The Dos and Don’ts of Book Reviews (or at least how I do them)

Anyone who’s been reading this blog for a while has probably noticed I do a lot of book reviews, typically one per week. Recently I was asked about how I do book reviews—do I have a general guideline or process, or is approach different every time?

I tried to give a short, 140 character response, but realized that it wasn’t enough, because, frankly, “yes” is an insufficient answer.

So, for better or for worse, here’s a look into my reviewing process:

General Precepts

1. Read with the intention of reviewing. This might seem like a “duh,” but I read a lot material for a variety of purposes, and it’s not always about reviewing. Knowing I’m going to review it forces me to make sure I’m paying careful attention to what is written.

2. The “who” is less important than the “what.” Whenever I’m reading an author I genuinely enjoy, it’s easy to simply just say “I like it,” without necessarily considering what’s been written. Whether it’s MacArthur, Driscoll, Piper, Sproul, Chan or whoever is the cat’s meow, it’s important to not let preference for the person dictate approval (or disapproval) of the content. (Side note, brownie points to the person who can tell me if I used the correct form of “whoever/whomever.” :))

3. Don’t fill-in-the-blanks. When someone writes a very…ambiguous book, it’s tempting to start filling-in-the-blanks with my own theological presuppositions. A lot of books that don’t stand up against even the most rudimentary understanding of Scripture have been embraced by many evangelicals. This is why.

4. Acknowledge my biases. Similarly, I need to be aware (as best as I’m able) of my own biases and predispositions. This will reflect how I approach books by authors I don’t enjoy or who I know hold to a different theological position than I do.

5. Try to be humble. Everybody goofs sometimes. Not everyone who says something stupid is a heretic. And not everything I think is wrong actually is. Something I am continually to do (with varying degrees of success) is acknowledge that I can make mistakes and when I do, I need to be corrected. This, incidentally, is why comments can be helpful.

Guiding Questions

1. What is the main idea the author is trying to convey? Can I figure out what the big idea of the book is and articulate it in one or two sentences?

2. How does the author support his/her idea(s)? Scripture, tradition, history, illustrations from real life examples… every point made needs to be backed up with something. If it’s nothing more than “I think,” chances are, it’s wrong.

3. How does the author handle Scripture (if reading a Christian book)? How an author approaches Scripture is an indicator of their trustworthiness.

4. Do I agree with the author’s main idea? Why or why not?  Can I support my position with appropriate Scripture? In the same way that an author’s assertions must be tested against Scripture , so too must my assessments. If my position cannot be supported by Scripture, it must be rejected.

5. What difference does it make? While there are always some things that you read for which you don’t have an immediate practical application, the question of “what difference does it make in my life” is essential for why determining whether or not to recommend a book.

So that pretty much covers it. I’m sure I could come back to this later today and add a few other items. But if you’re interested in the process of reviewing books (or at least how I do it), I hope today’s post has been helpful!

  • http://cleverphrasehere.blogspot.com/ Amber

    Yes, you used “whoever” correctly as “whoever” is the subject of that clause. If it was the object rather than the subject, then you would use “whomever,” such as: “I read whomever I please.”

    Where’s my brownie?

    • http://www.bloggingtheologically.com Aaron Armstrong

      I’ll have it for you when you’re in town for your review :)

  • http://kevinfiske.wordpress.com Kevin Fiske

    Helpful thoughts…thanks Aaron!

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  • Keystone

    I, too, am a believer in paying close attention to what is written, and actually said…..not implied.

    For example, Amber wants a brownie, and Aaron will give her one.
    But a brownie was never promised. Brownie, as used above, is an adjective.
    The promise was points, albeit, I have no clue how Aaron will deliver on his promise…..for points!

    In book reviewing, I do wish you would more often add a paragraph, or excerpt that pretty much sums why the book is worth note, or ignoring. In the author’s own words, you can eclipse all judgment and let the author draw attention or doom to themself. (themselves???).
    I know you have occasionally done this. Perhaps all reviews require it.

    A slight switch here, in topic. Recently, I wrote a comment, proofread, hit “submit”….a curious form of “send”, eh?…..and all became lost in cyberspace.
    Time precluded doing the entire comment again.

    Many believers are church shopping, or even going away from church and into home/church, or cyber church….reading blogs and the like. I think it would be of great use to this audience to have a review of some of this material. Indeed, Aaron may even put a “submit” of links to be reviewed.

    All of this came about after I read a blog post defending the scriptural basis for denial of the Rapture. It was on a Catholic, nay, MILITANT Catholic blog. I am familiar with most denominations of believers in Jesus Christ, and try to dismiss denominational doctrine, from revelation by the Holy Spirit in any book, blog, comment, or read. This is true in conversation as well, allowing me fellowship with any and all denominations devoted to Christ, with biblical accuracy.

    II am interested in anyone’s “take” on the following link, and I would hope to see more BLOG reviews here, as they grow in importance, in an age when books are in disarray, and frankly, decline. The kiddos want Ipod and video, to multitask, and give little full attention to either task underway.

    Aaron, consider blog reviews too.
    Audience, I appreciate input on this article from a blogpost.

    I will take a step here I rarely do, and go so far as to say, I have a real and growing feeling inside, that the following link needs discussed now, by many. Consider you, being a “many”:
    http://deepertruthblog.blogspot.com/2010/10/catholic-defender-gets-caught-up-in.html

  • http://elehack.net/jennifer Jennifer Ekstrand

    This comment is a bit tardy, but I have found this post useful. The advice to not “fill-in-the-blanks” is something that has crossed my mind more than once when reading a book I intend to review.

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