There are fundamental differences among the various kinds of scientific books. What should be covered in an effective book review.
Monographs. We can define a monograph as a specialized book written for a specialized audience. Therefore, the reviewer of a monograph has one paramount obligation: to describe for potential readers exactly what is in the book. What, precisely, is the subject of the book, and what are the outside limits of the material covered? If the monograph has a number of subjects, perhaps each with a different author, each subject should be treated individually. The good book review, of course, will mirror the quality of the book; the pedestrian material will be passed over quickly, and the significant contributions will be given weightier discussion. The quality of the writing, with rare exceptions, will not need comment. It is the information in the monograph that is important to its audience. Highly technical language and even some jargon are to be expected.
Reference Books. The subject of a reference book is likely to be much broader than that of a monograph. Still, it is important for the reviewer to define in appropriate detail the content of the book. Unlike the monograph, which may contain many opinions and other subjective material, the reference book contains facts. Therefore, the prime responsibility of the book reviewer is to determine, however possible, the accuracy of the material in the reference book. Any professional librarian will tell you that an inaccurate reference book is worse than none at all.
Textbooks. In reviewing a textbook, the reviewer has a different set of considerations. Unlike the language in a monograph, that in a textbook must be nontechnical and jargon must be avoided. The reader will be a student, not a peer of the scientist who wrote the book. Technical terms will be used, of course, but each should be carefully defined at first use. Unlike in the reference book, accuracy is not of crucial importance. An inaccurate number or word here and there is not crucial as long as the message gets through. The function of the book reviewer, then, is to determine whether the subject of the text is treated clearly, in a way that is likely to enable students to grasp and to appreciate the knowledge presented. The textbook reviewer has one additional responsibility. If other texts on the same subject exist, which is usually the case, the reviewer should provide appropriate comparisons. A new textbook might be good based on its own evident merits; however, if it is not as good as existing texts, it is useless.
Trade Books. Again, the reviewer has different responsibilities. The reader of a trade book may be a general reader, not a scientist or a student of the sciences. Therefore, the language must be nontechnical. Furthermore, unlike any of the other scientific books, a trade book must be interesting. Trade books are bought as much for entertainment as they are for education. Facts may be important, but a boring effusion of facts would be out of place. Scientific precepts are sometimes difficult for the layperson to comprehend. The scientist writing for this market must always keep this point in mind, and the reviewer of a trade book must do so also. If a somewhat imprecise, nontechnical term must replace a precise, technical term, so be it. The reviewer may wince from time to time, but a book that succeeds in fairly presenting scientific concepts to the general public should not be faulted because of an occasional imprecision.
Finally, with trade books (as with other scientific books, for that matter), the reviewer should try to define the audience. Can any literate person read and understand the book, or is some level of scientific competency necessary?
If a reviewer has done the job well, a potential reader will know whether or not to read the book under consideration, and why.
Imprint Information. At the top of a book review, the reviewer should list complete imprint information. The usual order is as follows: title of the book, edition (if other than the first), name of author(s) or editor(s), publisher, place (city in which the publisher is located), year of publication, number of pages, and list price of the book. Conventionally, well-known cities are not followed by state or country names. A publisher located in New York is listed “New York” not “New York, NY” and London is listed as “London” not “London, U.K.”