Speed-dating an academic book

Books are stacked lying horizontally and haphazardly arranged by colour to give a vague rainbow-like impression with cooler blue and green colours on the bottom and left, and yello in the center, red ones more to the right and top. The spines of many books are old and tattered. Some books are placed vertically
Photo by Robert Anasch on Unsplash

Table of contents

Just when you think you’ve only got a few more topics to cover in this series, a friend comes along and gives you an idea for a new post!

This one is inspired by Meggin McIntosh, the PhD of Productivity, and her own post on “How to read a book in an hour.” Well, I’m all ears.

A jackrabbit with the most massive ears poking out, they are at least as tall as its body. The rabbit looks straight at the camera and is lying down on sandy ground, all stretched out.
Source: Reddit

I’m not sure if I am SABLE (Stash Acquired Beyond Life Expectancy) yet, but I do need to start reading the books I buy, and faster!

I share with my students a trick similar to Meggin’s but I go even faster: I challenge them to speed-dating a book and deciding within 10-30 mins if they want to continue the relationship. In some cases, it can be all over in 5 mins.

This works really well for academic history books, which are a specific genre, and thus they have a bit of a formula to them. At this point I imagine colleagues coming out of the woodworks, yelling all sorts of things to me about great books that don’t follow the formula, and about me misunderstanding “genre” etc., so just form an orderly queue and one at a time please. I’m writing this for my students who actually asked if I have a written version of my speed-dating tips. Now I do.

I add it to the Digital Tools for Teaching Series because there are a couple of things you can do with a digital or ebook that you can’t do as easily with a paper version. But overall, what I have to say here can be applied to any history book “as is”.

Don’t just start reading

It’s not a novel, so don’t start on page 1.

(Side note: has anybody else noticed that students began a few years ago to talk about everything as a novel? That’s a work of fiction and we’re not in the business of fabricating our materials. Some have tried, though, I have to admit. Quick solution: call everything a “text”. Never fails- you can specify what kind of text later!)

Anyways here’s what I do:

  1. look at the title, and subtitle
    • Can you tell what the author’s big claim is yet?
  2. check the blurb from the publisher if any
    • What is the promise from the author or publisher about this book? Take a note and keep it near; but don’t discard the book yet if it’s not what you thought you need: there may be interesting info buried deeper inside.
  3. look at the Table of Contents. Pray the titles are descriptive and not cryptic references to interesting stuff in the chapter that leave you guessing (aka what I call a “Table of Discontents”)
    • Praise the publisher and author if there is a more detailed ToC with subheadings underneath each chapter.
    • What are the chapters/sections about? Is there a story that runs through the chapters? Is the book focused on a place? Does it move through time? Does it hightlight different people or groups of people in turn, or does it leave particular groups out? Are any of these of interest to you and your project?
  4. check all the way in the back and look at the index:
    • which words have a lot of references?
    • which words have subdivisions? E.g. Military: administration of; campaigns; crisis of; demographics of; leadership etc.
    • which words have very few references? E.g. Manchuria (in the same book)
    • which words are unexpected but still in the index? E.g. regulated verse (still the same book)
    • are there specific terms you’re looking for because you already have a topic in mind? what synonyms or related terms/names can you find?
    • you don’t need to look up the words in the text yet but you can get a sense of what the heavy hitters are and which topics are not the most important according to the author, or you can be pleasantly surprised: what’s poetry doing in that book??
  5. check out the bibliography: If you are already a bit familiar with the field, chances are you know what some of the foundational texts are, or who the great researchers are.
    • who’s there and who’s missing?
      • if foundational texts or authors are missing, you can wonder if the author really knows what they’re doing. Don’t throw the book out yet, but be on your guard.
    • which other texts sound interesting? Keep notes and build out your own bibliography

At this point you’ve spent about 5-10 mins looking through the book without reading any of it yet in the traditional, line-by-line sense of the word. But you have gathered a lot of information about where the author sees their work sit in the wider scholarship. And that’s just looking at the “paratext.”

Look at Chapter 1 or the Introduction

Skip the acknowledgements for now – they’re fun but we don’t have time to meet the author’s kids and cats. (speeddating, remember?)

An “Introduction” or “Chapter 1” lay out the core ideas of the book, the main argument and the sources, the body of existing work it engages with, and –most useful for our purposes– the plan of the book.

If you are not yet sure if you want to read more about this topic: in the first few paragraphs look for the “thesis statement”. It may be camouflaged after an opening vignette that paints a pretty image to transport you back in time, but at some point in the first few pages you’ll notice the author’s voice saying a variation on the theme “this book is about X”. It may be helpful to think that there are (for me) two main positions to pick from for historians: “earlier scholarship was wrong, and I show what’s right” or “they were kind of right but I show it’s all more complicated.” What is the author trying to convince you of? What’s right or wrong in their view? There you have the argument at the core of the book.

Engage the power of the digital

The most powerful reason to read books in digital format is, in my opinion, the search function.

1) Look for “argu” (“argument” or “I argue”) and there’s a chance you’ll find it in the opening chapter

2) Look for “Chapter” and/or “Part”, depending on the structure of the book. – Almost every academic book provides an overview of the chapters in the Introduction with a brief description of the content of each chapter. Use that to narrow down which chapters are most useful for your particular research topic.

3) Search for key terms across the book (names, concepts etc) – This is cruder than the Index but useful if you don’t see your term in the index. Sometimes you’ll also find a term outside of the indexed list of pages.

At this point, you have enough information to decide if you want to read more of the Introduction to learn about the author’s approach to the topic, dive into a particular chapter, or if the date is over and it’s time to return the book to the (digital) stacks.

Second date with an ebook: Searchable highlights and notes

If you decide to spend more time with the book or chapter of your choice, try to get a PDF download rather than reading in the many different e-book platforms available in a browser. Often you can download at least one chapter as PDF within the legal limits.

Reading is annotating, and if your notes and highlights are digital, they are searchable! Keep all PDFs of the same project together, and you can limit your search to that particular folder. In addition, I often use #hashtags in my notes with themes I want to track across texts in my little e-notes on my PDFs, to ensure in a search that I look for my notes and not the text of the book or article. These hashtags can be a code for a chapter title or project, or a course number, so I know where to file that information. For example a search for #hst137 will bring up a few PDFs of texts I have not yet integrated into that course, but I consider them for future, or they may be useful for a student project.

Concluding thoughts

This is about as low-key as digital tools get, but perhaps one of these tricks had not yet crossed your mind, and it may save you, or one of your students (or a fellow instructor or student) some time in the future. I would love to hear how you keep on top of the incessant stream of information, or manage to keep things organised!

About this blog series

This post is part of the second series explaining the digital tools I use for teaching courses online, face-to-face, and mask-to-mask.

If you like this post, please explore the others in the series, and sign up for new posts in the sidebar, under the Growth Mindset Cats 😀, add the blog to your RSS reader, or check back every other Monday, 6pm CET/12 noon EST, so you’ll never miss a post!

Leave a comment with questions and requests for other similar content. Thank you! 😽

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