Many of us learned how to write book reports in primary school. Given the rote nature of much of America's early education, the grade we received was largely based on demonstrating we had read the book. But sometimes, these reports may have also the first time we'd been asked our opinion about something we'd read. These books were often fiction, giving us plenty to respond to: the plot, the characters, the dialogue. Did they pull us in? Did we find them believable? How did they make us feel?

So much of what we consume as adults — not just books, but also movies and video games — is fiction, and those early analytical skills we developed now help us to identify what we like and to recommend it to other people. But when confronted with non-fiction, we often resort to that rote education, as if our critical eye no longer applies.

As the editor of a retrocomputing magazine, I assign and receive reviews. Since there aren't many works of fiction about retrocomputing, the book reviews I publish are generally of non-fiction. The first draft of those reviews often read something like this:

In the first chapter, the author covers this period of retrocomputing. In the second chapter, she moves on to these other topics. The third chapter, which I found brief, is about this particular era…

That's not a review; that's a summary. Almost anyone who were to pick up the book would come to the same conclusion. A review, by contrast, is a personal, opinionated critique of the work. The challenge becomes what to critique when the work lacks the narrative thread and framework of fiction.

The wonderful 2006 book Rewriting: How To Do Things With Text by Joseph Harris offers a rigorous proposal for how to respond to works of literature with your own. In addition, I offer these popular prompts that apply to reviews of non-fiction:

  • What, if anything, makes this an important work?
  • What does the reader stand to gain by reading this book?
  • What surprised you? Did you ever have an ah-ha moment while reading the book?
  • What is the mood or tone of the book? Optimistic, critical, playful, promotional?
  • Who is the target audience for the book?
  • Was it easy or difficult to read? Fun and rewarding to read?
  • Does the book deliver on its promise?
  • How is the print quality? Is the book too small or too big? Do the pages feel flimsy?
  • Is the book a good value?
  • What is missing?

While describing the contents of a book is necessary, it should not constitute the majority of the review. By answering the above questions, your response to the original text will prove that you read it and will offer an informed recommendation to your reader.