MODEL BOOK REVIEW–updated May 22, 2018
Students in Professor Scipes’ classes–
This page is presented in two parts: first, is information about how to do a book review for Professor Scipes’ classes. Please read carefully, and follow the instructions. If you have any questions, please see Professor Scipes at first opportunity. Doing a good book review requires work, and if you have any doubts about how to do it or what you need to do a good job, please see Professor Scipes. I want you print out this instructional material, and attach to your book review–this section continues down to my name, and I want this entire section printed out and attached to your review. You do not have to print out anything below my name at the end of this section.
However, the second section is a book review that I have done on a book called The Cost of Being Poor: A Comparative Study of Life in Poor Urban Neighborhoods in Gary, Indiana. This review was published in the Journal of Urban Affairs, a peer-reviewed academic journal. I put it here so you would have some idea of what a good book review should look like: hopefully, it will inform your book review efforts! (The article was published in the Journal of Urban Affairs, Vol. 28, No. 2, 2006: 197-199.)
COMMENTS (please read carefully):
The biggest mistake I see in student papers is that they “review” the subject of the book, not the book itself. Think of it this way: the author is writing about one part of the whole subject, because he/she thinks that by providing an in-depth focus on one part of the subject, they can best illuminate the reality of the whole subject. Thus, the author picks and chooses what to focus on and how they think best to write about it–the author makes choices about what he/she thinks is most important, and the best way to present the subject.. Thus, a review is about how that particular author “covered” that particular subject, NOT the subject itself.
The most important thing to remember for a good book review is that you are to evaluate the book on its own terms: does the author adequately support her/his claims that are made in the book? THIS is the focus, NOT whether you like it or not, NOT whether you agree or disagree with the authors’ conclusions, etc.
DOING A GOOD BOOK REVIEW:
To do a good book review, first you have to read the book. Then write the review.
You should open your paper with an introductory paragraph. Your introductory paragraph should include both a quick overview to the book–this is not the place for details–AND a quick overview of your paper, telling your reader how you intend to cover the book in this review. Think of it as a “road map” to your paper: it should give the reader some idea of how your paper “works.” (This is what I call the “Joe Friday” approach: just the facts, plain and simple; no embellishment, no explanations–just the basics.) Don’t tell what you will do; just say something like, “In this paper, I examine….”
Body of Paper
In the body of your paper, you need to do three things, each which I explain here: (1) you must identify three key claims the author (s) is making about the subject; (2) you must present evidence from that provided by the author that supports his/her claim; and (3), you must then evaluate how well the empirical evidence supports each claim: does it do it well, does it do some parts well but not other parts, or should the author be shot for killing trees because they haven’t provided any empirical evidence (or something along those lines)?
BEFORE YOU START ON YOUR CLAIM:
Something that is commonly done by students who try to do a good paper, but which works against them (so you shouldn’t do it!): students get too involved in the book–they seek each detail. You do not have the space in a review for this. First step: take a step back from the book (perhaps even physically, but definitely psychologically), put the book down, and ask yourself: what are three main issues in the book; just what is the author writing about? When you can come up with three main issues, you have the starting point for identifying claims, which is explained next.
First, what is a claim, and how do you identify it? A claim is a creation, something you create. How do you do that? You want to look for three main issues of the book–identify three important issues. Now, identifying issues is just a start, not the whole thing. You must transform each issue into a claim. How do you do that? What you must do to create a claim is to take an issue you’ve identified and then add the ramifications of it: claim = (issue + ramification). By “ramification,” I mean that you must include why the author thinks that issue is important; another way to think about it is to answer the question, “so what?”
Let me use an example from a review of Dee Brown’s Bury My Heat at Wounded Knee: “The author claims that the treaties created by the white men of power were full of deception and empty promises, which meant that the Native Americans were at a disadvantage any time they tried to negotiate with them.” So, what is the issue, and what is the ramification? The issue was how the white men of power deceived and made empty promises to the Native Americans in any negotiations. So what? Well, the “ramification” is: “which meant that the Native Americans were at a disadvantage” in negotiations; that while they thought they were being treated respectfully, they really were being played as fools.
Both the issue and the ramification of it should be in the same sentence. In other words, the issue and ramification together constitute a claim, and they must be in the same sentence. Once you’ve done this, once you’ve joined an issue and the ramification together in the same sentence, YOU HAVE CREATED A CLAIM. Doing this well is important: getting the claim correct sets up the rest of the paper: if you don’t do the claim correctly, you will have problems, so if you have any doubts about doing this correctly, see Dr. Scipes at first opportunity!
