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Strategies to read (and excerpt) an entire book I: Edited volumes

Frequently, academics and students alike have to read entire books. To review, to prepare for doctoral comprehensive examinations, as part of a course, etc. I am well aware that our time is terribly scarce, and we are often overbooked. Yet we still need to read those full books for course preparation, literature reviews, and even for our own research. When I was a child, my parents sent me to a speed reading class (and yes, weirdly, those courses I took did actually work! Recent research in the American Journal of Psychology shows that newer computer applications do not work as we think they do). At any rate, I am well aware that people have varying speeds, so when I was asked to share how to prepare for comprehensive exams, I figured I’d write about how I read books. You can read my entire Twitter thread by clicking on the date and time of my tweet (a new window will open, showing the full thread – scroll down until the end to read it in its entirety)

Obviously, and ideally, if we had the time, we would simply read the entire book as we go along. Sadly, we don’t often have enough time. So we’re often reduced to skimming, or just reading the parts that necessarily we must work on. What I’ve chosen to do, ever since I was in graduate school, is to excerpt and strategically decide which components of a book are most important for me to gain a general sense of the entire volume.

I use a similar strategy to the AIC (Abstract, Introduction, Conclusion) method I described in a previous post. I choose the introductory chapters (where the framework, theories, methods can be shown), and any specific chapters that are either written by authors I know and whose work relates to mine, or that cover topics that are key for the type of literature review or paper I am writing. My own work has been on commodification and decommodification of water. So while the entire book on decommodification is valuable, I really prefer to focus on chapters that deal with water. I do know four of the book authors (Karen Bakker, Teresina Gutierrez-Haces, Gerardo Otero and Anita Krajnc). Knowing their work made me think about the value of reading what they had to say. So I chose the introduction (which sets the theoretical chapter) and the conclusion, plus the chapters by each of the four authors I mentioned above. Six chapters in total.

Since I had to engage deeply with all six chapters, what I did was that I created memorandums from synthetic notes I took at the beginning, when I started reading the book. I also constructed a conceptual synthesis Excel dump with six rows, one entry per chapter.

One important item that I think is key to remember is that when writing a memorandum on a book, or book chapter, or set of excerpted book chapters, we need to link what we’ve already studied and learned with what is presented in the excerpts. This way, even if we haven’t read the entire book, we still can have a better and deeper understanding of what the book discusses and link it to the broader literature.

I’ll probably read the rest of the Laxer and Soron book when I have more time, but at least, by reading 6 of the book chapters, I now have a solid idea of what the book is about and how to apply it to my own research. Hopefully my strategy can help students and time-constrained scholars read more strategically and invest their time more efficiently.

Posted in academia, reading strategies, research, research methods.

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