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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.