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.
The primary thing you should think about is why you are reading. Read with a purpose. Ask yourself “Why did the professor assign this book?” and “What do I need to get out of it?” If you aren’t writing a book review, you’ll need to understand the reading well enough to talk about it in class and understand its place within the scholarly literature (or historiography). If you need to write a book review about it, you’ll need to take more time to understand the details and structure of the book. If your research will either build upon or challenge the book you are reading you’ll need to spend much more time getting to know it (in fact, you’ll have to read it more than once). Understanding your purpose will help you develop a plan for attacking your reading—and I really do mean attack. So here’s how to attack a book and read it quickly:
- Locate and print two good academic book reviews of the book you are about to read. I know you’re thinking “Thanks for giving me more reading, Allan . . . ” but I’m serious about this step. Think of a good review as a map—it will lay out the journey you’re about to take and alert you to important themes, words, or arguments you’ll need to keep an eye out for. I prefer to select one long book review (like those found in Reviews in American History) and a shorter one from a more specialized journal. You’ll figure out which journals are the best sources of good reviews in time.
- Gather your materials. You will need the book, paper, a pen, and a flat surface to read on. I prefer using one of these to keep my notes from bleeding into each other. Say no to laptops or computers. Do not use transcription tools like Dragon—your goal is to understand a book, not paraphrase it through notes.
- Know what you’re looking for. I made this Book Note Form to help me keep track of the information I know I’ll always need to identify about any assigned reading. The things you should taking note of include:
- major argument or thesis
- major research questions
- the book’s purpose
- major sources
- research methods
- key terms and key words the book uses and how they are defined by the author
- how the author presents their argument and evidence
- Read the book’s introduction. Many undergraduates make the mistake of skipping the introduction, but this is the part of the book you’ll spend the most time on. A good intro will give you the book’s thesis, how it converses with the field, it’s methods and sources, as well as a play-by-play outline of each of the book’s chapters. If you understand a book’s introduction, you’ll be able to breeze through the rest of it pretty quickly.
- Read the book’s conclusion. Not every book has a conclusion, but if it does you’ll want to read this next. Reading the conclusion will tell you where the book is ultimately heading, and knowing this ahead of time will make reading the rest of the book easier. It will also reinforce the thesis and tie many of the book’s disparate ideas together in a accessible and quotable manner. You’ll usually get a couple good lines that you can use during discussion from the introduction and conclusion.
- Read the table of contents. Don’t spend much time here. The point of this exercise is to put an image of the book’s trajectory in your mind before you dive into the individual chapters. Take note of whether the author breaks the book up into parts and chapters. Is the book organized thematically? Or is it laid out chronologically? How does the author handle periodization and change over time? Think of this as if you were heading to a restaurant and you needed to look up the route on Google maps for basic navigational info and traffic conditions.
- Skim the book while paying particular attention to the intro and conclusion of each chapter. Every chapter in a book has a purpose and argument of its own. Don’t read these chapters linearly or word-for-work; instead, skim them for the information you need. If Chapter Four argues that Mussolini preferred his eggs sunny-side up, look for the author’s evidence. As you get better at this, you’ll be able to recognize how author’s signal to the reader that they’re making a significant point. Until then I’d recommend looking for line-breaks or subtitles that mark the beginning and end of a subsections within a chapter.
- Fill up your note page, but nothing more. When done efficiently, you shouldn’t need more than a page or two of notes. Keep your thoughts brief and keep track of page numbers so you can reference them during class. Your notes should be brief enough to capture the books argument and key points, as well as a few points regarding what you learned and what you think the author could have done better. If you can find someone to talk to about what you just read, that’s great—but remember to keep your most original thoughts for the classroom so you can shine like a light.
- Keep your notes so you can refer to them later. You’re going to have to refer to these books sometime in the future, so file them somewhere safe and organized. Develop a uniform method of taking and storing notes. If they’re hand-written, transcribe them as Word file before you go to class. This not only allows you store your notes in the cloud, but it also gives you a chance to read and clean your notes up before you have to discuss the book in class. You’ll also wish you had organized and stored your notes better if you ever need to prepare for a Ph.D. comprehensive exam—I know I did.
Let me close by stating that this is merely one way I approach books. There are times when this method isn’t suitable for the book you’re reading or the type of reading you need to do. But start here and adapt it to what you need to accomplish. Read with a purpose. Don’t just start reading without some kind of strategy or goal in mind. And when things get tough, just watch these: