Book Reviews: Reading Critically

Book Reviews: Reading Critically February 12, 2007

Writing the book review obviously requires reading the book. But, the reading must be done with a critical engagement. I’m sure some people can just sit and read a book and write their thoughts. However, I have tried to find an approach that will help me make notations and markers in the book in a way that will be helpful when it comes time to write. I offer this as an example of what I have done, but everyone learns and thinks differently – I hope it might help but it may not.

First, I read up (on the internet or whatever) on who the author is and what they are known for. Go to their faculty webpage, or read the author blurb from that book and others. Get a sense of who is making the claims and what their convictions and influences are.

Second, I pay careful attention to the preface, acknowledgements and introductory words. It is often here that you see most clearly the purpose behind the work and the hoped-for results.

Third (the reading). I typically use symbols and abbreviations in the margin to make notes for myself for later. Then, when I read the whole book, I go back and have a session of ‘write up’ where I type up my notations and then I can make an assessment of the work (which will be the last step before writing a draft of the review).

The notations are simple: Underline any statement that:

(1) is a Main Point of the author and write MP in the margin next to it

(2) is a good quote, either summarizing or articulating something special; something you might quote in the review and put a Q in the margin

(3) is particularly insightful or good; that you find positive and that the review reader would gain from; put a * or star in the margin

(4) is something that you find fundamentally problematic in the argument, incomplete, unnecessarily confusing, or just plain wrong (factually, logically, etc…); put a X in the margin.

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I find a couple of blank pages in the back and I keep a running set of columns: a good column (things I really liked about the book) and a bad column (issues that are problematic). As I read, I will add comments to the columns in the back and mark page numbers. This helps to organize my thoughts as I read.

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