Tuesday, January 27, 2009

How to Skim a Book

Here’s the problem:
1) College is a time when you are expected to read a lot of books, and it’s important that you do this because reading books introduces you to new ideas and new ways of thinking. Reading can actually help you become a better person; 2) Few of our students have a lot of time on their hands to spend reading books. They have jobs, families and other commitments. Furthermore academic writing is frequently dry. These things make is hard for many students to get the required reading done.

Here is the solution:

Skim. But if you’re going to skim, do it properly. Begin with the introduction or preface, whichever the book has. Almost all academic books begin with an introduction or preface. This is where the author tells you why she wrote the book and what she hopes to accomplish. She tells you what is in the book and why you should care. Just about every academic book you are assigned will be arranged in the same way: 1) the author tells you what she’s going to tell you; 2)she tells you; 3) she tells you what she told you. The introduction is where she tells you what she’s going to tell you. The body of the book is where she tells you, and the conclusion is where she tells you what she told you.

For that reason, I read the introduction very carefully. I am looking for the author’s argument. In other words, what is the main point she is trying to make? What is the central message of this book? I also look for the author’s strategy in the introduction. An academic book is a little like a murder trial. The prosecutor in the trial tries to convince the jury of something. He introduces evidence. He explains the importance of each piece of evidence and how it logically fits together to prove his case. Academic arguments are presented the same way. The author makes a central claim and then introduces evidence to support that claim. She then uses logic to show how the evidence fits together to support her claim. In reading the introduction, I keep the following questions in mind: what kind of evidence is this author using to support what claim, and how does she fit it together logically?

Then I go straight to the final chapter or the conclusion. This is where the author sums up her case. This is where she tells me what she told me. By the time I have read the conclusion, I am usually pretty sure what the author’s central argument is and what strategies she is employing to make her case.

Then I go to the first chapter. I read the first chapter the same way I read the overall book. The first paragraph tells me what she is going to tell me; the following paragraphs tell me; then the concluding paragraph tells me what she told me. Here again, I begin with the first paragraph, then read the last one and then read the introductory sentence of the next paragraph.
In this way, I am digesting the main points of the book and getting an idea of how it all fits together. As I skim through the following paragraphs I will pay careful attention to those parts that seem directly related to the book’s central argument and its main supporting themes. When the paragraphs appear to be laden with a lot of details that I probably won’t remember anyway, I skim down to the next paragraph and keep doing that until I get back to the main ideas.
Using this technique, you can effectively skim a book in 3 to 6 hours depending on the length of the book and the complexity of its topic. Some books are so good that you’ll want to read every word. Others will lend themselves well to skimming. It’s up to you to decide based on how much time you have and your level of skill. Good luck!