How I Do Book Reviews

March 9, 2012 — 13 Comments

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As you might have noticed, I do quite a few book reviews on the blog. My approach has evolved over the last several months (actually, almost a year at this point!), and this post is an expansion on a previous one. I’m trying to solidify a distinctive style that is conversational (which is easier for you to read) yet also provides all the pertinent information (and then some). All of this comes to you via my own unique vantage point, which happens to include a seminary class on doing effective book reviews (although I should note, any shoddy reviews on my part is not due to poor training).

Generally, my approach to book reviews takes several steps:

  • Search out books I’d like to read and review
  • Send request to publishers
  • Read the book
  • Write the review

Let’s look at each of these briefly:

Search out books I’d like to read and review

This comes somewhat naturally since a) I like books, b) I often find myself in bookstores, and c) the internet. Most of what I read is either related to personal research interests, or areas that will improve my own theological thinking. I also try to think what other people might be interested in learning more about, and in some cases books that I think more people should be reading. So, on the one hand, I really read for myself, but on the other hand, I don’t just read for myself and I want my reading to contribute your own personal growth and theological formation. Part of that means I read upstream from popular theology books so that I can invite you to swim into deeper waters.

Send request to publishers

Right now, I would say I have a good working relationship with the following publishers:

I have also received books for review from ContinuumFortress Press, Westminster John Knox, P&R Publishing, and Thomas Nelson.

In general, the bullet pointed publishers are the ones I tend to read the most books from. I’m still working on getting some Eerdmans books in the mix. Not sure if they’ve denied my book requests, or if it just takes a little bit longer than usual. Anyway, the idea is that I’ll send an email to the appopriate contact person or fill out the appropriate form to request a book I’m interested in reading/reviewing. I’ll then either get a response, or I’ll get a surprise in the mail a few days/weeks later.

I should note here that much of what got me started in requesting books was this post by Nick Norelli. You ought to read his post about the requesting process since he has much more experience and working relationships than I do.

Read the Book

This may seem like an obvious point, once the book shows up, I need to figure out when I will go about reading it. Though most people have better ethics than this, it is not uncommon to simply to take a requested book and treat it as a free book with no further obligation. It’s a shame this happens, and I want to do all I can to keep up my end of the bargain, and generally to do so in a timely manner.

For the first several months, I somewhat indiscriminately sent out book requests and then found myself inundated with books to read/review. Because of that, I probably did more reading last year than any year of seminary even though I was only in formal class the first 4 months of the year. Now, I’m a little more strategic in both requests and reading sequence.

For the actual reading, I typically read with a pen in hand, and bracket out statements I think are important. There is simultaneously an art and science to this sort of thing, and my approach was molded by reading these books:

Much of what I bracket out and take notes on is what I intuitively recognize to be important to the argument of the book. I can do this because I am very familiar with the genre of writing and so it comes somewhat naturally for me. I pay close attention to the preface and introduction and look for statements that the author gives about his purpose in writing and then use that as a measuring stick. For instance, it would be illegitimate to criticize the author for not accomplishing a purpose in his book that he wasn’t trying to accomplish in the first place.

Beyond that, I’m looking for places within the book where the author summarizes chapters and ideas and I star those so I can come back and find them when I do the review. In general though, when I’ve given a book a close reading, I can usually explain the gist of it in a blog post without recourse to quotations. I will include them though for several reasons:

  • They capture exactly what the author said
  • They illustrate the style of the prose the author used
  • They give you places to look up and cross reference what I’ve said

Once I think I’ve laid out sufficiently what the author is talking about in the book, I’ll offer comments on what I liked or disliked. I don’t have a set form for this kind of subjective response. Sometimes I am very critical of a book, but generally, since I scoped it out ahead of time before requesting it, I has a good idea it was something I suspected I might enjoy. For that reason, many of my reviews are generally positive with the overly critical one being the exception rather than the rule.

Write the Review

Now that we’re almost 1000 words into the post, I better give you what you were looking for from the title right?

When it comes to actually reviewing the book, I’ll draft out a framework post that has a book link, book cover, and publisher link. Then, I’ll introduce the book in some way, making it either relevant to something going on in the evangelical world, or something going on with me, our church, or just my blog in general. I may or may not comment on the author’s credentials. I’m assuming you can Google that sort of thing, so in recent posts, I’ve just been jumping into talking about the book. I generally devote most of the post to the synopsis and then close out with my own impressions, likes, and dislikes.

Starting now though, I’m going to return to offering a statsheet that looks something like this:

  • Book Binding: How many pages it has
  • Publisher: Link to publisher (When it was released)
  • Link to Amazon
  • Link to Westminster
  • Link to Monergism (if applicable)
  • Reading Level
  • Triperspectival Vantage Point

The first couple of points are standard fare on sites like Amazon. I had been offering  them in reviews right at the top, then moved them to the bottom, then dropped them altogether. I think though I ought to still include them, but they’ll be hanging out at the bottom of the actual review.

The shopping site links are for your benefit, and if you’re so inclined, as a way to tip me for a good review. Westminster tracks clicks and Amazon and Monergism track sales. Simply clicking through the Westminster links adds up to more books for me, and potentially more reviews for you, so basically we all win.

