how to read an academic book closely – part three – sucking the stone

There are some books that are important to your study and some that are critical to your ongoing research agenda, and some that you just love. There are also some writers whose work you want to know in great detail. When you locate these texts and authors, you need to do more than know their argument, the key moves and the claims they make. You need to know them intimately. In other words, you’re ready to suck the mango stone.

To help make clear the difference between the types of books you might want to get to know better, I’ll give an example of my own. I’m currently reading some books on narrative very closely. This is for a particular piece of research I’m doing on community theatre. I have also read a lot of Bourdieu and Foucault closely, and I often re-read pieces of them, because they tend to be useful for much of my own research and that of the doctoral researchers I work with. But I do just love de Certeau’s “The practice of everyday life”. I actually don’t particularly agree with his basic argument about tactics and strategies as it’s a bit too binary for me, and I don’t actually use him much in my work, but I really relish the way he writes about the texture of ordinary things like travel and walking around. I read him for pleasure.

So, having clarified the types of books you might want to really get to grips with, what do I mean by reading closely? Well, apart from reading more slowly, which you do need to do, there are particular things that are important when getting to know a text well.

Systematically explore the writer’s language

Each academic writer has their own way of using language, and so it’s important to understand the particular meanings/definitions they adopt. Find the key terms that they are using and see how they are used and in what contexts. It can be helpful to make a tiny dictionary of the key terms that are most germane to the argument being made.

Good academic writers will try to be as unambiguous as possible about the specific ways in which they use terms that are common-place or common to their discipline. They will define the particular way that they use a term such as culture, identity or democracy.

Academic writers also often generate their own terms to encapsulate a key idea (concept). Sometimes, this new terminology constitutes a theorization, so it’s important to take note of whether the new terms invented by the writer are at the level of concept or theory. Bourdieu’s field, capitals and habitus are examples of key concepts which, taken together, become a social theory.

Get to know the writer’s resources

Every academic writer draws on others. This can of course be seen in the reference list so a first step in getting to know an academic writer’s resources is to see who they are citing and either building on or registering some difference with.

One of the characteristics of academic scholarship is that people position themselves with a particular tradition, but take issue with some insiders, as well as with some ‘outside’. You need to get onto this too. Who is the writer differentiating themselves from and who are they talking about as similar and is this part of an insider or outsider debate?

Sometimes the who/what/how of using other people’s work is actually in the text. There may be an explicit discussion of a particular work, scholar or tradition. The fact that the writer has chosen to spend time on this tells you that they are working with the material either to take issue with it, or to show how they will apply or add to it. If you have the time it is really helpful to read the original that is being discussed.

Explicit references to the work of others are easy to see. However texts also have embedded resources which are not so obvious. All academic writers use inter-textual references where readers must already know the field in order to see the wider points being made. For example, the notion of performativity is often used in discussions of modern universities without reference to Lyotard (or indeed Butler who has an entirely different take). It may help your understanding of the text you are examining if you not only know the assumed reference ( eg Lyotard and Butler), but also a range of other texts that have used the same theorization. This kind of understanding can only be built up over time and that is why it is important to read both widely and deeply.

Become familiar with the writer’s overarching propositions

If this is a book by someone who is important to your study or your ongoing research agenda then it may well be advantageous to read more of their work. Reading other books by the same author will show you how they develop ideas over time, adjusting and modifying their theories and terms as they do more reading and research, take critiques into account and adjust to changing contexts.

It is important to become very clear about the wider problem, puzzle or phenomenon that the writer is addressing. It is helpful to ask yourself – if this text was a case, what is it a case of? What is the wider issue with which this writer is concerned? Why do they think this is important? Why have they spend part of their life writing this particular book? Why is what is in this book important to the larger issue with which they are concerned?

It is then critical to be very clear about what the writer offers in relation to the larger problem/puzzle/phenomenon compared to others in the field. What is the unique contribution that they offer?

When doing this, it is very helpful to write a plain language version of the key meta-propositions that the writer makes. In your own words, say what it is that you understand the author to be arguing and claiming. This goes beyond the kind of summary that you did when you first encountered the book. Here, you are going for something like the answer to a question you yourself might also be asked – What do you want to be known for?

When you get to know a text very well in this way, you will be able to discuss it and the writer with authority, and in detail. You’ll have made yourself an expert on this particular book.

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, authority in writing, Pat Thomson, reading, reference, terms, theory and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to how to read an academic book closely – part three – sucking the stone

  1. Pingback: how to read an academic book closely – part three – sucking the … | Katherine's study log

  2. Fiona says:

    Hi Pat, I have found this series of articles very helpful. After returning to academia following a 10 year gap I am having to re-learn key skills; your approach is very helpful and accessible. The mango analogy is so true. Thanks


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