The Pharmacist of Auschwitz

A critical book review is not the same as a book report which is just a descriptive summary of a book’s content. A book review analyzes a book’s components, as well as the book as a whole. When assessing the book as a whole consider the author’s reasons for writing the book.

Why did the author consider this topic important enough to spend a lot of time researching and writing it? What information did the author try to impart? How convincing was the book? All books start out as manuscripts which are presented to publishers for their consideration. A publisher makes the decision to publish a book based on certain key elements. In this assignment you will become, in effect, the publisher. The following criteria are typical of the things publishers assess. You should make every attempt to assess all of them to some extent.

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Thesis: Every non-fiction book has a thesis – an argument. There are subjects which seem to produce an inexhaustible number of books. What makes an publisher decide to publish a book on a topic that seems already swamped? The answer is a creative, or unusual thesis. The author has presented the material in a new way or has uncovered new evidence. Sometimes authors correct what they consider errors made by other authors. You can find the author’s thesis in the preface and/or the introduction of the book. That is where the author will explain his argument. Do no confuse the thesis with the topic. The topic is simply what the book is about. Discovering the author’s thesis can be difficult but it is there. After describing the thesis, assess it. Did you find the argument convincing? Was it original? Did it make sense?

Scope: Authors have to be selective about what they include in their finished books and what they omit. This will be determined by their thesis. Scope is generally defined in two ways – time period covered and subject material. A book entitled Women in World War One, for example, identifies scope both ways. The subject is women: the time period is World War One. After identifying the scope of the book, assess it. Was the time frame too broad or too narrow? Did you find too much information was covered or too little?

Organization: Taking a vast amount of research material and condensing it into a book requires a great deal of organization. Part of the job of an editor is to assist the author in organizing the finished product. Sometimes, however, despite careful editing, a book can leave a reader confused. Not all books are arranged chronologically. Sometimes an author might choose a topical approach which can sometimes be the best organizational choice. Is the book you chose organized well? Did it jump around in time without explaining why? Was some material left unexplained by the end of the book?

Objectivity: All secondary source books should be as objective as possible. This means that authors must leave their own opinions out of their books. Authors should present the facts and let them speak for themselves. Be realistic when assessing the author’s objectivity. An author will obviously be interested in his subject and feel it is important or why bother to write a book about it. So, by its very nature, the choice to write a book is subjective. This we must accept. Assess the author’s objectivity by looking at what he does with the facts. Are they presented in such a way that you are allowed to come to your own conclusion? Does the author use adjectives to sway you to his way of thinking? If you have read books on this subject before, you can also assess whether the author has left information out because it did not fit into her thesis.

Sources and Documentation: As a reader, you may sometimes become annoyed at the inclusion of footnotes at the bottom of pages. Actually, there is a wealth of information in those footnotes, if you take the time to read them. They tell us a lot about where authors get information, so look at them. Footnotes are an invitation to interested readers to go to the sources and check the information presented in the book for themselves. Failure to include sources leaves the reader mistrustful of the information presented. Does you book include the sources? Do the sources appear to be all secondary (that is, written by other experts) or does there appear to be primary material included as well. Primary material means information that was generated during the time period under study and can include diaries, memoirs, letters, newspapers, government documents, military records, or other types of material. The more primary material an author uses, the more original her thesis will be.

Conclusion: A well-written book will attempt to summarize the material it has covered and attempt to wrap things up for you. It should remind the reader of the original thesis so you can assess whether the book has done what it promised to do. Did the argument come to a logical conclusion? Did you come to the same conclusion? Is the conclusion weak or unconvincing?

General Value: Books are targeted for specific audiences. Some are intended for the general reading public and some are meant for experts in the field. What is the target audience of the book? Did the book offer new information or ideas? Would you recommend the book to your friends? Would you have gotten more out of the book if you were an expert? Remember, just because you did not like the book or understand it fully does not mean the book has no value to anyone at all. As the reviewer, you too must be objective. Be careful when criticizing a book that you are not simply highlighting your own shortcomings as a reader. To criticize a book because the words were too big says more about your own vocabulary level than it does about the book.


The book you choose must be related to this course. Choose a book on a topic that will interest you. It must be NON-FICTION. It must be a SECONDARY SOURCE (it cannot be a diary, memoir, or autobiography). It must also be a MONOGRAPH (it cannot be a collection of essays written by different authors).

Begin by describing the book’s content in one or two paragraphs – no more than two – then begin your analysis based on the criteria listed above. You do not have to use the criteria in the order they are given. Do not divide your review into sections based on the criteria. You may also discuss aspects of the book you found interesting but were not included in the criteria. I am very interested in your opinions as long as they are grounded in a solid reading of the book. Spare the descriptive in favor of the analysis.

Reviews will be 3-5 pages long and must include a citation on the top of page one using the following example exactly, including punctuation:

Smith, John. Modern Europe: A Brief History (New York: 2003) pp. 350 For more information on The Pharmacist of Auschwitz see: 

The Pharmacist of Auschwitz

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