TO READ A BOOK
the beginning. What's
the title? Remember that people choose titles; they think hard
about them, and
usually they mean something.
the author? Do
know anything about her/him? What kind of things can you easily find
-- by looking at the back cover, or title lists of other books the
author has written?
to the date of
publication. What was going on when the book was written? What has
gone on since the book
was written? (You can't fault Tom Paine for not knowing about Marx-.
you can't fault an historian who wrote in 1962 for not knowing about
scholarship that has gone on since.)
published the book?
may mean nothing to you at this stage, but eventually you start to
realize that certain publishers specialize in books of certain
ideological bents, just as they might specialize in books on certain
skip any of the pages at
the beginning -- acknowledgements and introductions.
Acknowledgements in academic books often talk about where the author
was trained, and sometimes make a
point of distinguishing between the ideas of the authors and those of
professors who taught them. They talk about who the author's friends
Again, at this stage all those names might seem meaningless, but it
easier in any given discipline once you've read a lot of stuff and
to recognize names. You will start to see networks of people who talk
one another, and will begin to understand why the author thinks what
thinks. It's like the backs of record albums where they list all the
who play on each other's albums: we begin to understand that there is a
why they all make similar sounds -- these folks are all doing and
about music together. Acknowledgements are also fun because you get to
how hip the men are on the woman question by what they say about their
are crucial in a
more direct way. It took me years to understand their function. A good
state the problem, often making reference to work that has been done in
field previously. It will demonstrate the importance of the problem and
where work needs to be done and how this particular book fits in. It
lay out the questions to be explored and the assumptions on which the
is based. And, probably most important, it is the single most likely
to find a direct and concise statement of the thesis of the book
that one sentence which any book is ultimately designed to demonstrate.
THINK! Here is the first
which you need to ask all of the questions which you will carry through
reading the rest of the book. Why was the book written? What is it
about? Does it
seem like a worthwhile effort -- did the author convince you that the
needs further exploration? What are the assumptions that the author is
on? Did you find a thesis? What is it? Does it seem workable? What
does the book ask in order to get at the topic? Are they the central
to be asked of the material? If it is a history book, what is the
of change which is implied in the formulation of the questions and of
thesis? What are the implications of that theory of change for the
and the future? And, if all that the author promises in the
should turn out to be well done, where will you be then? (This last one
both your own purposes in reading the book and thinking about the
and how well the author has convinced you of the crucial nature of
work.) Unfortunately, some people don't write good introductions and
won't be able to answer all of this at this point.
|Go on to
the table of
contents and examine it. Think about whether the organization there
is a reasonable way
to go about answering the author's questions and demonstrating the
of the book. Also look carefully to try to figure out what will be the
important chapters or sections in the book -- both from the point of
of answering the questions you are most interested in finding out
and from the standpoint of the author's own task.
AGAIN! If you haven't been
do all this at this point, now is the time to find a way to do it -- to
figure out the thesis, the major questions, the
assumptions, the point of view.
DO THIS BEFORE GOING ON TO THE REST OF THE BOOK. You may have to reread
introduction. You may go straight to the last chapter to see what the
claims to have demonstrated. Or you may want to do a quick skim of the
book. Whatever way you choose, it is important -- and it will save you
in the long run. It just isn't worth your time to go through the
process of sifting through the author's evidence when you don't know
it is evidence of. If you have a really solid idea of what the book
trying to do, you will find that the actual time you have to spend
the text is drastically reduced. Otherwise, it will be like travelling
back roads without a map -- every now and then you might come upon a
but you won't know how to interpret it. That sense of being lost in a
i s very common, but unfortunately what most of us tend to do is to
then shut the book or just go on and ignore it when we feel that way.
brings me to an essential
the game: when you are confused about something, PAY ATTENTION. You may
have found a difficult point which is worth spending the time to figure
it may mean that you need to go back to the beginning and re-figure
the book is about.
you have done all this
map-making -- and you should have made notes on all this stuff -- go on
to the text of
the book. Basically, your task here is to determine whether the
author has done a sound and convincing job of demonstrating the thesis
and answering the questions.
kinds of sources does
use? To answer this question you will have to look at footnotes.
They are a drag, they do interrupt your reading, but they fulfill an
absolutely essential function. You might want to make a general
practice of looking at
them all before and after reading a chapter rather than stopping every
you see a number, but you must keep the possibility of stopping open at
times. In other words, when something seems particularly interesting --
particularly fishy -- the best way to follow it up may be to ask where
author got that idea or that fact. The footnote will tell you -- and it
a difference, for example, whether it was from a primary source or a
one. Ultimately, in doing extensive research on a particular topic, the
will start to demonstrate the record album syndrome -- people will be
people you've heard of. Are the sources primary or secondary? Are they
places to go to answer the questions that the author is asking?
the text, how does the
author use her/his sources? Are they simply brought out as artillery,
as examples for
a point that the author wanted to make, or does she/he seem to have
them with sensitivity to find what was really there? Do quotations
statistics actually demonstrate the point that the author claims
demonstrate, or can you draw different conclusions from them? And, if
can, does the author deal with such paradoxes? Are the promises made in
introduction, or implied in the table of contents, actually fulfilled?
other words, do the questions get answered to your satisfaction?
the last chapter,
afterword as carefully as you did the introduction, even if you
did it when you were mapping out your approach to the book. Ask ALL of
questions again -- your job is not done when you reach the last page .
the author did not accomplish what she/he set out to do, what did get
accomplished? What have you learned, about method as well as content?
luck. It's hard work, but
it's a whole lot less confusing -- and a whole lot less boring -- than
swimming around in a book that you never understand.