introduction, notes, appendices, bibliography, indexes, type and number of illustration, and whether the book is cloth or paperback, or both and its cost in both venues. Generally, this is done in the heading prior to writing the review.”

TAA: In terms of the reviewer, what are the benefits of writing a book review?

CH: “Reviewing books not only expands one’s personal library, it also imposes a degree of with respect to reading habits. Lacking an obligation to read and report on books deprives one of the academic opportunities of being well read in his/her field. In addition, reviewing books is not only a benefit to the author but also serves the best interests of readers. Reviews serve an important function in helping readers decide whether or not to spend time and money on a book. In addition, a good review will most certainly be read and appreciated for its own sake by readers who may otherwise exhibit no intention of even consulting the book.

More specifically in terms of the book reviewer, it is most beneficial that your opinion is respected since it can generally provide you with an avenue for your scholarly journal submissions.”

TAA: What do you value about TAA?

CH: “I value TAA because it provides a method of sharing ideas among a community of scholars in order to provide new strategies for publication. TAA offers a wonderful avenue of communication with the expressed purpose of helping scholars see their ideas in print.”

Checklist of most important items for a book review evaluation

Download this book review checklist