Let me divert for a second: too many students see something published as being definite, for certain; damn near gospel–in other words, not questionable. However, for a review such as this, you need to take another approach. By reviewing a book, you are QUESTIONING whether the author actually did what she/he said they were going to do (and hopefully, they did do what they said they were going to do). To indicate this approach in your writing, you should use words like, “The author claims…”; “The author argues…”; “The author states…”; things like this–NOT “The author proves”; etc.
Second: Once you identify the three main claims, then, for each claim, you must present some of the evidence the author uses to support the claim. NOTE: The evidence must be to support the entire claim, not just one part of it. Include the strongest evidence provided by the author: go for the intellectual meat of his/her argument, not some minor or tangential point. The key thing here is to look for evidence presented by the author.
Third: After creating each claim, then you must critically evaluate how well the empirical evidence supports the claim, or what I call the “strength of the claim”: how well does the empirical evidence provided by the author support the overall claim? You must critically evaluate the strength of EACH claim, not the book overall–I want specificity. In other words, this is YOUR OPINION about how well the author provides empirical evidence to support each claim. This is important: I don’t care if you agree/disagree with the author; I don’t care if you like/don’t like what the author says–that is not important. You must evaluate how well the author’s empirical evidence supports EACH claim.
[NOTE: Empirical evidence is evidence that can be seen by two or more people. This is evidence that can be observed, is supported with data, research, etc., and can also include interviews. This is our highest quality level of evidence. In other words, an author should support their claims with empirical evidence–and while some do, some don’t, trying to convince you through saying “I believe” or using logic games. What we’re looking for is whether or not your author supported her/his claims with empirical evidence or not: we’re holding them to the highest standards.]
AFTER, and only after, you do this for each claim, and after you evaluate the book as a whole, then you can write your personal evaluation of the book. This is certainly secondary to evaluating the book on its own terms. (This is not needed if you’ve already written three FULL pages.)
And you will end with a conclusion to your review. This is just a quick “recap” of what you considered and what you found, and will provide your overall evaluation of the book.
Again, you are to identify three claims made by the author (and remember, a claim includes an issue AND the ramification of it). For EACH claim, you are to identify the claim; provide evidence from that supplied by the author that supports the claim–and a logical argument is not evidence; and then evaluate how well the empirical evidence supports the claim. You can do this as claim-evidence-evaluation, claim-evidence-evaluation, and claim-evidence-evaluation style, or you can do claim-evidence, claim-evidence, and claim-evidence, and then an evaluation after you do this for all three claims. However, if you use this second approach, you CANNOT do a general evaluation for all claims: you must specifically evaluate EACH individual claim.
You might think you are trying to convince me to read/not read the book based on your evaluation of its claims and how well they are supported in the book.
If you have any questions, or any doubts as to whether you are doing this correctly or not, please see Professor Scipes at first opportunity!
MECHANICS OF DOING A GOOD BOOK REVIEW:
Remember, you are to use a cover sheet for your book review. Put YOUR NAME, course name and/or number, and then due date of assignment toward the top of the page. Then, skip a few lines. Put the title (book titles are ALWAYS underlined or italicized; no quotation marks), author, place of publication (i.e., location): publisher, and year of publication on the cover sheet. Accordingly, you do not put any of this material in the body of the review–you have already done that on the cover sheet. Do not put a page number on the cover sheet: page 1 is the first page of the actual review.
Put your page numbers on the review itself, preferably in the upper right hand corner, and begin with page 1. Margins on all four sides should not be more than 1 inch, and you should use 10 or 11 point font, preferably Palatino, Times New Roman or something similar. I expect three FULL pages, at least, although you can go to four if you think it is necessary.
Please make sure there is no extra space between paragraphs in a double-spaced paper. If there is extra space, this can usually be turned off by going (in Word) to FORMAT (on top of bar), then Paragraph, and then on the paragraph page look for “spacing”: BOTH before and after paragraph spacing should be set to 0 (zero).
Also, you do NOT need a resource/reference page: you should put all the details about the book on the cover sheet.
If you have any questions, please talk to me as soon as possible–I will do all I can to help you do well. That being said, however, you have to take this assignment carefully, evaluate your book critically–don’t take what the author says as “gospel”; you’re evaluating whether he/she delivers on what is claimed will be done; think clearly about what you want to write and how you can present it in the clearest manner to your audience (in this case, me). And get it done on time.
Also, that we have an excellent Writing Center on campus, and if you have any concerns about writing well, please contact the Writing Center and ask for help. You want the best paper you can do. Remember–I take your work seriously, so you should too: hand in your best work!
Good luck! I expect good papers!
