Suggestions for the Appraisal of Non-Fiction Books
Suggestions as to the methods of work:
Read the preface and other introductory material carefully. After reading
the book, consider formally the central theme or subject of the work and
how the rest of the work is related to that theme. Consider also what critical
comments can be made, and again write down ideas as they occur to you.
Some reviewers seek to finish the reading a week of ten days before the
review is due. In any case, leave yourself time to revise the review for
English, and clearness and copy.
Suggestions as to the content of the appraisal:
A review usually contains two parts: summary of the book, and critical
comment. A skillful reviewer weaves these together. Many reviewers, in
the course of their discussion, reflect upon and convey to the reader the
answers to three main questions:
What is the book about? This query of course, leads to others. Does the
book have a central theme? Does it argue a thesis? What was the author's
purpose in writing the book? He or she may have stated this explicitly
in a preface or conclusion; on the other hand it may be implied within
the book. How well was the author's purpose accomplished? Was it really
accomplish it, or did the author do something else? At some point in the
review, try to summarize the theme, or thesis or subject in a single sentence
or in a paragraph. In no case, however, should the statement on the content
on the book exceed, in this type review, 1000 words.
Is the book reliable? One should ask of a non-fiction book not simply,
"Is it interesting?" but also, "Is it historically reliable, accurate?"
In fact, the last question should come first. History can be readable and
interesting, but if it isn't reliable, it isn't history. There is nothing
very mysterious about the process of appraising the reliability of a history
book, or of any nonfiction account. When the intelligent student hears
a bit of unusually interesting gossip in the dormitory, he or she does
not swallow it credulously, unquestioningly, at face value. They ask the
source of the gossip; ask themselves, who passed it along? What special
interest might the teller have in circulating the story? The critical reviewer
must learn to cultivate the same reluctance in accepting the written word
as that displayed toward idle gossip. He or she must ask of any history
book: Who is the author? How old is the author? Has the author written
any other books? What were the author's qualifications for writing this
particular book? Has the author written any books on a related subject?
Is the author a free-lance writer, or a university professor? (Be on guard
against both types.)
Where did the author secure the information? From primary sources? From
travel? From documents? Or from what others have written about the subject
(that is, from secondary authorities)? How does the author indicate where
the material was obtained--in a bibliography, with footnotes, in the preface,
introduction, or acknowledgement, or by casual asides within the text?
Sometimes the author provides an appendix of facsimile documents to indicate
the material on which the book is based. In whatever ways the author provides
the origin of his information, the reviewer should learn to look for them,
and should give information in his review as to the nature of the sources
on which the author relied. Are the sources of information reliable? Why
or why not? Is the book based on contemporary accounts (diaries, letters,
speeches, or newspapers) of people who actually saw the event or on flimsy
evidence? Are the contemporary accounts credible? If the book is based
on secondary sources, are these reputable accounts? Mention precisely what
types of books are employed. Does the author use the evidence with care
and discrimination? Does the author read into the evidence ideas or facts
that are not there?