by Travis Peterson
One of your most common assignments at any seminary is going to be the sometimes joyful, often tedious, yet always necessary book review. While every seminary will have different requirements for their book reviews, nearly all fall into a fairly similar mold. How can you attack this task in such a way as to do the work most faithfully and most efficiently?
Know the Expectations
The first thing that you should do when assigned a book review is understand exactly what your professor expects of you. If he only wants a brief summary to prove that you read the book, do it. If she wants a brief summary with a mountain of personal observations, do it. If he wants mainly critique to prove that such a book is not theologically accurate, do your best.
Nothing will frustrate you more than writing a nice, solid, five-page critique of a book only to find out that your professor only wanted a paragraph or two of your thoughts. OK, perhaps you will be more frustrated when you write a two-page, single-spaced review of a book and then discover that your professor wanted a more formal interaction. The point is, do what is expected.
What Goes Into a Book Review?
When I was a student at Southern Seminary in Louisville, most of my book reviews required the following:
- Brief introduction (No more than ½ page ) – This includes both what the book is and who the author is. Show that you know why this particular author might be considered a significant voice in his or her field of writing.
- Brief summary (No more than 1 page) – This is the most dangerous part of a book review. Your professor has read the book, and does not want you to go into chapter-by-chapter detail. However, he or she does want to know that you can boil the book down into a simple set of points and demonstrate an understanding of the material.
- Points of Agreement (1 ½ pages) – This should include several of the author’s arguments and points with which you particularly believe to be strong. Generally a paragraph in this section will contain a quotation or two followed by biblical or philosophical reasons why you believe the point to be strong.
- Points of Disagreement (1 ½ pages) – This section is the opposite of the previous section. Be careful not to simply say that you dislike something without reason. Be careful assuming that everyone knows why a point is bad. Use reason and scripture to defend your disagreement with a quote or system of argument.
- Brief Conclusion (1/2 page) – This one or two paragraph section should tie the review together, and allow you a final thought about the book. Perhaps this would be a good section to say whether or not you would recommend this particular book to someone, or under what circumstances you believe the book could be used well.
Some Questions to Ask
Here are a few things you might ask a professor who is assigning you book reviews for the first time (Note that many of the answers to these questions can be found in a seminary’s style guide if one exists for your school):
- Is there a standard format you wish for our book reviews to follow?
- Is there a particular length you wish for the review to be?
- Is it acceptable to write in first person (“I believe . . .”) or must I use a more formal style?
- Is there a particular style of citation that you wish me to use for quotations?
- Any rules concerning font, margins, spacing, etc?
Tips for the Task
Here are some thoughts that may help you to plan to tackle your book review. Though you can write your review in many ways, this is a system that has helped me to become much more efficient:
- While it may seem terribly unspiritual, you do not need to totally scour and digest a book in order to be able to give it a fair and accurate review. Many bloggers have shared tips for reading books for content, and I will not repeat them here. However, you can read a book in many different ways; so be wise.
- When reading your book for a book review, I suggest reading it with two differently colored highlighters, a pen, and a notebook.
- As you read, write in your notebook a brief summary of each chapter or of each main argument.
- When a sentence or paragraph in the book strikes you as positive, highlight it in one color.
- When a sentence or paragraph strikes you negatively, highlight it in a different color from the positive points.
- If a question strikes you regarding the author’s content, argument, sources, application of scripture, note it in your notebook with the relevant page number.
- Once you have finished the book, skim through the positive highlights and summarize the patterns you see of several different types of positive points. Do the same for the negatives. Keep boiling down your observations into coherent thoughts.
- Use your summaries from the notebook to write your brief summary of the book.
- Use your compiled positive and negative statements to write the main body of your review.
- Use the book jacket or “About the author” section to help you to write your introduction.
- Use all that you have gathered in your review to complete a consistent conclusion.
Get Used to This
If you are at seminary, you will be writing reviews; there’s no way around it. So, get used to the idea. Find a system that works for you, and refine it so that you can do the best work in the least time. Who knows, you may want to keep your reviews in order to help others who pick up the same volume in the future. Write a review that will satisfy your course requirements and possibly help you to remember what you think of a book later.
Travis Peterson is a contributing writer for Seminary Survival Guide. He is a pastor in Southern Illinois, a D. Min. candidate in Biblical Counseling at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and a blogger.