Behind the Scenes at OHR: The Book Review

In the fourth installment of our series exploring behind the scenes at OHR, book review editor Nancy MacKay talks about the ins and outs of writing a review for the journal. We always are looking for smart readers like you to take on a book or media project to review!

By Nancy MacKay

The equation is simple: Book + Reviewer = Book Review, voila, the review is written, published, read by all of you, and the author can bathe in the attention that justifies their years of research. But this simplicity is deceptive. There are many variables hidden in the equation that affect the final published review and the impact it will have on the author of the book, the intended readers, and the scholarly community over time. Many of these variables are determined by circumstances outside the control of the reviewer, such as books chosen for review, editorial policy of the publication, the readers of the journal, and serendipity. That’s for another day; in this post I’ll share my thoughts on the components of a good book review and how the process works here at OHR.

“A genuinely useful review goes beyond a mere summary of a book’s content, beyond a mere catalogue of missteps, and provides substantive intellectual engagement with, and evaluation of, its argument. What makes a review a serious contribution to scholarship is the reviewer’s contextualization and analysis of the book’s value to scholarship in the discipline.” — Lynn Worsham

Why Book Reviews?

Last month I polled some OHR reviewers with this question, raised by the Australian author John East: if writing a thoughtful book review is time-consuming and is not especially valuable on a reviewer’s C/V, then why put so much time into writing it? I was gratified to see from the responses that OHR reviewers had no problem taking all that time to write reviews, citing the personal satisfaction of sharing their expertise, reading deeply and analyzing a book, and exploring a subject in depth as the rewards of the task. 

It’s great that OHR reviewers find the work gratifying, but what about the value of book reviews to our scholarly community? The answer to this question is not as enthusiastic. Lynne Worsham, editor of JAC: A Journal of Rhetoric, Culture, & Politics begins skeptically in “The Endangered Scholarly Book Review,” lamenting that fellow journal editors worry that reviews eat up valuable journal space that could be used for articles, require too much editorial time for the benefit derived, are too often poorly written, and not read with frequency. Kevin Steinmetz, book review editor of Journal of Qualitative Criminal Justice and Criminology, also weighs in on the value of book reviews, citing the most practical benefit of book reviews as a way for scholars to keep on top of an increasingly prodigious flow of newly published material in abridged form. 

At OHR, we don’t question the importance of reviews. We highly value the new books and media projects that come our way, our thoughtful community of reviewers, and we understand that book and media reviews are appreciated by our readers. If anything, we are growing the review section of the journal. In addition to books, OHR reviews non-print and media projects including performances, exhibitions, digital projects, documentaries, podcasts, applications, and emerging new media formats. If you are interested in writing a media review, contact digital editor Janneken Smucker.

Here are some really good reasons for reviewing that I’ve observed in my first 12 months at OHR:

Graduate students find reviewing a quick way to practice analytical and writing skills, to get their name into print, and to get free feedback.

Young professors, having recently completed a dissertation, may be right on top of the current scholarship in their field, and are thus often considered the most qualified reviewers.

Seasoned academics can use book reviewing as opportunity to apply a lifetime of wisdom garnered to evaluating new scholarship, and to delve deep into the ideas raised by scholars and to begin a dialogue.

Independent scholars and experts in related fields bring a fresh perspective to reviewing books for OHR, raising issues, asking questions, and expanding the opportunity for dialogue.

What Makes a Good Book Review?

There is a certain formulaic necessity to an effective book review. The reviewer needs to convey specific information to readers about the work at hand in a format that is clear, consistent, and predictable. There are certain components that go into a successful book review of any kind. OHR gives reviewers more specific writing guidelines, soon to be updated, that speak to the mission of the journal and content. 

The body of the review consists of description, analysis, and evaluation of the book. These approaches are not mutually exclusive. Elements of each are incorporated into the body of the review, though it is also fine to separate them, for example, to devote a paragraph to evaluating the work.

