how to read and note an academic book – part two – slicing and dicing

So you’ve now picked out the book that you want to read in some detail.

As I’ve suggested, you don’t want to read every book in the same way. There are some that can immediately be skimmed, others engaged with more thoroughly. But this one looks tasty so it’s time to work out if your impressions are correct. (It might be a mango. I don’t want to labour this metaphor so it’s not too prominent here I hope!).

Peeling back

First of all you need to read right through the book. You can make notes in pencil in the margin or on sticky notes as you go along – but not too many!! If you are spending a lot of time writing more than a few things in or on a chapter then it’s probably far too much. You’re going to get another go at it if you decide that this book really is one to savour. But if you find yourself skipping pages that’s OK too, it probably means that the book is not as succulent as you first thought.

Once you have got to the end of the book then it’s pretty helpful to IMMEDIATELY write a summary of the book’s argument in a few sentences. Yes really, a few sentences, certainly no more than a paragraph.

1. Start the paragraph by stating the purpose of the book – what problem or issue is the author addressing. What is their intention? This might be a problem of policy, practice, a gap in the literatures or a theoretical question.
2. Sum up the argument made.
3. Finally, finish with the claim(s) made by the author. Be really clear about the point they are trying to make – this is after all why they have spent part of their lives writing the book – if you can get this point into one sentence all the better.

It is now that you may decide that you want to go back and read some bits, or even the lot, in more detail and make a few additional notes. You may decide to note just a couple of quotations or key passages. This little addition may very well be sufficient for your purposes. However you may decide that the book warrants a closer read.

Getting into the substance

There are always some books that are more germane to you than others. If this is one of them then it is helpful to augment the middle section of your summary paragraph by detailing the moves in the argument. You can do this by writing a very short outline, no more than a few sentences, about each move of the argument. A move may be a single chapter or it might be more than one.

What I’m suggesting is in fact the reverse process of the familiar approach to developing a plan for your writing by jotting down a set of headings and bullet points – these provide a skeleton that you then add the flesh to. The approach to a completed book is precisely the opposite. You work back from the text to see what the headings and bullet points might have been. This is a kind of backwards mapping of the text. All the fleshy parts of the book are stripped away to reveal the way that it works.

This outline should allow you to lay bare the way in which each chapter is related to the next. Now you can not only see and evaluate each move, but also ascertain the relationship between them. If it’s important to you may want to note things about each move that are important to your interest – the evidence used, the theoretical approach, the connections with other literatures you are reading.

By this stage you will probably have written a couple of pages -these are your interpretation of the book’s structure and argument. They are also the notes which you can insert into bibliographic software or use in whatever way you have developed to keep track of the books that are important to your study. If you are clever then you can may be able to hyperlink these notes to the actual text (ebook) or to stickies or supplementary notations (quotations, musings etc)

Doing this kind of structural noting is a good way to engage seriously with a text, and it is also a really useful way to build your knowlegde about how large texts can be organized successfully.

However, even this reading may not be sufficient.

If the book turns out to be a very juicy read and becomes one you decide you really want to get down and dirty with, then the next and final instalment will deal with this – sucking 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, argument, backward mapping, note-taking, reading, structure and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to how to read and note an academic book – part two – slicing and dicing

  1. Patsy Davies says:

    Pat, can you please say something about what makes a good book review. Many thanks!


  2. Pingback: how much should doctoral researchers read? | patter

  3. Pingback: How to read and note an academic book – p...

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