One of the courses that I took last year had a mix of graduate and undergraduate students. In the introductory seminar, the teacher was going through the reading list for the term. We would have to read one book a week for the class – something which is quite conventional at master’s level. However, this prospect led one third-year student to ask the professor: “Do we have to read the entire thing every week?” The professor looked more than slightly surprised by this question, as if he couldn’t believe what he had just heard.
I understand this student’s concern. It was not until my third year that I received any guidance on how to read. A ridiculous statement for a then-20-year-old History student to make. However, many students never get any official guidance about the best way to read productively. This makes the prospect of having to work through a dense 800-word monograph before next week’s class – and alongside two or more other classes with similarly heavy workloads – seem quite daunting. As such, here is some advice about the best way to “gut” a book. Hopefully, these hints will make such weekly reading assignments far more manageable.
Professor Naomi Standen, a historian at Birmingham University, highlights that there are five things you must determine from a book.* These are:
– The thesis (the central point made by the author)
– The main line of argument
– The main supporting evidence used
– Where the book fits into the existing scholarship
– How convincing it is
An effective method to fulfil these aims is to work from the outside of the book inwards. Unravel it, like yarn or something.
First, read the introduction and conclusion closely. Make sure you know what each paragraph is trying to do, and use them to work out the basic argument. You will usually find the thesis statement within the first few paragraphs of the introduction. It also tends to include an overview of the existing scholarship, and an indication of the types of evidence used. Repeat this with the conclusion. These two sections provide a benchmark – both for yourself to judge how convincing the premises laid out sound, and also to weigh the main body of the book against.
The main body of the book is where efficient, but active reading becomes most important. Focus on the opening and closing sequences of each paragraph. Looking at these allows you to establish the basic point of each chapter.
Once you have established these points, you can then skim through, and identify pertinent pieces of evidence, quotes, tables and graphs. Make sure that you make note of some key details from at least one chapter.
You can relate this back to the thesis and basic lines of argument established in the introduction and conclusion. Indeed, the focus of note-taking for these parts should be evaluation. This does not mean dismissing every word as unconvincing or – God forbid – derivative. But evaluating in this way means that you can identify pieces of evidence that don’t work; lines of argument which are unconvincing; holes in the thesis.
There are other ways to read a book more productively. You can read only the first (and sometimes last) sentence of every paragraph, before returning to key ones and examining them more closely. There is also the ever-popular method of reading the book out loud, a method which I myself dabbled in in my first year of undergraduate studies. However, this usually resulted in disaster by the time of the seminar, when it turned out I couldn’t remember anything. In my own experience the “gutting” method gets you the most out of the book.
It is impossible to read everything. This is as much the case for students with a substantial amount of weekly reading, as it is for professors trying to get a total overview of one particular scholarly debate. The gutting method hopefully allows you to gain the fullest understanding of a book, in the most time-efficient manner possible when you have a heavy workload.
*The page where this was originally posted has since been taken down, although it was republished by Central Connecticut State University, accessible here. Further sage advice came from Dr Stephen Wertheim.