Today rather briefly, I wanted to give a few reasons on the Do’s and Don’ts of book reviews. The first reason I do book reviews is that I love to read and regularly read well over one hundred books a year. Ever since I learned to read, I loved reading books of all genres. At the age of thirteen I became interested in theology and started reading everything I could from studying the Bible to church history. People in church at this time often commented that if I continued to read the way I was doing the Lord might call me to be a Pastor; the ironic thing about that statement is they had no idea at this point I was called to be a Pastor. Most of my reading today is either reading from my Bible or in the areas of biblical or systematic theology, church history, or Apologetics.
The second reason I review books is tied to why book reviews are important. While reading many books can be a good thing I’ve learned over the years of reading as much as I have that not thinking through what the author is saying is a bad practice and even harmful to my walk with God. J.C. Ryle once said, “Whatever you read, read the Bible first. Beware of bad books: there are plenty in this day. Take heed what you read.” We should read our Bible’s first and then other good books second. Reading others books and not reading your Bible is dangerous because it elevates the place of books over the Book- the Bible. This is a real danger for anyone who does much reading and one I guard against by first opening my Bible and spending time in the Word of God in the mornings before I get to other books I have to read for seminary or publishers.
While reading a book I’m going to review I look for important statements the author makes such as, “This is the purpose of the book” or statements that seem to indicate that the author is making a significant point to the argument he wants to advance in his/her book. While this may seem like common sense it nevertheless is important to note in one’s review. Part of the purpose of a good book review is to help the reader ascertain whether the author accomplishes his/her goal or not so they can determine if they should read the book.
To not identify the purpose of the book is a major no, no in doing book reviews. With that said, I don’t always note the purpose of the book but may instead give some idea of the structure of the book. For example, if the book has four parts, I would outline what those parts are, so the reader would have an idea of what the book discusses. Whether you state explicitly what the author’s goals are for his/her book, or you give an idea of the structure of the book; giving the reader some idea of what is in the book will help them determine whether the book is interesting and worth their time and money to read.
Giving some idea of how you benefited from the book makes your book review personal. In the past year or so I’ve been doing this more in my book reviews and finding that people find it helpful. My general rule of thumb is to spend one to two paragraphs describing what I got out of the book. I will then discuss why the topic is important or what I got out of a particular section in the book. Sometimes I’ll go past one or two paragraphs, but not very often, and rarely will I go over one or two pages in my reviews unless the topic needs to be further explored.
One of the more sticky areas in doing book reviews is providing criticism to the book. My personal rule of thumb is to focus on the good in the book rather than highlighting only the negative. When we focus only on the negative in our reviews, we do a disservice to the author and others may feel that we are being too critical. It’s important that as Christians we provide grace and truth feedback. Providing grace and truth feedback means speaking to one another in a way that we would want to be spoken to. I have seen it happen time and time again where a reviewer will attack an author for a point they weren’t even addressing in a book. As book reviewers if we are going to provide thoughtful feedback we need to response in a way that is thoughtful and godly.
When I provide critical feedback I will first highlight the positive of where I think the author does well. This not only helps the author to feel that I understood his arguments but it also helps the reader to understand that not everything in the book is bad. Failing on this point is critical because the writer believed enough in his/her topic to write on it, so the reviewer should acknowledge where the writer has been successful. My general rule of thumb when providing critical feedback is to focus one or two things and not everything. Again the purpose is not to overwhelm but to provide thoughtful feedback. When I provide critical feedback, I also make sure that I’m not making assumptions, but engaging the author’s thoughts from the book. This approach has worked well for me but it may not for you. Since every book may hit someone differently each review will be different even as every reviewer is different. This means that each review will be individualized, but our approach to book reviews should be one of grace and truth to help provide feedback to the author and help future readers of the book determine whether to read the book or not.
Book reviews provide a model for discernment when not only the question, “Why should I read this book?” is answered for others readers, but also when reasons are given that explain how the book personally ministered to the reader. A model book review will not only do these things but also address the most fundamental questions of all for the Christian reader, which is, “Is this book biblical?” and “Will this book bring me (the reader) to Gospel and help me grow deeper into the Gospel?”
To be discerning one needs to open up their Bible; read it, study it, know it, and meditate upon it. To be a discerning reader one needs to think through the author’s arguments and be able to explain whether the arguments are biblical or not, and elaborate on where they fall short. On this point if the reviewer feels that the author is wrong biblically or theologically he/she should charitably state the reasons why they feel the author is wrong rather than make accusations against the author. My point here is that a book review is not just a summary of the book itself, but ought to be written in such a way as to advance the discussion on the topic the book addresses.
Books are written to advance ideas and book reviews are written to further the discussion the author has started. A good book review doesn’t just answer questions related to why the book was written but rather asks questions of the book in order to advance the discussion. A good review written in this way can be of great help to other readers not only to further the topic but also to help the readers of the review learn to model charitable dialogue between brothers and sisters in Christ. In other words a book review written well will serve the Church and strengthen the church in its task to advance the kingdom of God.
Dave is a Christian, husband to Sarah, freelance writer, avid golfer, and the Director of Servants of Grace Ministries.