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Lesson 12: How to Write, Part 1: The Book Review

Gary North, Ph.D.
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Did you lecture to the wall concerning cramming? If so, what did you learn?

Lesson 12


Part 1: Book Review

This, I know something about. I write book reviews all the time. A book review is a book report after you've graduated from college.

A completed book review is a written exercise that shows the teacher the following:

1. You read the book.
2. You understood the book.
3. You handed in the report on time.
4. You can write.

What if #3 is the only thing that is true? You didn't read the book. You read a Cliff's Notes or Monarch Notes version. You have no idea what the book is about. You can't write, and it shows.

But you handed it in on time.

You will probably get at least a C-.

So, don't panic. You won't fail.

If there is a Cliff's Notes version of the book you must read, should you read the book or Cliff's Notes? The correct answer is. . . .

You should read both.

OK, that's the official academic answer. What is the real-world answer?

Read the book. If you have to speed-read it, then do so. Your two-fold goal of school is: (1) learn something; (2) graduate. You can do the second if you just show up and do minimally. So, try to learn something.

The goal of education is to teach you how to think. Reading Cliff's Notes is not going to help you learn how to think. It will only help you cut corners.

It is better to read the book fast and get one good idea than to read Cliff's Notes and get a good grade, but then forget everything. If you don't learn how to think, you are wasting your time in school. School is bad enough. Having to attend school and then not learn anything worth remembering is even worse.

Should you read Cliff's Notes? Yes, but only after you have read the book. This way, you will pick up lots of things you missed. One of them might be important for your book review.

But your review should be your review. What did you think of the book? Did you learn anything? If not, is this your fault or the author's? Prove this in your review.


Write the book review to keep in your files for your own future use. If it doesn't do you any good in a year, you wasted your time. Don't waste your time. Write for yourself, so you can recall later on what the book was and why it is worth re-reading or tossing out.

A book review should do the following for you, in order of importance:

1. Accurately summarize the important things in the book.

2. Explain why these things are important.

a. For the book's thesis or point of view
b. For the topic the book deals with
3. Compare the book with some other book or article that is better or worse.

4. Evaluate the book as far as it helped or failed to help you.

Step #1 shows that you read attentively. Step #2 shows that you read intelligently. Step #3 shows that you read widely. Step #4 shows that you can think for yourself.

Follow the instructions: length, spacing, margins.

After you have read the book, spend at least two hours reading other reviews of the book. See if other authors have spotted things you missed.

Go to the library. See if there are other reviews of the book. Look it up in the Book Review Digest, a very useful tool.

Search the Web. If it's a new book, there will be reviews on the web. Search for the title of the book and "review."

Maybe there are reviews on Amazon. Amazon.com sometimes includes reviews. Read the one from the library journal, if there is one.

You do this to see if you missed something important, which is easy to do. This is the division of intellectual labor in action. You don't do this to get someone else to do your thinking for you.


If you really want to write a good review, make notes in the book's margins as you read it the second time. (The first reading of every chapter must be high-speed skimming.)

If you own the book, treat it as if it were a tool. Tools are for using, not for sitting on a shelf. After you have read a book, it should look as if you mastered it: notes everywhere.

To buy a book cheap, buy it used on Amazon. Don't pay retail. You can save 50% by buying it used.

To buy on-line, you need a debit card. You have a debit card, right?

If not, it's time. I keep saying this, but it's true. Get a debit card.


Don't use a detailed outline. Jot down notes of things you think you should cover.

Have the four sections of your review in mind.

Start writing. I hope you have a word processor. You will need to erase.

Tell a story. You are summarizing this book to your blind cousin. Pretend that you are trying to persuade your cousin either to get the braille version and read it or not to waste time reading it. Prove your case.

Write the way you would talk to your grandmother or someone in authority who has not read the book. You must write this from the heart by way of your brain. You must have an opinion. If you don't have an opinion, what good was reading the book? It made no impact on your thinking.

Now go back and clean it up. Insert any ideas you forgot. Clean up the grammar. Make sure it reads clearly. Here are the crucial two rules of writing:

1. Get it accurate.
2. Make it clear.

Anything else is extra credit. At the top of the list of extra credit is:

3. Don't be boring.

Write it. Then let it sit for a day. Re-read it. See if it needs revision. (It will need revision.)

Usually book reviews read like this. "The author said this. Then he said that. Then he said something else. The end." Teachers read reports like this all day long: C, C+, C, C-, B-.

Your review should be more like this. "The author says this. Then he says that. The problem is, the two arguments don't make sense. They're contradictory. The author ignores this over here. I can't imagine why anyone would believe this book." This will amaze the reader. You'll probably get a B just for not being boring.

There is a book on how to read a book. It has a great title: How to Read a Book. It's by Mortimer Adler, who read a lot of books. He shows how much work it takes to read a book well. He says that most books are not worth this much work, but classics are.

I recommend this book for beginning writers. It's a great introduction on how to write a good book. It's also a great introduction on how to think.

If you read just one book carefully before you graduate, read How to Read a Book. Expect to take a week next summer. If you learn how to read a book Adler's way, you will be able to get a good education on your own with nothing except the World Wide Web, a printer, some toner and ink . . . plus a lot of time, a pen, and some note cards.


A book review is an exercise. By itself, it shows whether you did a minimal amount of work. As part of a series, it teaches you how to write.

You must start now because you will probably have to do book reports in college.

Write the review from your heart.

Write several drafts. Revise to include things that you left out.

Don't get tied to a detailed outline. Outlines inhibit feeling. A general outline is a good idea, but not a detailed outline.


Go to the public library and look for the Book Review Digest. Look through a few copies to see how it works. You will need it later in your college career.

Don't forget to lecture to the wall: one page, one book.


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