When I was 15 years old, I would greatly struggle with my ability to fall asleep at night. In order to help combat this issue I decided to pick up a book from Barnes & Noble that I could read before bed hoping that it would help me to fall asleep faster. This plan ultimately backfired as when I got into bed that night and started reading, I just couldn’t stop. With each page turned I found myself becoming more entrenched in the storyline and even more attached to each character, before I knew it, the sun was up. From that point on I became hooked on reading.
Although I’ve read hundreds of books since that night, I didn’t start blogging about them until the summer after I graduated from college. I had no idea what I was looking for while reading or how to write a review, so I just wrote down my thoughts and feeling because that was what other small bloggers were doing. After a quick Google search, I found that reviewing can not only be easy, but can be done in as simple as 6 steps. These steps include discussing characters, world-building, and plot line. As I continued to grow my knowledge of reviews on Instagram and YouTube, I started to notice a pattern. The reviews on these platforms were simply expressing what they liked and disliked about the book, as opposed to looking at the book from a critical perspective.
For the past year I have devoted my time to crafting quick and superficial reviews. In order to enhance my abilities to do this I decided to take an in-depth look into what constitutes a critical review, how one is written, and who I should be looking at online to help further my understanding. Through my research I have discovered numerous elements, that are located below, that make up the best practices of book reviewing.
How to read a book
In order to improve we must start from the beginning, it’s time to go back to basics. How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler & Charles Van Doren was originally published in the 1940s, yet its information remains relevant. This book teaches the four levels of reading in conjunction with how to read different types of books.
- Elementary reading: reading that is done prior to high school.
- Inspectional reading: a minimally invasive and superficial reading of a book.
- Analytical reading: Dissecting and analyzing the book in order to understand its core concepts and the message that it is trying to share.
- Syntopical reading: reading multiple books on the same or similar subjects, and then comparing them to craft a better understanding of the subject .
Jeremy Anderberg does a great job of further illuminating some of the concepts found in How to Read a Book, but his focus centers more on Inspectional vs. Analytical reading. He illustrates that there is a distinct difference between simply picking up a book and reading it versus digging deeper into what the book is truly about. If you want to start writing your reviews in a critical manner, this is a great place to start.
How to write a critical review
So how do you write a critical review? An article from Queens College provides eight analytical and straightforward questions to ask yourself while writing a critical review.
- What is the book’s main argument?
- Who seems to be the intended audience for the book?
- How is the book structured?
- Does the structure of the book (its various parts and chapters) reinforce its larger argument? How?
- What kinds of sources, or examples, does the book offer in support of its argument, and which are most (and least) effective? Why?
- Does the book engage other writers’ works on the same subject and, even if not, how would you position the book in relation to other texts you are aware of on the same subject?
- Does the author seem biased or prejudiced in any way and, if so, is that prejudice or bias the product of the author’s own background, as far as you can tell?
- How persuasive is the book (if certain aspects are more persuasive than others, explain why)?
These eight questions are perfect for separating an inspectional review from an analytical review. They provoke critical thinking and engage better writing skills. With time and practice, the answers to these questions will become easier to answer. Notice that these questions both cycle back to to main point of the book’s argument, in addition to expanding beyond its contents. Through this deeper expansion into the main point of the book, and the use of outside influences one can better determine the impact that a book will have on its readers.
For the majority of my life I had always thought that the point of a novel was simply to tell a story. Now, looking from a deeper perspective, I realize that I have only scratched the surface of what it means to truly read a novel, and I cannot wait to dig deeper.
Positives and negatives
Although there are a multitude of positives that have become associated with the practice of critically reviewing books, there are some accompanying negatives.
For the past couple of years, critics have questioned the decline of book reviews and asked themselves the question of why criticism matters. There have even been controversies surrounding if professional reviews make a difference and accusations of conflicts of interest.
At the end of the day, there is hope. Book reviews do have a point, and they serve an important purpose, especially for independent authors. These reviews are able to provide a powerful insight into why a reader should pick up the book. But sometimes, even the most positive and outstanding review isn’t enough of a motivator to get the book off the shelves. What does it all mean? Essentially there is no perfect system. With every reaction there is an equal and opposite reaction, but what we can hope to do is strike the right balance with our critical reviews to help readers feel inspired to pick up a book and dig in.
Reviewers and sites to look for
When seeking inspectional reviews, one can begin their search at Goodreads, Instagram, or “Bookstagram,” as they are perfect for quick reviews and recommendations. For more in-depth, professional, and critical reviews, look at BookMark, as it is an ideal place to find snippets of expert reviews. (I just found this site this week and am still in the process of fully exploring the site.) In addition, the site breaks the review down into pan, mixed, positive, and rave reviews, thus creating a easy user experience while navigating the site. Beyond this, BookMark is an exemplary place to browse for examples to further one’s understanding of the tone that is used in professional reviews.
Now the questions becomes, whose reviews should I be reading? Luckily there are sites that feature lists of reviewers, in order to help direct readers to the top critics. These reviewers predominately tend to be editors for top literary magazines, such as Michiko Kakutani, the former chief book critic for the New York Times and recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism. However, this is just one cog in a might machine as is evident from Reader’s Digest’s list of 10 Literary Critics to Know. In fact, some well known classic writers such as George Orwell, Oscar Wilde, and T.S. Eliot are also known for their contributions to literary criticism.
Although we have covered substantial ground in this post with regards to what makes a critical review, we still have much to cover. I have unearthed a sizable amount of information on this topic but I still have a lot of digging ahead of me until I strike literary gold. I look forward to mining further into the industry that I one day hope to join.
Five Best Books on Literary Criticism.
The University of Carolina Writing Center
More Reviewers to Watch:
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