by Allan Branstiter
I had very little experience reading scholarly books when I was an undergraduate, and this put me at a disadvantage when I started graduate school. A typical graduate history course requires students to read one book and two articles a week. Considering the fact that a full-time grad student is enrolled in three or four classes a semester, they can face weeks where they have to read over a thousand pages a week. Students must also produce a book review about every other week, not to mention research papers, historiographic essays, MA theses, and Ph.D. dissertations—which all require more reading. My first week of graduate history classes was so intense that I actually threw my back out reading. Let’s just say posture and orthopedics matter when you spend endless hours at a desk reading and writing.
In this post I’ll give you my thoughts on the “Art of the Grad-Read” and how I read a book quickly and efficiently. Let me start out by saying that this advice is useful to both graduate students and undergraduate students. I really wish I had known how to read a book efficiently as an undergraduate instead of wasting my time either reading a book too thoroughly or too superficially.
This brings another point to mind: this post is about reading a book quickly and efficiently, but it won’t teach you how to “speed read.” Also remember that these tips are for reading scholarly non-fiction, not novels. Reading The Great Gatsby requires a different method of reading than reading The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Finally, this method will not make you the foremost expert on any given book; instead, it aims to familiarize you enough with a book so you can discuss it in class, write a brief book review about it, and store it away in your mind for future reference. Reading a book for detail or finding leads on sources for your own research will require a different method, but this is a good place to start.
So how do graduate students read so much? Is it even humanly possible to read this many books and articles in a week? Actually, it is. And it’s really not that hard if you can break it down into a process and know exactly why you’re reading. By the time I finished my MA degree I was reading a 250-page book in about four hours. Any less than that left me feeling doubtful about my ability to talk about the book in class, and any more than that was for my own enjoyment. You’re time is invaluable to you as a graduate student, so learning how to efficiently read was central to my mental sanity and academic success during those years.