Description is a straightforward recounting or summary of the contents of the book. Description can be organized sequentially, chapter by chapter, or thematically. The emphasis and level of detail depends on the book, the discipline, and the journal’s mission. An OHR review should include a detailed description of how the author employs oral materials. If the format or presentation is noteworthy, for example, a book that is highly illustrated or that contains links to interviews online, it should be noted in the description as well. The description forms a significant part of the review but does not constitute a review by itself.

Analysis refers to the breaking-down of a topic into smaller parts in order explain a complex concept. Since not every topic of the book is of equal value to the OHR readers, the reviewer can select themes that illustrate a point or need more lengthy explanation. Reviewers can draw on their own expertise of the topic and use examples from real life or other written sources. Analysis is an expository process and does not include value judgment.

But evaluation does. It consists of a thoughtful opinion by the reviewer, pro and con, of the book’s merit, worth, and significance, always backed with illustrations or evidence from the reviewer’s expertise or research. It is fine to offer constructive criticism, but it should be balanced. (If a book has too much food for criticism, it probably shouldn’t be reviewed.)   

Other writing considerations

In addition to description, analysis, and evaluation, reviews incorporate additional common components.

Citation. Publication details about the book usually supplied by the journal. OHR specifies a format in the writing guidelines.

Comparison. Talk about how the book fits into the existing body of literature. Does it cover new material? A new approach? Does it challenge existing thought? Does it update existing literature? Do some research if you are unsure and cite related books by name.

Author’s qualifications. Mention the author’s relationship to the subject and her qualifications in writing the book. This section need not be lengthy, but some mention will help readers understand the author’s perspective.  

How the author uses oral history.  How are interviews used to further the author’s thesis? Did the author conduct interviews or draw on archival interviews?  How does the author’s methodology line up with oral history best practices and principles? How is the interview content presented in the book? How much of the narrators’ voice comes through in the book? A discussion of the book through the lens of oral history is an important component of every review and what makes OHR reviews unique within the larger body of scholarly literature.

Examples and quotes. Carefully selected quotations and examples will strengthen the points made in your review, give readers a sample of the author’s writing style and add interest to the review. Don’t go overboard: examples from the book should be few and carefully selected and should support your main job of providing a critical analysis of the book.

Book Reviewing at OHR   

Oral history crosses the traditional boundaries of disciplines, and the journal seeks to do the same in its content. Our readers, reviewers, and book/media works selected for review match this diversity. Titles in our regularly updated inventory of books-for-review include works in performance studies, community activism, qualitative research, digital humanities, archives, and public history, if they are appear to hold interest for OHR readers.  You can also recommend a book or media work for review by completing this form.  AND keep an eye out for the upcoming issue of OHR.

Further Reading

John W. East, “The Scholarly Book Review in the Humanities,” Journal of Scholarly Publishing 43, no. 1 (October 1, 2011): 52–67. 

Steven E. Gump, “Special Section on the Value of Scholarly Book Reviews,” Journal of Scholarly Publishing 50, no. 1 (October 1, 2018): 1–7. 

Linda Shopes, “Developing a Critical Dialogue About Oral History: Some Notes Based on an Analysis of Book Reviews,” The Oral History Review 14, no. 1 (January 1, 1986): 9–25. 

Society of Scholarly Publishing, The Scholarly Kitchen. Blog consists of daily posts on current issues in scholarly publishing.

Nancy MacKay is the book review editor and a reviewer for the Oral History Review; author of Curating Oral Histories (2nd ed., 2016), reviewed 45:1, April 2018); and the co-author with Barb Sommer and Mary Kay Quinlan, of The Community Oral History Toolkit (2013), reviewed 42:2, September 2015). Current research interests include community oral history, metadata for oral history, and scholarly publishing. Nancy would like to read every book she sends out for review.

You can contact Nancy by emailing

Featured photo by Flickr user Wonderlane shared courtesy of a Creative Commons 2.0 license.