Professor of Sociology
The Cost of Being Poor:
A Comparative Study of Life in Poor Urban Neighborhoods in Gary, Indiana
By Sandra L. Barnes
Albany: State University Press of New York, 2005
Reviewed by Kim Scipes
Sandra L. Barnes has produced a study of Gary, Indiana that deserves attention. Dr. Barnes has examined a city that has suffered extreme economic and social devastation—the population has declined from 175,000 in 1970 to 103,000 in 2000; 25.8 percent of those remaining were living below the poverty line in 2000; and where stable employment, social services, and quality commercial services have been devastated —to try to understand how those remaining cope with such devastation. Gary’s population is also approximately 90 percent people of color, with 84 percent being African-American. And while Gary’s percentage of African-Americans is 84 percent, compared to 82% in Detroit and 53% in Flint, MI, in a considerable number of demographic details (from 2002), Gary is comparable to these other rust belt cities, giving the study an importance beyond just Gary.
Barnes focuses on “a specific set of challenges or ‘costs’ incurred by residents in a poor urban center” (p. 1). She sees urban poverty as being a “structural” force that residents are forced to address, and then identifies their “agency” in doing so. She recognizes that there are not only economic but non-economic, socio-psychological affects on people as well. Barnes then examines the effects of both poverty andliving in a poor urban area.
Barnes rejects the “structure vs. agency” discourse, arguing that it serves as “rather divergent frames of references that lie on a continuum.” Further, she argues that, “A comprehensive investigation on the relationship between structure and agency means acknowledging: 1) problems and less prudent choices residents make; 2) that mainstream beliefs remain common among historically impoverished groups; 3) optimism and cynicism among urban dwellers with similar economic experiences; 4) possible fluid identities in the face of harsh reality; 5) productive, proactive attitudes and behavior that are supported in theory and exhibited as neighborhood conditions improve; and 6) correlates between urban problems and political economic decisions made outside urban spaces” (p. 6).
With this understanding, Barnes then provides detailed research as to how her 25 subject poor or “near-poor” families manage to feed and clothe themselves. It should be noted that her sample has been skewed toward women with dependent children. What she finds is that her subjects are active, not passive, in their efforts; that they benefit from being part of particular social networks usually connected to their biological families, especially parents; and that their efforts take them outside of Gary as they seek quality goods and services at the cheapest possible price. She also notes that by shopping in nearby suburban centers, residents are removing some of the capital needed to re-establish commercial services in Gary, thus contributing to the on-going social devastation that they are subject to. Interesting findings, and ones she clearly hopes will contribute to efforts to revitalize her home town.
Yet, as good as her study is—and what she focuses on is quite good—I’m troubled by what she failed to include. There is almost no mention of US Steel, which built the city and which remains the predominant economic actor in the area—and without that, one cannot understand the social impact of decisions to replace steel workers with technology, or to shut down individual mills, both factors that contributed to an extensive loss of jobs in the city and surrounding areas. Along with that, there is no consideration of decisions made by the dominant union in the area, the United Steel Workers of America, in its approach to unionism, and particularly its long-time acceptance of racial discrimination by US Steel, which meant that workers of color would be disproportionately affected by large-scale “downsizing”—and since relatively few white steelworkers lived in Gary, this disproportionately affected the city of Gary. Nor does she discuss the impact of decisions made by local government that have often times intensified the social devastation in Gary—for instance, between 1996-2000, Gary granted over $125 million in tax rebates, 94 percent of which went to US Steel, in futile efforts to entice economic development, but which meant that social, medical and educational services were cut back further due to lack of available funds.
Yet even if these factors were beyond the purview of her study, by skewing her subjects to women with dependent children, she missed much of the male experience of poverty, and particularly that experienced by young, single males: I’m specifically thinking of widespread unemployment, violence, drugs and gangs, along with oftentimes oppressive policing, all of which have been rampant in Gary. And, of course, these factors affect women and children.
Further, there is a methodological problem as well. Of her 25 respondents, only 12 resided in Gary at the time of her research—others had relocated, had relatives in Gary, or shopped at times in Gary. While I don’t think this invalidated her findings overall, she would have been on stronger grounds to have only included Gary residents in her sample, or certainly included a much larger proportion of Gary residents. This research design, however, invalidates the comparative nature of life within Gary that the book’s sub-title trumpets: she mostly compares life inside the city with life outside of it. This illuminates her claims in ways a study confined to Gary could not, but that is not what is projected.
In short, an important effort with interesting results that deserve attention but, ultimately, a study that does not provide all it claims. Much of the weakness could probably be overcome by reorganizing and limiting claims. Despite my criticisms, however, I think this research has contributed important findings to our understanding of the affects of poverty—especially through recognizing the additional affects of being poor while living in an impoverished area—and with the detailed reporting of how she conducted her research, should provide a strong base from which further research on these issues can proceed.