Book Review Guide

Spring 2020 • HIST 412

Book Review Guide

Assignment Goals

This assignment shows that you’re able to apply the course discussion and activities in the real world by critically analyzing a kind of course (like one of our required books) that you might read even outside of this course. This is the goal of the entire course—see the learning objectives on the syllabus!—to help you think carefully and historically about food. In terms of the writing itself, the assignments encourage/force you to focus on the clarity and concision of your thinking and expression. It’s a super useful skill that you’ll frequently employ in your future career, whatever it is.

Assignment Format

Your essay must be ~900 words. This restrictive format is very deliberate, to force you to think about quality over quantity. The challenge isn’t to meet the word count, but pack as much analysis and course synthesis into that space as you can, and to make your writing as concise as possible.

Organizational advice

You should have three sections to your paper, each around 300 words.


You should begin your essay with a quick summary of the source—you have about 300 words for this section—so that your readers have an idea of what the point is (assume they have not read it themselves). As part of your summary, comment briefly about the evidence used to make the point. Maybe there are “scientific” studies, maybe anecdotal evidence, maybe nothing.

Pros and cons

How did the book succeed in its aims for you? What did you find lacking? Are you convinced by the evidence? What is problematic or missing? What are the assumptions of the author about the relationship between food and technology?


Is there anything beside historical knowledge that we should take away from the book? Are there lessons we should learn? Can you imagine an analogous situation that we might need address in the future? What are the implications for the modern consumer?

References and Citations

You should cite passages from the readings with author-date notation.

An example: Although Cheyne appealed to his personal experience with diet, he himself was extraordinarily large (Shapin, “Trusting,” 276). Note that I’ve used an abbreviated form of the article name since we read two things by Shapin. You can omit that if there is only one source by the author, like (Cowan, 15).

If you cite something from outside the class, you need to provide a foot- or endnote with a full reference to that source (either a URL or regular bibliographic citation). You can use any format you want, but be consistent.

General formatting requirements

  • 12 pt. Times New Roman (or very similar serif font)
  • 1” margins on all sides
  • Your name at top

Tips for success

  • Be specific. Never, even mention only that something relates to something else. You must explain how and why and the significance of the relationship. This is probably the biggest weakness with most essays.
  • Provide specific citations. This forces you to double check your own memory and interpretation of the readings, and helps you avoid making false claims.
  • Don’t be banal. Avoid trivial statements that are simply fluff and don’t show you engaging with the course materials or your source.
  • Paraphrase. Avoid long quotations in your critique, since you want use all the space for your own thinking!
  • Be selective. You can’t fit everything worth saying into your essay. Choose carefully what you think is most important!
  • Revise, revise, revise. Once you have a complete draft of everything you want to say, you are about 50% done. Set it aside (and budget time for this!), then come back and economize your prose. Remove simple sentences that force you to be unnecessarily verbose.

In the process of getting your ideas on paper, you might end up with something like: “This article does not cite any research. The lack of research means it is difficult to understand if it should be trusted.” (22 words)

During revisions, you should rephrase this to: “The article’s lack of research compromises its authority.” (8 words) This gives you much-needed space for more analysis!

Note: Revisions are hard! But they are the only way to make your writing shine.


It is always worthwhile to talk about these things in class; don’t hesitate to ask! Questions are ALWAYS relevant to more than just you. Email is OK, too, especially for quick questions.