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Reading with purpose


These are my instructions for how to read a certain way: a guide to reading as a means of gaining knowledge you intend to use in something you are going to discuss or write. Of course there are lots of ways to read. You can read for pleasure, to kill time waiting for your kid to fall asleep or the bus to arrive, to know at least vaguely what people will be talking about over brunch. These instructions are for reading so that you can participate in a seminar or write informatively or speak publicly about the topic. This is reading for a special purpose that I think of as academic reading, though this kind of reading can be used in many ways that have little to do with academics. If you are going to engage seriously with ideas and facts in your own discourse, you will need to do some serious reading.

I’m thinking of this advice in particular as I prepare to give it to MA students in a media studies class, but it should probably be useful to many kinds of graduate students, and perhaps undergraduates and teachers as well as civilians of various stripes.

(I’m calling this “how to read a book” but it probably applies in some ways, to whatever extent, to many other things you might read. An article, a chapter, a blog post. Particularly scholarly articles in the humanities, smart longform journalism, that kind of thing.)

When you read a book, you don’t just start with the first word and go straight through to the last and then you’re done. You also anticipate reading it, gather information about it, size it up, put it into conversation with other books, decide what you want or need from the book, think about how the book will help you in the future, figure out not just what the words mean but also how you are going to think about them and put them into contact with your ideas and other people’s ideas.

Before reading, you should figure out stuff about:

  • The author and his or her background and affiliation
  • The publisher (or journal/magazine etc. for an article); is it part of a series? a special issue?
  • The date of publication (on my syllabus, I include dates for everything)
  • The intended reader, to the extent that you can judge; when scholars pitch a book to a press, they always have to say who is the intended reader, so never assume a book is written for just anyone. And popular writing has intended readers too. Who reads The Atlantic? Who reads People? Who reads Malcolm Gladwell books sold at the airport? You don’t know exactly who, but you can make some assumptions.

And don’t just figure this stuff out, make sense of it. What’s the significance of a reading being from the 1990s rather than the 2010s? What’s the significance of a book being popular or scholarly, a work of sociology, history, or cultural criticism? What do popular magazine writers do that academics don’t do and vice versa? (For instance, journalists often describe people’s appearance, and academics generally do not, so ask yourself, what is this information good for?)

You also might ask: what are some similar books and how can you compare them? How do you find this stuff out?

  • Amazon (see what people who bought your book also bought), Google Books, Google Scholar (see what other works cite the one you are reading), Wikipedia
  • Reviews, which can be very informative but can also prejudice or confuse you if they’re too “inside baseball” or if the reviewer has an ax to grind

When you figure out what genres a book fits into, it helps you see what they’re doing. Maybe something odd or annoying about the book is just what it’s like to be a work of anthropology or literary theory; maybe that’s just the style of Wired.

What is the book really trying to do, and what does it want to be? Find out by considering its:

  • Title
  • Cover copy (academic books usually have back cover descriptions, which may or may not be the same as catalog/Amazon copy, often written by the author and shortened/punched up by someone in marketing)
  • Blurbs, both content and author (oh, that person blurbed it so the press must have thought they fit into the author’s field)
  • Table of Contents, more on which below…
  • Index, always look to see which terms have the most entries, and if you/someone you know is mentioned (usually you are not but if you are that’s exciting)
  • For articles, there’s the abstract, which I skip because the introduction is right there and probably tells you what the article will be about anyway, and with more careful writing (in the social-sciences and other more distant fields from mine, abstracts might sometimes be an ok substitute for reading the article)

In academic books, you often have a fairly predictable set of parts.

  • Acknowledgements, which you should never skip since they can be informative about field, background, etc., and if the book was adapted from a dissertation they’ll certainly thank their advisor and professors, so you can place the author in the context of a grad program.
  • Introduction, which often contains a summary of the chapters near the end. Helpful especially if you don’t think you are going to read the whole book or need to summarize it for your PhD exams.
  • Chapters, which often have informative titles. (Trade press books often do not!) A table of contents is a poem, so read it closely and look for quirks of vocabulary and style since people like to put their favorite words in chapter titles.
  • Introductions of the chapters often make clear what the argument will be, or at least where it’s going. Conclusions often restate.
  • Section headers often indicate main points so you can reverse engineer a chapter outline. If you can visualize the outline of the chapter you can probably see its main points and how the important examples support them. If there are no section headers that doesn’t mean there is no organization or outline, just that it will be more work for you to reverse engineer.
  • Footnotes/endnotes are very informative. What kind of sources does this author use? Is it historical, and if so is there archival research? Is it ethnographic, and if so, who was being observed? Is it theoretically informed, and if so, who are the theorists? For journalism, who are the sources the author interviewed? You can often judge a book by its supporting apparatus. You can tell if the author did a lot of work. It’s also possible for brilliant writing to be lacking in citations and references, and for extensively footnoted writing to be merely show-offy and not very serious; don’t assume that lots of notes means a strong argument or analysis.

When reading, you should be writing. I divide my reading into:

  1. Books I read without a pen in my hand
  2. Books I read with a pen/computer/annotation inputs (Kindle, iPad app GoodReader). I love the Kindle highlights and notes because they are accessible from Amazon’s website.

If you are reading a book for class, you really need to be doing #2. But what are you writing down and annotating? Are you God forbid randomly highlighting? Sometimes I look at old books I read in school and I highlighted or underlined the wrong parts! I was literate, but I didn’t know how to read yet. You want to find the key ideas. The thesis statement. The revealing phrase you might quote one day.

I often type notes in Google Docs so that they’re searchable. But even in the margins, you can flip through. When using Google Docs, I copy lots of quotations and I make notes to myself. I do this mainly when reading something I am going to write about or teach. I often label things “quotable” or “key idea” or “ugh.” I make sure to flag which points are my reactions and which are summaries or quotes because I am terrified of inadvertent plagiarism. Sometimes, I read the #1 way first, and if I decide I am going to work with that reading, I read it again the #2 way. Sometimes when I’m reading the #1 way I start jotting notes on my phone or a notecard, but that’s not really #2 reading. There are no shortcuts to serious reading.

Here’s another way of breaking down #1/#2 reading: #1 is for a comfortable upholstered chair, and #2 is for a desk or table. (Actually, with a Kindle or iPad I can do #2 while working out on an elliptical trainer.)

Here’s a very delicate matter: are you going read the whole book, every word, every footnote? I am never going to tell students they don’t have to read the whole thing. God strike me dead if I ever do. Officially, you have to read every word assigned in my class. In reality, I know some of you won’t read every word, though I would like you to do your best and to pretend you did the reading. If you didn’t do the reading you should feel shitty, right? I sometimes showed up for class having done less than all of the reading, and it didn’t feel good.

After reading a book, ideally, you should be able to say what the main idea was, what the approach was, what kind of book it was, what other books it’s similar to. It’s unusual to read a book that is totally unfocused and vague. If you’re not sure what the main point was, it’s almost never because the book doesn’t have a main point.

If you are getting really good at reading this way, here’s an assignment. In a few sentences, a short paragraph, summarize the book, including its central argument and key examples, so effectively that if the author read your precis, they would have to admit you did it better than they could have. (This is what some peer reviewers try to do at the top of their reader reports, and if they succeed then the author being reviewed will probably feel that the evaluation is on the money.) Sometimes this task is damn near impossible, but if you are on the right track, you might feel you are approaching a worthwhile goal.

Michael Newman, a McGill University alumnus who grew up in Toronto, is an associate professor of media studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. This article originally appeared on the online site Medium.

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