After that, I’m going to start including a reading level grade, again, for your benefit. One of the books from this week I gave a “doctoral” grade. That’s an easy way to tell right away what kind of prose you’re about to dive into. Typically, I’ll break the grades down like this:

  • Doctoral (you’ll need to well-read in academic theology or pursuing a Ph.D to manage this book)
  • Seminary (you’ll need to be in seminary or just have read a lot of theology books)
  • Bible School (you’ll need to be acquainted with the general contours of the Bible and theology, either from Bible school or your own reading/church’s teaching)
  • New Reader (you’ll just need to be able to read and be interested in the subject to jump right in)

In addition, I’m going to start offering a triperpsectival grade. Typically, for church leadership, people are viewed as one of the following, and likely to enjoy certain books:

  • Prophets (books on theology, commentaries, philosophy, and other more theoretical/academic domains)
  • Priests (books that are person-centered and more practically minded, such as counseling resources or applicational bible studies)
  • Kings (books on method in bible interpretation, leadership, organization, or history)

As you might guess, most of the books I offer on here will appeal to prophets types, though I do review quite a bit of practical theology books that will appeal to priests. My current excursions may appeal to the more kingly types as explore better methods of bible interpretation. For the rationale behind who tends to like which types of books, I probably need to offer another post. The general idea though is that prophets value truth, priests value people, and kings value methods and structures. Ideally, all three should work together in ministry. But, in reality, people tend to major in one area or the other. So long as people work together though, this shouldn’t be a problem. Prophets can help ground priests in truth, and priests can help prophets not just care about books and knowledge. Kings can help both work together and not kill each other.

In the end, hopefully I can offer something for everyone in my reviews. That is, everyone except the person who doesn’t like books.

But then again, if you don’t like reading, you probably won’t be reading my blog in the first place!

Nate

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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

13 responses to How I Do Book Reviews

  1. Nice post.

    But: link to Westminster? link to Monergism?

    I need to take you out of my RSS feed.

    (Though it could be argued that the fact that you’re currently in my RSS feed is proof that God intended this.)

    • Craig,

      I can’t tell if you’re joking (like there should one of these ;) at the end your statement) or if you’re serious about the RSS feed removal. I’m assuming you’re joking with me, and was wondering when you might notice the mismatch. I am hoping I’m proof that you can be a rather ardent Calvinist and not come off as abrasive and uninterested in dialoguing and reading widely.

      Nate

  2. I’ve found most success in finding books from publishers who offer a specific program and less success with those who don’t. For instance with IVP, I’ve sent multiple requests and got the thank you for asking (they did provide a 30% discount code). Any tips on sending those requesting as far as what to say or not say.

    • I think that’s the easiest way to break in. I really started with Crossway and went from there.

      With IVP, I’ve never actually gotten an email response, but pretty much everything I’ve requested has shown up in the mail. I just sent a batch of new requests the other day so we’ll see what happens in the meantime. I think honestly what solidified my place as a reviewer from their perspective was the several month long intensive review of The Christian Faith, and that I have 3 reviews at this point that have been published in journals.

      Read Nick’s post on the requesting process (or my earlier one), but I always try to approach it from a marketing standpoint if I don’t already have a rapport (and often even if I do). In other words, ask yourself why they, as a publisher, should want or look forward to you as a specific blogger reviewing their books. I try to either tie into something I’m doing on the blog, or something that I plan on doing.

      Does that help at all?

      • Yes very much so and that was part of my own suspicion. I”ve focused primarily on more popular level books and haven’t done any major reviews on longer works. With IVP that was part of my request (trying to review a more theologically robust book) but I may need to buy a book and start the review process first to have something to show. I’ve started reading Contours of Pauline Theology for review which is more robustly theological and will be reading/reviewing A Theology of Jonathan Edwards start in May. So maybe that will help.

        Which of your reviews were published? Are they on your blog? I’m interested in reading them. Yes very helpful I’ve been in process of updating my own reviewing process so this was a big help. Thanks for helpful thoughts!

        • I think working through Edwards book will definitely help.

          The reviews published were the one on The Christian Faith, The Doctrine of the Word of God, In The Beginning, and Raised With Christ. The first was published in the Criswell Theological Review, and the latter in Bibliotheca Sacra (Dallas Seminary’s journal). I may try to do more reviews like that, but part of what I’m trying to do on here is present academic works in popular language to encourage others to read them. Academic reviews can do that, but the intended audience of the review is different.

  3. Hi Nate – I’m wondering if you’d be interested in reviewing the book “Exploring Prosperity Preaching: Biblical Health, Wealth, and Wisdom” by Debra Mumford. I noted you addressed this topic back in December, and I think you’d like this new resource. We’re having a blog tour the week of June 4. If you can join us then, that’d be great, or if you need more time, we’d appreciate a post whenever it works for you. Let me know if you’d like to receive a copy.

    Kim

    • Kim,

      That book sounds interesting, but right now I’m not taking on any unplanned books until the end of summer. It’s not really a subject I’m super interested in exploring in detail at least as it stands right now. That could change in the future, and I can let you know if it does! Thanks for the offer!

      Nate

  4. Would it be possible to send you a book for review? If so, how can I get it to you? Thanks!

    • It depends on the book. Generally, I don’t take unsoliticed books for review unless I’m super interested in reading it.

      What do you have in mind?

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