Book Review Guide

Assignment Goals

This assignment shows that you’re able to apply the course to a critical description and evaluation of a food-related text (like one of our required books) that you might read even outside of this course. This is the goal of the entire course (see Student Learning Outcomes!)—to help you think carefully and historically about food and food systems. 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 900-1200 words. This restrictive format is deliberate, to force you to think about quality over quantity. The challenge is NOT to meet the word count, but to pack as much analysis and synthesis into that space as you can.


Your audience is NOT ME as your professor who is grading your paper. It’s someone who likes food or food history and might be interested in this kind of book, and is therefore reading a concise review to get a sense of what it’s about. You should assume your audience has NOT read it, and that you’re helping them to decide if it’s worth their time.

Organizational advice

Although you don’t need to have distinct section headings, you should have three main sections to your paper. You should have multiple paragraphs in each section. Paragraphs are for ideas, not sections.

Summary (600 words - DOUBLE THE ORIGINAL AMOUNT)

You should begin your essay with a thorough but quick summary of the book so that your readers have an idea of BOTH the general topics covered AND the main themes addressed. Go for breadth over depth, as you want to give your reader a clear sense of what’s included in the book. Your ability to recount both the topics and themes shows that you’ve been (a) actually reading and (b) paying attention and taking notes in our discussions.

Strengths, Weaknesses, Critical Omissions (300 words)

As part of your evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses, comment briefly on the historical evidence the author uses. Maybe there are “scientific” studies, maybe anecdotal evidence, maybe nothing. Is the evidence sufficient to support the historical claims?

In general you want to address questions like:

  • How was the book most successful?
  • What did you find problematic?
  • Are there key issues or topics that were not addressed?
  • Are you convinced by the evidence?
  • How well does the author balance historical content (just the facts) versus talking about larger themes (media, industry, science, consumerism, etc)?

NOTE: All histories are biased and all authors have an agenda. So it’s not so interesting simply to note that an author seems have a particular opinion about X or Y. That said, you should comment on whether the bias or agenda seems to get in the way of the book?

Importance and Relevance (300 words)

What besides historical knowledge can we 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 of the book for the modern consumer? Don’t simply say that the history of X is important. Everyone knows that (not true, but let’s pretend). Make a specific case how the book is useful beyond the history it presents. This may or may not be explicitly addressed in the book. You might even say something like: “Even though it’s not explicitly addressed, this book is useful because…”

References and Citations

Anything in your text that refers to a specific point or idea should a have parenthetical page reference. These show the reader how you are using the book in your review. The author claims that food is no longer good for us (13). The author of the book is implied since we only have one source. If you are citing other texts from class, use author/date format (Gibbs, 75).

General formatting requirements

  • 12 pt. Times New Roman (or very similar serif font)
  • 1.5” margins on all sides. Note this is almost double a normal margin. I like to write in them. Please leave me some room so I don’t cram illegible writing into a tiny space that bleeds off the page and doesn’t help anyone.
  • Double spaced. Did I mention I like to write on your essays?
  • Your name at top

Tips for success

  • Don’t dwell. You want to give a lot of analysis in a short space, so most points you’ll want to make should get compressed into a couple sentences. Don’t write a whole paragraph about, say, the writing being repetitive. “Despite the repetitive writing, the author makes the important point that…” OR, conversely: “Despite the interesting analysis of consumer trust, the repetitive writing challenges the reader’s will to continue reading.”
  • Create a thread. Make sure each sentence naturally flows from one to the next. Abrupt changes in topic, tense, style, etc, are quite jarring for a reader. This is almost impossible to do well when drafting your initial ideas (unless you are an extremely talented writer already), so look to improve this aspect as you revise.
  • Be selective. You can’t fit everything worth saying into your essay. Choose carefully what you think is most important! You’re being graded on your ability to separate the wheat from the chaff.
  • 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. See the revision guide. Revisions are hard! But they are the only way to make your writing—and your THINKING—shine.


You are ALWAYS welcome to email questions or ask for clarification. Writing is hard enough, and virtually impossible when you’re not sure what you’re trying to do. Please get in touch!