HOW TO READ A SCHOLARLY BOOK
BEFORE YOU READ THIS PAGE, BE SURE TO READ "HOW TO READ A SCHOLARLY ESSAY"
A scholarly book is a long, sustained, multiple-chapter discussion of a topic written for other specialists in the author's field.
Much like the scholarly essay, the scholarly presumes some degree of familiarity with sources, methodologies, and previous scholarship. Some scholarly books are directed to more general audiences (e.g., a book on Thomas Jefferson written for general historians) and some are directed to more specialized audiences (e.g., a book on Thomas Jefferson written for Jefferson specialists). Like scholarly essays, the scholarly book can also be accessed by a careful, nonspecialist reader.
Sometimes the book is united by a single, specific argument (e.g., "Thomas Jefferson was short"); each chapter will generally then take on one component of that argument and so, together, the chapters will create a cumulative effect (e.g., "Others said he was short"; "He said he was short"; "Pictures of him show him to be short"). In this way, a scholarly book can be like an extended version of a scholarly essay.
Sometimes the book approaches its argument more generally (e.g., "We need to rethink Thomas Jefferson's physical appearance"), and the chapters in this case may be related to each other but can also be read separately, as individual scholarly essays (e.g., "He was short"; "He was bald"; "He was pretty"; "He had eleven toes").
In either case, the scholarly book will generally begin with an introductory chapter that lays out the shape and significance of the book's argument; often, at the end of the introductory chapter, the author will give a brief outline of the chapters and how they contribute to the book's argument. Sometimes the first chapter will also contain a brief overview of previous scholarship, the sources used in this book, and the particular methodology that this author will be using. In short, the introduction provides a crucial intellectual and theoretical roadmap to the scholarly book.
The scholarly book will also generally contain a concluding chapter. In most English-language scholarly books, this concluding chapter is fairly brief and will summarize the findings of the previous chapters. The concluding chapter will also, often, discuss some of the broader significance of this book's argument: why it is important to the author's own field, but perhaps also outside that field, and even outside of the academic community altogether.
Revised editions: Often very important scholarly books will be reissued in new editions. At the most basic level, new editions will correct any mistakes or update out-of-date information that appeared in the first edition. Additionally, the author will sometimes provide a new opening ("prologue" or "foreword") describing response to the first edition of the book and any rethinking she has done about her argument (very rarely will such a new foreword say, "I was wrong!").
Other helpful elements of the scholarly book you should pay attention to:
Acknowledgments: scholars are part of social and intellectual communities, and often we can learn a great deal by see where they come from, with whom they communicate, and to whom they are speaking in this book (and to whom they are not speaking!)
Index: You may not want to read the index from A to Z, but it can be useful when beginning a scholarly book to see what kinds of topics are going to be discussed (especially which ones have multiple entries, or are discussed frequently)
Table of Contents: Know what's coming! See which chapters are longer, see if there is a coherence among chapters (scholars spend a surprising amount of time thinking up chapter titles)
Jacket summary: Often the authors themselves right the summaries of books that appear inside or on the back cover, so it's worth seeing how the author would summarize her own argument
All of the same rules for reading a scholarly essay apply here, as well: read critically; figure out the author's point, and how she makes it; search for evidence, topic sentences, and so forth. But some additional tips are necessary when you tackle an entire book.
One of the most difficult parts of reading a scholarly book is keeping up with its argument over hundreds of pages. Here are some tips to help you keep everything straight, and fruitfully participate in discussion based on a book:
Read it like she wrote it: Remember, scholars don't sit down and write 350 pages in one sitting, so you shouldn't read it all in one sitting. Read no more than a chapter at a time (and try to stop reading at natural breaks, such as chapter sections). Usually, even in a book that has one sustained argument, you should be able to say "this chapter is on X"
Jot notes in the book: ONLY IF YOU OWN THE BOOK! Just as when reading a scholarly essay, you should develop helpful marginal notations to help you find important passages when you go back to look through what you read. A "star" if its a central argument; number points in succession; etc. Moreover, you may find that similar points are made across chapters; you may want to track these by jotting their pages down in the front flap of the book (e.g., "Jefferson as misogynist: 18, 24, 56, 199" etc.), creating your own index of elements you find interesting or important
Summarize the chapters/sections: When you finish reading a chapter (or even chapter section), take a moment to jot down at the beginning of that chapter/section what the author said in a way that will be more meaningful and memorable to you than the chapter title
Sometimes you will encounter a scholarly book that breaks the rules: there is no introduction, the chapters don't fit together, the argument seems to change or fall apart. Remember, not all scholarly books are "great books," and some take more work to figure out than others.
This page has been written for Core II, section 9, taught at Scripps College in Spring 2010, by Andrew Jacobs. Feel free to link to this page, but please to not reproduce it without permission.