Book Review Presentation

HIST 615/635: History of the Cold War
Prof. Steven E. Harris
Re: Book Reviews and Book Review Presentations
Why do we write book reviews? Along with books and articles, book reviews are a
specific genre of writing that historians undertake. All of the major journals in history,
such as the American Historical Review and the Journal of Modern History, feature a
large number of book reviews in each of their editions.
There are several reasons why historians write book reviews and read those
written by other historians. First, the book review is one of the most basic ways in which
other historians learn about recently published works and new trends and topics in
historical scholarship. In addition, with so many books published yearly, book reviews
help historians sort out what may or may not be worth reading. Second, a reviewer offers
a professional critique of the book in order to point out its strengths and weaknesses. He
or she evaluates the quality and depth of the historian’s research, the originality and
strength of the book’s argument, and the quality of the historian’s writing and ability to
present his or her evidence and ideas in a clear way. Third, a good reviewer reflects on
the book’s place and importance in relation to other books written on similar topics.
Does the book merely add more information to our understanding of a specific topic or
does it also present us with a new and different way of thinking about that topic? Most
good books do both.
Your book review assignment: Your book review (about 4-5 pages, double spaced)
should address the following: 1) an overview of the book’s main subject matter, the
author(s)’ main questions, and the author(s)’ main arguments; 2) a critique of the
arguments and their originality, the scholar(s)’ methodology, quality of research, strength
of evidence, etc.; 3) the book’s relationship to the overall literature on the Cold War.
You need not address these points in this order, but they should be covered over
the course of your review. In critiquing the arguments of a book, be sure to draw upon
specific chapters and evidence presented in the book. Your review should also give the
reader a sense of the kind of sources used and whether or not they sufficiently support the
arguments made. Of course, you need to be very selective when drawing upon specific
examples since you only have 4-5 pages and want to use only the most illustrative ones in
order to make your case. If you’re reviewing one of the collected volumes on the reading
list, you probably won’t be able to mention the article of every contributor, so focus on
the ones you believe to be the most important.
On the book’s place in the field: You are not expected to have read the Cold War
history canon in situating the book in the field! However, how does this book compare or
contrast with books you may have already read on the Cold War, or with commonly
accepted conclusions – popular and/or scholarly – about the Cold War? Did you actually
learn something new – either factually or, more interestingly, about how to think about
the Cold War historically? What type of history does this book adhere to – high politics,
diplomatic, social and cultural, economic, military? And finally, what kinds of questions
for future research does this book raise?
At the end of the day, a good book review tells the reader what’s good about it
and what isn’t. Be critical, even harshly critical, but be sure to back up your criticisms
(and your praise for the book) with your own convincing points.
Finally, some research advice: read what others have written about this book –
specifically in book reviews, review essays, and review articles published in the major
academic journals such as those indicated above (review essays address several works
together on a common theme; review articles address an entire subfield). This is a good
way to think about where the book fits in the field. Obviously, reading these reviews
does not relieve you of the responsibility to read the book yourself and offer your own
criticisms, but it can help in thinking about the bigger issues and sharpening your own
thinking. Of course, if you draw something specific from a book review, review essay, or
review article, be sure to cite it in your book review.
Book Review Presentation: Your task here is to give a 5-10 minute presentation in class
on the book you’ve read. Your presentation should cover basically the same ground as
your book review. In order to address the larger historiographical issues and
controversies of a book and its author(s), try to include, if possible, more in your
presentation on what other historians have said about this book in their own book
reviews, review essays, and review articles. Apart from that, the format is up to you. If
you feel more comfortable reading from a script, you may do so. Alternatively, if you
wish to speak from notes in a more conversational style, you may do so as well. Apart
from covering the basics of your book review, a good presentation raises interesting
questions about that book that helps to structure the class discussion on the book that