Lesson 12: How to Write, Part 1: The Book Review
Did you lecture to the wall concerning cramming? If so, what did you learn?
HOW TO WRITE
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
A completed book review is a written exercise that
shows the teacher the following:
1. You read the
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
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
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
WHAT A BOOK REVIEW SHOULD ACCOMPLISH
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:
important things in
2. Explain why these things are
a. For the book's thesis or point of
3. Compare the book with some other book or
article that is better or worse.
b. For the topic the book deals
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
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
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.
BUY THE BOOK
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.
WRITING YOUR REVIEW
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
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
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
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,
PREVIEW OF TOMORROW'S LESSON: Blogging
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