"I'll Never Read All of This!"

When in Slovakia as a young girl, my mother balked when confronted with turning over cut grass in a large field so that it can dry and be used as fodder.  My grandfather told her: “the eyes are afraid, but the hands can do it.”  When looking at a pile of books for a semester, the student of history may have a response that is not much different from that of my mother.  For them, I will pen a variation on my grandfather’s response: the eyes are afraid, but the brain can do it.

Undergraduates may be shocked when they consider the number of books they have read for a history course, which might amount to five or even eight books along with additional books needed to complete a research paper.  In graduate school, the number is even more daunting.  One course may require approximately fifteen books in addition to the books needed to complete historiographical essays or research papers.  Several important steps aid one in tackling a large amount of reading.  First, establish a schedule and stick to it.  Second, create a good environment for reading by eliminating distractions.  That may involve turning off distracting forms of electronic entertainment and ignoring mobile phones.  It also might require lecturing others on the importance of reading and the fact that intellectual work can be as exhausting as miner’s work, even though mental exhaustion exhibits itself differently from physical exhaustion.  Third, the reader must develop a strategy to attack the reading.

One does not read all books in the same manner.  A friend of mine, before retiring as a lawyer for a major bank, spent his lunch hours plowing through cheap novels, but he had to read briefs and court decisions with great care.  Similarly, there are vast differences in the types of books and short pieces one finds in the humanities and social sciences.  Text books are full of valuable information for a neophyte, who can not read them quickly.  After ploughing through a dozen books on the subject, however, an individual becomes a bit of an expert and views the information in a text book as repetitive common knowledge.  Some books, such as popular histories, may present a chronology along with something akin to a story line, making them at once enjoyable and informative.  Other works, especially scholarly monographs, chapters, and articles, have a carefully devised thesis and an intricate argument that require the reader to pay careful attention to each page.

Determining the type of reading material is one step in developing a strategy for completing an assignment.  A text may provide background material to help understand a lecture, but a lecture also may clarify information in a text.  Furthermore, one can treat a text as a reference, turning to it for additional information on a topic.  As a result, one might take limited notes when reading a text, especially if the subject is new, because one’s knowledge curve may dictate that he or she rewrites much of the text.  Instead of attempting to note all events in a text, try to ascertain the most important, noting any background factors or results the author identifies.  When reading a popular history, note the major events, much as one would with a text, and include some of the facts that help make the story interesting.  Texts and poplar histories may have weak theses or no theses at all, but that is not the case with monographs and short scholarly studies, that is, articles and chapters.  When tacking these sorts of specialized, scientific studies, the reader must approach the work slowly, especially when the author is explaining the thesis and sub-theses.  Such reading assignments will be more difficult than texts and far less entertaining than popular histories.  The reward lies in discovering a new analytical approach to a subject along with new historical evidence.

Another aspect of developing a strategy for approaching a book requires the reader to consider why he or she needs to read the piece.  When approaching a work that will serve as the basis for an assignment or exam, a student must read it with great care and take detailed notes, both of which take a good deal of time.  While reading works for a research paper, the student may focus on only one part of a book or may skim a work for relevancy.  In such instances, the table of contents of a book and the index are of great assistance.  Of course, a researcher may have to return to a book in order to read it carefully should it prove crucial for a project.  Even professional historians sometimes read a work more than once because they need to view it through a different perspective or they are seeking information they ignored the first time they read the piece.

Occasionally, graduate students and historians alike will admit that they only glanced at a book or that they “got in and out of a book quickly.”  These are euphemisms for skimming, which most intellectuals consider anathema.  In some circumstances, skimming can be useful when it is done properly.  Skimming is an art, but there are some tricks that may help to develop the skill.  Speed reading courses may be useful because they teach an individual to read down the center of the page, taking in an entire line at once.  The technique is great for inexpensive novels but useless when it comes to reading texts and monographs.  Nevertheless, sometimes one needs to skim an academic work.  In such cases, read carefully to find the thesis of the entire work in the introduction, first, or second chapter as well as the sub-theses that appear early in each chapter or section.  Older works may present the thesis in the conclusion.  If there is no thesis statement, attempt to devise one using the author’s analysis and evidence.  Skim the remainder of the book, slowing down if one determines that a chapter or portion of a chapter is more important than another.  Occasionally, the reader skimming a work may realize that the author is dwelling on a particular theme, so it might be necessary to return to the explanation of that theme in order to understand it.  These practices make skimming a bit more effective, allowing the reader to retain more information and grasp the analytical structure the author is presenting.

I knew a student with a BA in history who went on to complete medical school.  After her first year studying medicine, I asked her what disadvantage she had as a former historian studying medicine.  She could think of none.  I asked her what advantages history gave her.  Without hesitation, she explained that on the first day of classes, when everyone received their books for the semester, her classmates were surprised that they had to read a stack of nearly three feet of books.  They had become used to one text book for each course in biology or chemistry.  Unlike her classmates trained in the hard sciences, my friend looked at the stack of books and thought it was typical for a history course that required a research paper.

No matter what an individual is reading or the speed with which one completes the task, it is necessary to take notes.  It is impossible for even exceptional minds to remember even the most important facts and analyses one discovers when reading.  Taking notes is the best way to guarantee that the investment in time and effort that one makes when reading a book is not lost.  For ideas about taking notes, see my article on this web site.

My friend’s experience reinforces an important point about the skills that studying history develops.  Historians learn to tackle effectively an incredible amount of reading material.  They use it to gain facts and discover new analytical approaches.  It is useful not only for the professional historian but also for those who study history before moving to other professions.  Learning how to read like a historian takes practice and requires some patience and discipline, but it is a skill worth honing.

Rev. 16.IV.2012