how to read an academic book part one – or – first of all find your mango

Mangoes are my favorite fruit. In fact I think they are my very favorite food. The part I like best about the mango is not the plump cheeks – although they are of course completely delicious – but rather what’s left after you cut them off. I love sucking the bits of flesh that cling to the stone, even if the juice gets everywhere and bits get stuck in your teeth. I like making the stone last as long as possible, savoring every piece. It’s a completely sensual experience as far as I’m concerned and way above simply eating for nourishment.

Now I’m here to tell you that some books are like mangoes and they have stones that you can suck on for days, weeks and years.

The first thing to do with a book or an article is to work out whether in fact it is a mango or something else. Life is too short, as are budgets, to be buying a whole basket of fruit simply in the hope that one of them will turn out to be the mango. Yet that is often what I see early researchers do in libraries. And they often end up having spent a lot of time reading something that isn’t that useful to them. In reality it is important to be selective about what books you choose to read right from the get go.

You need to decide whether this book is one that you need to read carefully or not. Maybe it is one that you don’t bother with at all. Could it be one that you can skip over, noting only its bare bibliographical details and its major points? If it’s either of these, then it’s definitely not a mango.

To make this decision, mango or not, you first of all need to locate the book or article in relation to the field and your particular interest. If you are just reading randomly – and that’s a very good thing to do some of the time – then connecting the text with a particular interest is not so important. However most of us read more purposefully most of the time and so understanding where the book fits more generally is important.

In the case of a book, the author and publisher will have left some clues.

Before you start reading, check out :

(1) The title of the book. You may have noticed that academic book titles are getting more boring. These days publishers are wary of clever titles that make the reader guess what’s inside. There are too many books out there and much shopping is now done online rather than browsing in a book shop, so the way to sell books is by making sure they have explicit titles. Publishers usually make either the main title or its strap line say something quite specific. My next book, written with Barbara Kamler, for example, is entitled Writing for peer reviewed journals: strategies for getting published. Its pretty clear, we think, from the title what you can expect it to be about!

(2) The blurb on the back. This has been written specifically to tell you about the book’s purposes, something of its contents and something about what academic discipline it contributes to. You should be able to see from this whether the book is coming at the topic in a way that is completely irrelevant or is potentially of interest and use.

(3) The titles of chapters. If these are sensibly titled, these will give you an idea of what is covered in the text. If you are looking for something specific then you may now have enough information to decide whether to go any further.

If you are still interested in the book, then you should do a bit of pre-reading. These days, online publishers try to offer something of this experience with the sample chapter or the ‘look inside’ facility. In a bookshop or at a publisher’s conference stand then it is really easy to skim the introduction, where the writer will lay out the need for the book and tell you something more about what’s in it. You can also flick through a few chapters, reading the odd page here and there. You can check out the figures and tables, seeing if they have useful information. This pre-reading will not only give you even more detail about the contents, but also let you see the style of the writing.

At this point, you should not only know whether this book is of interest but also its disciplinary location, its intended contribution, something of the argument and a little about the way in which it marshals ‘evidence’. You will also have formed a view about whether this is a book that you would like to buy, or whether it is one that you will get from the library or one that you won’t bother with any more, or one you will come back to later to recheck.

In other words you will have made a decision about whether the book is potentially a mango, or something else. Of course you can still end up with something that isn’t as useful as you thought it might be because no method of choosing is completely infallible. However, having a method is much better than having something unsystematic and relatively random.

And once you have your mango, all that remains is to make your way to the stone.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic book, choosing a book, reading and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to how to read an academic book part one – or – first of all find your mango

  1. OMG…I love this. Once I return to Edmonton, I’ll be whittling down my library and having to choose which ones are the mangos and worth moving to Victoria and which ones can go to a grad student or colleagues. You’ve given me my litmus test — is this a book I’ll want to suck on and let the juice run down my chin or is this a spy apple — useful but hard and sour? Thanks Pat…and thanks for introducing me to mangos on your recent visit:-)


  2. Chris says:

    This reminds me of a prof in my undergrad who challenged us to write book reviews without reading the book and based entirely on what we could glean from details such as the physical appearance, publisher, jacket notes and bio, title, table of contents, etc. It was fun and taught us quite valuable skills about how to quickly appraise a potential source for content, argument, bias, audience, and so on.

    Victoriamomsy, your comment brought to mind this quote from Taleb’s “The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable” (2007, Random House):
    “The writer Umberto Eco belongs to that small class of scholars who are encyclopedic, insightful, and nondull. He is the owner of a large personal library (containing thirty thousand books), and separates visitors into two categories: those who react with “Wow! Signore, professore dottore Eco, what a library you have ! How many of these books have you read?” and the others – a very small minority – who get the point that a private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you don’t know as your financial means, mortgage rates and the currently tight real-estate market allows you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menancingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary.”

    Thank you Pat, I’ve been following your blog for a few weeks now and much of what you say resonates with my own experience and thinking.


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