5d- Sorting Sources and Eating Books

As you col­lect your book and arti­cle source mate­r­i­al, you will be work­ing toward a thought­ful con­sid­er­a­tion of how and why the works of those authors are rel­e­vant to your research. It is nei­ther nec­es­sary nor advis­able to think you should or will be able to read (in their entire­ty) the many sources you col­lect.  What you need to do is con­sume your sources, eat them.  You need to ingest enough infor­ma­tion in order to be able to digest it, to assim­i­late it into your under­stand­ing of your research, and to see it in rela­tion­ship with your present ideas, to trans­late what you read in terms of your own obser­va­tion.  You will most prob­a­bly need to eat some books more than once, since the process does not guar­an­tee mas­tery of any kind.  It guar­an­tees mere famil­iar­i­ty and invites a future rela­tion­ship with the ideas in the book.

Here is a strat­e­gy for “eat­ing” texts that great­ly reduces the time it would take were you to ever try to read your sources com­plete­ly.  The strat­e­gy here is to read the book con­scious­ly, to think as you read, to become an active, not mere­ly pas­sive read­er.  A pas­sive read­er is one who waits for the text to illus­trate for the read­er the main point or idea.  An active read­er con­tin­u­al­ly asks:  Is this idea rel­e­vant?  Do I need to read all of this?  To become an active read­er, do your best with the fol­low­ing sug­ges­tions:

  1. Con­sid­er the date of pub­li­ca­tion, the pub­lish­er and the location/position/expertise of the author.  Why care about the date?  In gen­er­al, it is impor­tant to con­sid­er the date of pub­li­ca­tion because the date sit­u­ates a con­text for the knowl­edge con­tained in the book.  If you find a book writ­ten on a cer­tain sub­ject that is more than ten years old, you should spend a lit­tle more time inves­ti­gat­ing whether a more recent book on the sub­ject has been writ­ten.  You must keep in mind the age of your work in order to con­sid­er the time­li­ness of the infor­ma­tion, the way of think­ing that influ­enced that book.  In oth­er words, you must think about the his­tor­i­cal con­text in which the work was writ­ten in order to con­sid­er the util­i­ty of the infor­ma­tion. If you find and wish to use a work that is old­er, think about this vol­ume as his­tor­i­cal, pri­ma­ry evi­dence.
  2. Spend seri­ous time with the Table of Con­tents. Rather than sim­ply skim­ming this part of the book, take some time to real­ly con­sid­er a) whether this work will be use­ful and, b) what you see to be the guid­ing thought behind the log­ic of the work.  In con­sid­er­ing the titles of chap­ters, you can often tell at once whether the book is pop­u­lar or aca­d­e­m­ic.  It is also wise, in the case of edit­ed vol­umes, to look close­ly at the authors as well as the titles.  If you begin to rec­og­nize a name or two in a cou­ple vol­umes, or if you see an arti­cle and a book by the same per­son, it could indi­cate an area of exper­tise for that per­son.  This could help you locate the aca­d­e­m­ic per­spec­tive with which you may want to approach your research and the writ­ing of your final essay.  Here, again, the impor­tance of the author and their declared field and area(s) of exper­tise should be not­ed and con­sid­ered.
  3. Go to the index with some spe­cif­ic ideas and key words. After you have deter­mined a few valu­able, key word terms, it is a good idea to see whether these terms appear in the index.  If none of the terms appear there, you may want to spend some time con­sid­er­ing syn­onyms for your cho­sen terms. If you locate pas­sages cor­re­spond­ing with your key words, you want to take the time to read them in order to quick­ly ascer­tain the use­ful­ness of the source.  If a book has no index, you have to think care­ful­ly about whether the source is aca­d­e­m­ic, or pop­u­lar.  If there are no match­es between your list of key words and the index, you need to con­sid­er the rela­tion­ship between this sources and your research.
  4. Read the Intro­duc­tion. You may not have to read the whole thing, but take a few min­utes and see if you can get into the first few para­graphs.  Whether you can or can­not, skip a bit far­ther down and try again.  If you pro­ceed this way through­out the chap­ter and under­stand almost noth­ing, we advise you look for anoth­er source.  How­ev­er, if you under­stand even some of the intro­duc­tion, you have the inter­est and skills enough to glean some­thing from the text­book.  Very often the intro­duc­tion sets up the point of the book, and then tells the read­er why they have includ­ed each chap­ter and what each chap­ter does for the text.  You read the intro because it is a quick overview of the entire book.  Though it may sound rather glib, we often tell stu­dents that there is only one idea in any piece of writ­ing, in any arti­cle or book.  It is usu­al­ly the job of the intro­duc­tion to tell you what that one idea is.  The rest of the vol­ume works through that idea in order to explore it and pro­vides a bunch of exam­ples.  If the idea itself doesn’t seem rel­e­vant or inter­est­ing to you, then read­ing the entire text prob­a­bly won’t change your mind.  So, for a quick and easy way to fig­ure out whether any book will be of use to you, read the intro­duc­tion.
  5. Read the Con­clu­sion. Where­as the intro­duc­tion usu­al­ly presents the main idea/thesis/focus to the read­er, the con­clu­sion often presents the implications/so what/future direc­tions of and for the stat­ed idea.  Read­ing the con­clu­sion becomes an impor­tant step in your “eat­ing” process when you find the intro­duc­tion and any oth­er part of the book of rel­e­vant.