Note: a new and improved reading guide is now available.
A most crucial lesson to learn before heading off to graduate school is the ability to read a book strategically. The higher level undergraduate history courses may have had a fair number of books to be read during the semester, but professors often choose to not instruct their students on how to read the books properly. Upon entering ones first graduate seminar, with a reading list of a dozen books, a student might start to question how they are ever going to finish each book while remembering any arguments. If one reads only the most critical portions of any book, then it is possible to complete even the most daunting of reading lists.
A reading system that has helped me, and probably countless others, is one that my undergraduate professors told me shortly before I headed off to graduate school. First and foremost, always read the preface and introduction. This is where the writer lays out his/her thesis and approach to the subject matter. Historiography will often be covered in the introduction, allowing one to see how the author fits into the appropriate history field. In some cases, the writer might discuss research methods and primary sources. I have read a few books where the historian professes their great research, only to discover weak arguments later on in the book.
Look through the table of contents and note the chapter headings. If the book is on the use of artillery during First World War, a chapter titled the “Allied use of indirect fire” might contain some of the authors most important analysis. By reading such chapters you insure that you will be familiar with the historians more profound arguments while skipping over less relevant chapters. Ultimately it is up to you to decided on which chapters are essential to understanding the author’s overall argument.
Be certain to look at the index and select some key terms most closely associated with the books topic. For example, if the book is on the end of the First World War, then it will help to locate terms such as Ferdinand Foch, Germany, Kaiserschlacht, and so on. Such terms are usually discussed in relation to much larger arguments being made by the writer. Key terms, on their own, will not help you understand the overall argument being made, rather they can lead to the pages where the writer is adding support to his/her argument. Granted that you have been successful in choosing essential chapters, the index will further enhance your focus on the crucial aspects of the work. Additionally, key terms can lead you to some great items of interest to use during a reading discussion group.
While the introduction helps one discern the writer’s main arguments and approach to the material, the conclusion will sum up all of the arguments and findings. The conclusion will cover how the historian perceives their work as a success, while stressing why the work is valuable. Combined with the passages you located via chapter headings and the index, it will be possible to make your own opinion of whether the work is of good academic value or if it suffers from some type of flaw.
None of what is read will matter if you cannot remember anything about it. Therefore, always take notes on what you read. Try to write notes that will allow you to maintain your steady reading pace. Your notes should emphasis important page numbers as well as instances where the writer makes a key statement. Refrain from the heavy highlighting of passages in the book. Heavy highlighting will hide good pieces of information within unimportant sentences.
Hopefully all that has been said will be of some use to those entering their first graduate seminar. Remember to relax and approach each book with these reading tips in mind.