Grandma's Tales

May 25, 2007

Grammar – 35 How to write a book review 4 Non-fiction

Filed under: Language — Geeta Padmanabhan @ 10:08 pm

We’ll imagine you are reviewing a biography. I must warn you biographies, official or vindictive, may contain elements of fiction in them. Some may have been “sexed” up for sensationalism. In fact, what hasn’t been said could be of greater importance. However, the following tips might help in organising your review. These are in addition to the general points you find in the earlier posts.
[1] The one question you need to ask at the outset is this. What are the credentials of the author and what is his relationship to the subject he has chosen to write about? This right away establishes the authenticity of the work. Surely, there is no hidden, ulterior motive to writing this book?
[2] Does it cover the subject’s entire life? Or does it deal only with a part of his/her life?
[3] What is the format used? Is it chronological? Reflective? Retrospective? Does the author start at some point in the subject’s life and trace it back?
[4] Has the author done enough research to give an over-all picture of the subject’s life and work? Does it sound superficial and on-the-surface?
[5] What are the sources that the author has depended on for the material? Are they genuine? Respectable? [Example: Quotes from tabloid newspapers are “iffy”.] Have the sources been given credit?
[5] That brings us to the facts. Are there new insights to the subject’s life that we didn’t know about? Ah, ahem, not the ones you are thinking of, I’m afraid. Has the author looked at the subject’s life and times from a fresh perspective? Seen them in a new light? Does the reader benefit from this new angle?
The most important point to note is “objectivity“. Does the book look balanced? Does it present the subject in all his/her shades? Is it one-dimensional – praise or condemnation? Does he come through as a semi-god or does he sound human, warts and all?
And of course, the style. Check the previous post for a note on this. The subject could have led an unusual life full of interesting anecdotes. [Read about Einstein. Every new biography fishes out an anecdote about him, all equally fascinating.] The biographer could “kill” this man with his insipid, uninspiring style. This doesn’t mean you sensationalise every little, obvious incident in the subject’s life. The trick is to strike a balance. A great biography makes the subject look interesting, without exaggeration. Doesn’t trivialise or undermine achievements, doesn’t put him on a pedestal.  [Choose an interesting personality to write about. :-)] In short, is it skilful writing?
A biography in many ways is like a very objective “performance review”. Has the author achieved it?


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