Reviewing non-fiction

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Reviewing non-fiction

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des. 7, 2010, 12:44pm

I've just been assigned a non-fiction book for review and I must say, it's one of the first times I've reviewed non-fiction. I believe I did it once before, but since that was more of a journal, the book greatly resembled a fiction book, apart from the completely true aspect.

I find myself reading and usually when I do that, I jot down thoughts that end up being the backbone for my later review. Yet I find it hard to do with a non-fiction book. I cannot simply jot down thoughts on plot, character, writing style and over-all feel of the book. There are also the added problems that this book not only is non-fiction, but also falls into the 'how to' category, although it doesn't simply give fixed steps.

So I was wondering, how do you review a non-fiction book? Any thoughts on the process and how you do it are appreciated, as are thoughts on what you want to read in a review of a non-fiction book.

des. 7, 2010, 3:03pm

I don't read a ton of non-fiction, and much of what I do read is more memoir than "how-to" or factual. But what I try to do when reviewing a non-fiction book is think about the purposes of the book and then comment on how well (or not) the author did at achieving those purposes. Also, I might summarize the main topic of the book and some of the areas it covers. I try to note things that are helpful or interesting.

If you want to look at some of my non-fiction reviews, see here. You'll note there are a lot of memoirs, but there are quite a few on the topic of bi-polar disorder, as well as a cookbook and a gardening book as some of the more recent books I've read. I'm not a very prolific reviewers - no more than 10 sentences usually - so someone else out there might have suggestions for more detailed reviews.

des. 7, 2010, 5:43pm

My reviews are very similar to tjsjohanna. I ask myself : was this practical? can I apply it in my life/at home? is it innovative, realistic? was it convincing? were the arguments easy to follow, did the author try to look at all facets of the problem? I can also look at references: is there an index? is the table of contents well laid out? is the biography complete with original works?

I highly recommend How to read a book by Mortimer Adler. He decomposes the non-fiction into its genres, argument patterns, objectives, levels of reading, etc. I always struggled with non-fiction until I plowed through that one: it really helped and now I regularly read non-fiction.

des. 7, 2010, 8:39pm

I review a lot of how-to books. Mostly I try to compare where I am with the process being taught vs. where the book is. I also try to figure out what in the book would interest someone else. So, I might say:

I am a novice at this craft and the instructions here were over my head. However, there are lots of pretty things to make. If you know a lot about this, you might be able to make them.


I've been doing this for years and this book offers nothing new. However, I noticed that the steps for how to begin were laid out very clearly. If you're just starting this is a good book to learn from.

des. 7, 2010, 8:52pm

I think that with non-fiction, particularly with "how to" books, the most important thing to address is how well the book accomplishes its goal. Does it really help you to learn how to do what it's trying to teach you?

Here are a couple I've done with "how to" books, both quite short:

This one's a bit longer:

And here are some non-"how to" book reviews. Again, is the goal accomplished? How good is the research? It's also helpful to consider the audience being addressed. Is the language geared towards academics, for instance, or can the educated layperson read and understand it?

des. 8, 2010, 3:29pm

@tsjohanna: thanks for the link to your non-fiction reviews. It helped reading them. The hint you gave about trying to determine how well the author did with achieving the purpose of the book is definitely something I can use.

cecilturtle: thanks, those questions will definitely help me jumpstart my review. I might see if I can get the book you recommended in my library.

aulsmith: thanks, that’s a really good thing to note, which level of competence in the subject is the book aimed on. (Complete novices, for example, will probably be a bit lost with my current book)

lilithcat: thanks, the reviews were very helpful to read. And darn, now I want to read Miss Manners' guide to a surprisingly dignified wedding

Editat: des. 8, 2010, 8:19pm

I think if you also give your level of expertise, than you can say what was good and bad about a book for you and people know where you're coming from. It's often had to tell when you're a novice if a book aimed at a higher level of skill is any good or not. But you can say that the directions were in Japanese but the pictures looked helpful (yes, I have one of those) and the people with more expertise can decide if that will help them or not.

Thinking about this some more, I think that the questions you approached a non-fiction book with are a very important part of the review. I think many people are reluctant to review a book they didn't read cover to cover. But many non-fiction books are designed to answer diverse questions and appeal to many types of people. I have no problem if someone reviews a book who just used it to answer certain questions, as long as they tell me that's what they did. Then, if I have the same questions, I know I whether it's a good book or not.

Edited to add 2nd paragraph

des. 11, 2010, 10:52am

7: You're right. The book I'm currently reading is about writing Mystery fiction and it goes into the specific elements needed for a mystery. But I've read several books about writing fiction in general already and I think that without that foreknowledge, this book wouldn't be nearly as helpful. So that's definitely something that should go in my review, but I probably wouldn't have thought about it if you hadn't mentioned it.