Monday, April 26, 2010

How to Read a Book in One Hour

This is the first in an occasional series of posts where I will share some of my teaching materials. This particular post began when I answered a question on Ask Metafilter. These tips are designed for graduate students reading academic monographs--use at your own risk. Googling the phrase "How to read a book in one hour" produces this and this page as well.

How to Read a Book in One Hour

"How do I keep up with the reading?" This is perhaps the most frequent question I get from overwhelmed history graduate students. And no wonder. A graduate history course typically has 500 or more assigned pages a week, and a full slate of courses can quickly push your weekly reading assignments into the thousands of pages. How is it possible to read that much?

Those who survive graduate school learn along the way that it is necessary to change the way you read. As children we are taught that reading is always linear--you start on page one and end on page three-hundred-and-sixty-seven and skipping pages is cheating. That is the way you read all through public school and the way most people read their whole lives. Once you get to grad school, however, it is time to leave that childhood illusion behind.

You are no longer reading books for the stories contained inside. As a historian, you are reading them for other reasons--to understand the authors' arguments, to see how they handle evidence, to examine how they structure their arguments, and to analyze their work as a whole. Perhaps above all, you need to understand how any given book fits into the historiography, how it speaks to other works on the subject, its strengths and weaknesses.  Plodding through a book one page at a time is not the best way to understand a book in graduate school.

You need to devour books, to fall on them like a hungry weasel on a fat chicken. You break their spines, rummage about in their innards for the tasty bits, and make your way to the next chicken coop. Here is how to do it:

1. Create a clean space--a table, the book, paper and a writing utensil, and nothing else.

2. Read two academic reviews of the book you photocopied beforehand. Don't skip this step, these will tell you the book's perceived strengths and weakness. Allow five minutes for this.

3. Read the introduction, carefully. A good intro will give you the book's thesis, clues on the methods and sources, and thumbnail synopses of each chapter. Work quickly but take good notes (with a bibliographic citation at the top of the page.) Allow twenty minutes here.

4. Now turn directly to the conclusion and read that. The conclusion will reinforce the thesis and have some more quotable material. In your notes write down 1-2 direct quotes suitable for using in a review or literature review, should you later be assigned to write such a beast. Ten to fifteen minutes.

5. Turn to the table of contents and think about what each chapter likely contains. You may be done--in many cases in grad school the facts in any particular book will already be familiar to you, what is novel is the interpretation. And you should already have that from the intro and conclusion. Five minutes.

6. (Optional) Skim 1-2 of what seem to be the key chapters. Look for something clever the author has done with her or his evidence, memorable phrases, glaring weaknesses--stuff you can mention and sound thoughtful yourself when it is your turn to talk in the seminar room. Ten minutes, max.

7. Put the notes and photocopied review in a file folder and squirrel it away. These folders will serve as fodder for future assignments, reviews of similar books, lectures, grant applications, etc.

8. Miller time. Meet some friends and tell them the interesting things you just learned (driving it deeper it your memory).

Will you learn as much using this method as you would if you spent the 5-8 hours reading it in the conventional method?  Heck no. But the real meat of the book, the thesis and key points, will actually be more clear to you using this method. Otherwise it is too easy for a graduate student to get lost in the details and miss the main points.

This method works better with some books than others.  If a book is considered especially important, or if it falls squarely within your research area, you should give it more time. And never, ever tell the professor that you read the assignment in an hour. Not even if that professor is me. I'll flunk you.

[Image of a 1960s library poster from Flickr user VB Library and shared via a Creative Commons license.]


Unknown said...

Please don't call this "reading a book". This is skimming. Excellent advice on skimming, though.

Kelly in Kansas said...

Thanks, Larry. I've shared this with our TAH teachers, too. The more approaches they hear, the more likely they will be to find one that works for them. ;-)

Allison said...

Thanks Larry, again, for this useful advice. Fortunately, my advisor says the same thing. It's hard to do sometimes; I always the fear that some earth-shattering, thesis-changing, information will be hidden in one of those skipped chapters. As a result, I read some books more closely than others. But I've had to adapt to skimming-- too many classes, to many student papers to grade, too many children in my house!

Jamie said...

And I thought I was the only one that did this...!

LAM said...

I think the key is not so much technique--though you've given some good suggestions--but permission. You have to convince yourself that it's okay to break with the linear reading model. For me, it took the insight gained from a lecture on the history of the book that books are meant to be random access devices and that linear reading is an innovation of the novel. Once you've given yourself permission, it's pretty easy to work out the technique.

Larry Cebula said...

LAM, those are such good points, particularly about giving yourself permission.

Tim Lacy said...

Thanks Larry! I've added some other tips at USIH. - TL

Lee said...

Ha! Hilarious. Just starting Grad School at EWU and finding most students do something like this. Fun to hear a professor being honest about it.

Rupert said...

Well, I created a series called History In An Hour for this exact purpose - to read an introduction to a subject in about 11,000 words (+ appendices). Hope, one day, to expand beyond history into other subject areas.

Larry Cebula said...

Rupert, I can't find any content at your website.

Nils said...

the intellectual analog to lepidophagy:

Nils said...

the intellectual analog to lepidophagy:

James Stripes said...

In a graduate course on Ethnohistory and the New Social History for which we had twelve books, an annotated bibliography, and a detailed paper on one of the twelve, the professor opined that MA students in history need to "know" (she didn't say read) 300 books and PhD students needed to know 1000. I was in my first year of graduate school when she said that, and I found the statement intimidating. By the time I defended my dissertation, I regarded her 1000 as a conservative estimate. There were some books that I got to "know" by browsing the new book shelves in the library and spending thirty minutes with them. My process was similar to what Larry describes here, but without the book reviews and without writing the notes.

There were some books that defeated this approach, demanding careful reading, including the one that I wrote about for that seminar: James Axtell, The Invasion Within.