How to Read a Book for Research
|July 15, 2013||Posted by amurphy under Getting Started, Organizing, Research Skills|
It’s easy to underestimate the role that reading plays in research: more attention seems to be given to finding sources, outlining, writing, editing, and constructing a bibliography than actually reading your sources for information. The assumption is probably due to the fact that everyone doing a research paper knows how to read. However, there is a difference between reading for pleasure, skimming for information, and the in-depth dissection of a topic necessary to truly understand what it is the author is saying.
Reading for research uses in some ways a combination of all three (provided you find pleasure in your reading). The steps which I use to read for research are inspired by those outlined in the book How to Read a Book.
Reading a book for research is hard work, and requires several phases. Not all of these phases are appropriate for every book: for instance, if you are only skimming a book to see if it is appropriate for your specific research topic, in-depth reading would likely be a waste of time and therefore inadvisable.
The first phase of reading has to do with discovery: to find out whether the book you have in your hands (or on your internet browser) is the one you need requires perusal. Read the book jacket or inside cover for the summary or hook. Look up the author or read the “about the author” section to see the author’s credentials, and if she is an appropriate authority. If you’re still not sure, read over the table of contents to familiarize yourself with the scope of the book and the individual topics.
At the start of the second phase you have decided that the book is germane to your topic and is authoritative enough at least to merit further research. If you haven’t already, read over the table of contents. Think of it as a road map or itinerary : it tells you where the author is going and at which points he is going to stop. Next read the introduction or prologue. In a nonfiction book this is generally the point where the author explains the intent of his book, how he is going to get there, and where he thinks you will end up. This is the point at which I generally begin to take notes: note the main topics the author promises to explain, and if you can, distill the thesis of the book into a sentence or two. Then flip to the back of the book and read the conclusion, taking notes all the way. What are the main points the author said he proved? Is his thesis the same at the end of the book as it was at the beginning? It should be, if the author did a good job proving his points and editing.
The third phase involves actually going through the book cover-to-cover. You may find it helpful to again read the first and last paragraph of each chapter before going through it. During this read through find and highlight what you think are the foundational points of the chapter, as well as any passages you think you may quote, paraphrase, or cite. It’s okay if it seems that you’re highlighting too much, because you can go back and mark the most important sentences.
The fourth phase involves reading the material that you have highlighted and skimming the rest: in this read through, if necessary, take a pen and underline the sentences in the highlighted section that are most important for your research.
By this time you should have a very good grasp of what the book is saying and what its most important parts are, and a very minimal chance of having missed something. Of course, this rigorous method isn’t practical for all books: books that only contain a chapter you want to use, books that aren’t foundational to your thesis, and books that only have a tangential relevance to your point are poor candidates for this kind of reading. However, if you’re looking to fully grasp the meaning of a book, a rigorous reading standard like this one can help enormously. Of course, do what you are comfortable with, and experiment: find what active reading works for you and do it.