Reading difficult books
Reading academic books is not the same as reading a light novel. You
will not pick the academic book up, begin at the beginning and be carried
through by the power of the narrative to the end
You will need to think about how you read. This will often involve reading
only parts of the book very carefully and
what you read -
in your own words about what it is saying.
Most books include clues on:
how to get an overall picture of what they are about without reading them
how to read them a bit at a time, rather than all at once, and dig out what
you want from them.
The title This may summarise the book
The blurb This is the material on the back or just inside the cover.
It is probably not written by the author, but on an academic book it may be
a good introduction.
The contents list This gives you a survey of what the book is about
and points you to the parts that you may be most interested in.
The index This points you to pages throughout the book that you may
be most interested in.
The first and/or last paragraphs of chapters. Academic authors often
summarise the chapter at the beginning or the end.
The first and/or last chapters Sometimes these summarise the book.
Any introduction Introductions can be useful. Remember, however that
if they are written by someone other than the author, it is his or her
interpretation of the book you are reading.
A well known analysis of reading activities called SQ3R
may help you:
SQ3R (SQ and three Rs)
Survey: Skim the book to get an overall idea of its structure,
purpose, contents, style, etc. Think about why it has the title it has.
Read any introductory blurb on the cover or end papers. Read the contents
list and think about the chapter headings. Look at illustrations. See if
there are summaries at the beginning or end of chapters.
Questions: Form some questions in your mind for which you want
or expect to find answers in reading the book.
Read: Read straight through the material, or part of it, trying
to focus on the main points and not getting bogged down in too much detail.
Some people skim read first by reading the first sentence of each
Recall: Shut the book and try to remember what you have just
read; make a brief note of each point. Make a note of points you do not
feel clear about.
Go through what you
read again and complete and clarify your notes so that they will be
The best study reading is active. Passive reading is just
reading to see what the book has to say. Active reading is looking for what
you want to find in a book.
Give yourself a purpose.
The point of forming questions is to have some definite expectation of
what you are going to do by reading.
You need to remember some points from what you read. Make a
definite effort to recall the important points about what you have read,
and clarify points that you are uncertain about.
You need to select your reading. Reading a book from cover to
cover is not a frequent academic activity. More often the reader selects
the important or relevant passages.
Notetaking is part of
"When reading "difficult books", I write
notes as I go along. This helps me understand what I am
reading as I have to think about it to produce the notes. Also, wehn
re-reading parts of the book for information, I am able to read my notes -
which are clear and I understand." (Psychology student)
different kinds of notes that will be produced by your reading. For
example, the notes that you make with the book shut (to recall the main
points) will be different from careful notes of what a book actually says
that you may make with the intention of making
Notes are taken to help you take mental possession of what you are
reading and so that you can return to them later to recall information they
contain. That is to say, the actual process of notetaking has value as
learning, and the notes that you take have value as a record.
The kind of notes you take on books will be affected by:
Who owns the book
Where you are
What you want notes for
There is one rule, however, that applies to most circumstances:
bibliographic details of the books you read. You should always note the
name, the title of the book, the date of publication and the publisher.
When you make
notes from the book you should note the page numbers.
Some imaginary situations to illustrate the variety of notetaking on
riding on a bus
using a computer
in bed with a cold
somewhere you can write easily
all over the place
Notes on a cheap paperback you own - made riding on a bus -
to focus on the relevant points and be able to recall them.
Your "notes" may be no more than a pencil line highlighting significant
Marking quotes is not just preparing for quoting the book in an essay, it
helps you to find
your way around the book when you next read it. Passages identified on a
might later be copied to a computer file. This can be a useful way of
book and/or composing an entry in your database. If you need to put markers
find your way around books that you have borrowed (or do not want to mark
other reason) it can be done with slips of paper used as bookmarks.
Notes from a library book - made somewhere you can use a computer -
retain relevant parts for future use
If you are reading books in a library you may take notes by
which you later file. Photocopies can be marked. (Is it necessary to tell
you that library
books must not be marked?). If you can use a computer in the library (and
have a floppy
disk with you), you may want to make direct entries into a file. You may,
want to record the bibliographic details of books you are looking at,
and their references, or chapter headings to remind you what the book
Notes on borrowed books - made in bed because you are ill - in order to
the arguments of the books' authors.
Let us hope you are well enough to hold a pad of A4 paper and a pencil.
have the books that need comparing, but you are only up to reading one
book, and only
for short periods. You have noted the issues on which you want to compare
planned to make notes on separate sheets for each book. You can do so in
of energy you can find. You can compare the notes on the separate sheets
from time to
time, highlighting points of comparison. When you are better you can sit
down at a desk
with the sheets and the books and sort your notes into an organised
Notes from difficult reading - made somewhere you can write easily -
to provide you with a digest of the book/s.
You may want substantial notes on certain books. You could start a page
writing the bibliographic details at the top and then enter notes as you
read. Each note
could start with the page number. If this becomes your normal pattern of
notetaking, you will be able to organise your notes in a file by the book
they are about. If
you leave a margin on both sides of the paper you will be able to add
other books in your collection of notes on books.
Summarising a difficult, but important book - with notes made in
different places - in order to
get a good grasp of what the book is about.
This is where notetaking becomes creative composition. It is hard work,
and very rewarding.
The book could be one that you have to study in depth for your
course, or that you believe is important for some other reason.
Set yourself the task of writing a
that will really communicate what the book is about.
Carry the book around with you and read it whenever you can. Whenever
you have a useful idea that captures an aspect of the book, write it down
on a scrap of paper or the back of your hand.
As you begin to feel you understand the book (or part of it) draft and
redraft the review on a sheet of A4 or a computer. It may help you to
impose a limit on the length of the review: one paragraph for example.
[At the time I wrote the above, I was struggling to write a one
paragraph review - using these methods. Click
to read it. You
will notice that I have changed the one long paragraph into several short
ones. One does this to make web writing easier to read.]
links outside this site
Andrew Roberts' web Study Guide
Picture introduction to this site
Take a Break - Read a Poem
Click coloured words to go where you want
Andrew Roberts likes to hear from users:
To contact him, please
use the Communication
© Andrew Roberts