Working With Books in Preparation for Finals

Our friend, the humble bookshelf. I find that browsing shelves sparks my curiosity, causing me to pick up books that I might not even find in a standard keyword search.

Books are, in many ways, at the center of the college experience—particularly for my fellow students of the humanities and social sciences. At Princeton in particular, books are both the subject of many conversations and the object of much loathing (“Can you believe Professor X assigned us a whole book on top of next week’s reading?”). So, inspired by my own recent work with books in preparation for reading period and finals, I thought I’d use my post this week to discuss some ways to digest and analyze these valuable sources of information. 

During reading period, I wrote a final research paper for a Religion seminar about Walker Percy’s odd and intriguing Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self Help Book. As the subtitle suggests, this book is a (largely satirical) self-help book, and as such covers a wide range of topics from depression to relationships to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. This variety presented something of a challenge in terms of nailing down the overarching argument. I found, however, that paying extra attention to the structure of the book (its chapters, their order, subheadings, etc.) helped me better grasp what the author is trying to get across.

Of course, the tricky thing about books is that they can be long. Hidden in all those chapters are the gems of information that you need for your research paper or final exam. Thus, the name of the game for the efficiency-minded student is developing strategies to extract useful information with a minimal amount of time (and stress).

How does one begin to extract useful truth from a work of several hundred pages? First, recalibrate how you think about books. In general, we ought to think of books as a sustained set of arguments advancing one or more propositions. Various sections of the book—usually chapters—tend to function as steps in the overarching thesis that the work advances. So, if you’re working on breaking down a book for either written scholarship or study, begin here: identify (at least roughly) what the argument of the book is, and how various sections of the book work together to support that argument. (It can be helpful to suspend judgment on the effectiveness of an argument until you are decently familiar with what the argument actually is.)

With an idea of your chosen (or assigned!) book’s argument, and of how that argument works structurally, you can begin to situate the book in a broader artistic or scholarly conversation. To whom is the book addressed? Is the author a member of a particular field or subfield? When was the book written, and are there any particular reasons (namely, historical context) that the book was written when it was? If so, how does that impact the argument?

Even if your paper or final exam is ultimately heavier on either the book’s text or context (that is, the historical situation of the book or what the text brings with it thematically, politically, etc.), thinking about both will give you a more well-rounded understanding of what the heck those three hundred pages of assigned text are all about. An overarching question to keep in mind: why is whatever I’m reading important enough (to academics, at least) to justify its inclusion in my course?

Even with the rise of online journals and other non-book sources, books remain indispensable to us college students. So, I hope that this advice for breaking down and analyzing books proves useful for anyone feeling lost in reading period and finals season!

–Shanon FitzGerald, Social Sciences Correspondent