Next week, I will be writing my 50th nonfiction book review on this blog. Learning brings me great joy, and when I learn fascinating things in my books, I can’t help but share them with you!
With Nonfiction November coming up, I know that many fiction book bloggers will try their hand at reading and reviewing nonfiction, and that many people aren’t used to it. There is often no character development, plot, setting, or allegory to critique, so what is left? Well, there is actually a lot to talk about, and I think reviewing nonfiction books is a lot of fun! I hope that through this post, my passion for writing nonfiction book reviews can inspire the unsure to give it a try.
There is not one correct way to write a book review. I write mine for fun, as a way to make blog posts that entertain me and hopefully my audience. Reviews make reading more fun and they help me to better engage as I read. They can even make it more bearable to finish a book I hate, because I know that my review will be interesting! Regardless, here are some tips that help me write book reviews that I am proud of.
Mark up your book
I’ll start off with the obvious: I think that underlining and taking notes in nonfiction books is a great way to remember what you read and get ideas for your review as you go. My husband is adamant that my constant marking up of brand new books makes me a crazy person, and I can’t blame him for that. Some people can’t stand it.
If this is you—or if you read library books—then don’t worry! You can still use sticky notes or keep a separate notebook handy. I actually do this when I read books that are so old I would not dare deface them. Of course, e-readers make this easy; you can highlight and add notes without vandalizing anything. Finally, I know that a lot of people like to listen to nonfiction audiobooks, but I can’t imagine that you would absorb the information enough to make a review that way. But hey, if you can, more power to you!
Answer these three questions
I believe that each review will be as different as each book is, but there are a few questions that I attempt to answer no matter what.
Does it accomplish its goal?
First, I critique it according to its own criteria. Does the title promise that the book will deliver something specific? Is it meant to persuade you or inform you, and if so, how does it do? If a book’s title starts with “How to,” then you know exactly what the goal is. For example, How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi did exactly that; Kendi repeatedly began sentences with, “To be an antiracist is to…” which is about as straightforward as it gets. On the other hand, How to Argue With a Racist by Adam Rutherford might sound like it gives responses to specific points you’d hear in an argument, but it doesn’t. (It was still a great book though!)
(Now that I’m on the topic, Let the People Pick the President: The Case for Abolishing the Electoral College by Jesse Wegman does give line-by-line responses for arguments, which I thought was a great approach.)
There are more ways that a book can express its goal. Maybe the introduction lays out why the book exists at all. This is one thing I really appreciate about Richard Dawkins’ books. My feelings about the book as a whole are mixed (and my feelings about Dawkins as a person are lacking), but in the preface of The God Delusion, Dawkins lists out exactly how he is going to make his case for atheism. He promises to meet different readers where they are. “Do you believe X? Well, I explain this exact thing in Chapter X.” The man knows how to make a promise. Obviously, a preface does not need to be this explicit to make a book good, but it definitely made my review easier. This was especially great for me, as The God Delusion was only the second book I ever reviewed.
Do I like it?
Even though Adam Rutherford’s How to Argue With a Racist did not teach me how to argue with a racist, I still gave it a rave review. That’s because the second question I set out to answer is a simple one: Did I like the book? I’m the one writing the review, so I decide whether it’s a positive or negative one. This is when book reviews get really subjective, and why I love when there are many of the same book. No two people will have the same exact opinions about it. Many times, I have admitted that a book was probably good, but that I don’t think I was the right audience for it.
Does it speak to a target audience?
This brings me to the third question: do you know the book’s target audience? If there is no clear audience, then there’s a good chance the whole book is moot. Take this post, for instance. My intended audience is primarily fiction book bloggers who are trying out nonfiction book reviews for November. Hopefully other people will find something useful or entertaining out of it, but if you don’t care about books or reviews or blogging at all, then this post probably isn’t for you.
Decide whether you want to stick to a formula
If you have never written a nonfiction book review before, it can be easier to follow a formula and always know what you want to include in your review. A great example of this is fellow nonfiction book blogger Paula Ghete‘s book reviews such as this one of Cosmos by Carl Sagan (which you can compare to mine to see how greatly our styles vary). Her book reviews are structured this way:
Author: Carl Sagan
Category: Non-fiction, Science
10-Word Summary: We can understand the Universe only if we study it.
What I like about Cosmos
[list with bullet points and descriptions]
What I don’t like about Cosmos
[list with bullet points and descriptions]
In other book reviews, such as this one, Paula also included the following sections:
Quotes from The Idiot Brain
[lists eight relatively short quotes]
Should You Read The Idiot Brain?
[succinct, defined answer]
Admittedly, her reviews are clearly written with SEO and readability in mind. Search engines love to say, “The more headlines and the shorter the sections, the merrier,” so that they know what the post is about. This also helps the reader to get Paula’s big ideas even if they don’t wade through the – gasp – paragraphs!
On the other hand, my review of Cosmos described how it left me speechless, why it was virtually unreviewable, why it made me almost cry watching the launch of NASA’s Perseverance, and why Sagan is so beloved in the atheist community.
Something fun about me is that I pretty much write whatever I feel like writing, which might make you think that I would not be the most qualified to tell you how you should write your own book reviews, but there I go again, writing whatever I feel like which includes this review-tutorial. Look, I’m just here for a good time.
How my own book reviews take shape
As I said earlier, each review can be as different as each book. This is more true for someone like me than for someone who is a little more organized like Paula Ghete, because I don’t really abide by any restraints. I don’t write only book reviews, so if a review takes me to another topic that I care about anyways, I’ll just talk about that. I love when a book simply inspires me to share what I’ve learned from it, or gives me the opportunity to ponder something I wouldn’t have thought of if I hadn’t read it.
The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels was a pretty informative book about—you guessed it—the Gnostic Gospels and Gnostic Christianity. I honestly didn’t have much to say about the book itself, but it caused me to compare early Gnostic Christianity to modern-day Progressive Christianity, list the similarities and differences, and pose the question to my Progressive Christian audience what they think of it.
My review of The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism by Katherine Stewart had a similar fate. An actual review of the book was definitely present throughout my post on it, but it was a great chance for me to delve into my own experiences learning about Christian Nationalism, inside and outside of Stewart’s book. I also found myself comparing The Power Worshippers to Andrew Seidel’s The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism is Un-American and explaining why the two books complement each other.
When I’ve read two or more books by the same author or on the same subject, I love to compare and contrast them or explain how they go together. I’ve done that with these, as well as books by Ibram X. Kendi, Ian Tattersall, Carl Sagan, and the two most famous works in the atheist community.
As is the case with many of my book reviews, there is a lot more I could say. And like those, I often have to stop myself from rambling on ad nauseum. When this happens with a review, I have to just give the big idea, some fun facts, and then tell my audience that you really ought to read it for yourself. So I’ll do that here. I hope that my advice has helped you to see nonfiction reviews as a little less scary, and I encourage you to try writing them yourself! I’m so excited to read them!