As the title would suggest, this is part 2 of a multi-part post. Part 1 can be found here. I reckon if Peter Jackson can make The Hobbit into a trilogy, I can exercise the same option here. Also, before you ask, yes I did just compare my blog to The Hobbit. Please see the contact section of this blog to find out where to direct your hate mail.
So, you’ve decided to sit down and read the book in front of you. Good for you. There are some things you’ve just got to know about academic books before you go ahead and read them. I list them here in some sort of order, though I don’t know whether it is order of importance or just as I think of them. Let’s go with the latter.
How is the book structured? Does this have anything at all to do with anything?
The short answer to this question is: maybe. Contrary to popular belief, most authors don’t get the final say in the way their books are constructed. There are a number of intermediaries who make decisions about the way a book is structured and set up. So, everything from the cover, the font, to how the text is presented has input from a number of people for various reasons. The author may not even have had final say in what is included of their writing. There are editorial constraints, but I don’t know how this affects a book’s reliability or overall argument. To wit, I have never before seen the equivalent of a director’s cut for an academic book, so I’m guessing the author says most of what they wish to say the first time around. Although, some books get updated introductions or forewords by their authors, but these usually consist of “Oh, man, I don’t know what I was thinking to have written this book at that time” (see Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Between Men for an example of this kind of update).
Who is mentioned in the acknowledgements and why?
As a very learned professor told me (see part 1 of this post), when you reach the graduate level you should be reading the acknowledgement section of a book. But why? The acknowledgements usually mention places where the author’s research was carried out and that can be helpful to your own work in finding resources where you may not ordinarily have thought to look; they also mention who funded the work and this can be equally helpful in letting you know what kind of work is being done and where. Sometimes it’s fun to see how many names you recognize in the acknowledgements because that’s how smart you are now. Apart from the bleeding obvious though, I have done a poor job in answering the question of why we should, not only read but, pay attention to those mentioned in the acknowledgement section. It’s nice to see who has made the book you are reading possible, but you didn’t get into academia for the warm and fuzzies, presumably. It is highly possible that some folks who get a nod in the beginning sections of a scholarly work had nothing whatever to do with its composition or editing. Why thank them? I will answer that question with a question: what would be one way to try and prevent someone from writing a less than glowing review of your book? I’m not saying that this is the sole reason that anyone is thanked at the beginning of a book. It is the one thing that I learned about the acknowledgement section that made me sit up and pay attention, though.
What are the most important bits?
Well, the introduction is always a good place to start. More often than not, the intro contains a great way to get into the subject before diving in head first with the chapters. Hence the clever name introduction. More than that, though, the intro will often provide the reader with the justification(s) and methodology/ies the author utilizes. The intro will also surely be fodder for hefty debate about what the author has left out, but do not be fooled by this for the introduction does not equal the book as a whole. Instead, the introduction will contain the broader ideas of the book in a much more manageable, and therefore less detailed, format. You see how that works? I don’t know how many people I’ve argued with who’ve clearly read only the introduction to a work. To put all my cards on the table I have been guilty of this, especially with Katherine Hayle’s How We Became Posthuman. Don’t be like I was. The intro provides only enough material, usually, for the author to let you in on how they approach their topic and the real meat is in the pages between the intro and conclusion. The other thing that intros are known for is giving a chapter by chapter synopsis of what you will find in the rest of the book. This can be helpful.
Once you’ve passed the intro you can usually count on the first and last paragraphs of a chapter being the most succinct. This is not a rule, however, just something that is most often the case unless it isn’t. Again, however, this is not meant to be a post about how to skim an academic book (because I’m not good at that). If you want that, you can check out Prof. Susan Nance’s excellent post on How To Raid An Academic Book. Sometimes, however, you will want to read the whole book cover to cover. Some academic books do not lend themselves to this method, but I am trying to convey the long form of reading an academic book.
Is there a unified argument throughout or is the book a number of essays independent of one another? How can you tell?
This is a really tough question to answer and you can read a bunch of books that don’t seem to have any sort of overarching argument when, in fact, they really do. The other thing about a lot of academic books is that they can be tangential and make you lose focus on the broader work the book is trying to do. I don’t have an easy answer or test for whether you can tell a book has a major argument or is just a cobbled together bunch of disparate essays, but I am willing to put my money on the fact that it is (almost) never the latter. I have never read an academic book that is just a bunch of essays unrelated to each other, save for, of course, books that are actually collections of essays by different authors. This is probably the only time it is acceptable to arrange a book like this. That being said, however, it would be pretty lame of an editor or a publisher to put out a book of essays that had no relation to one another.
Remember, there are some really bad academic books out there.
This is just to say that, well, there are bad books in and out of the academy. You do not have to read or take seriously the bad ones so long as you know why they’re bad. Some academic books may simply be poorly written (and many of the bad ones suffer from this affliction). A poorly written book does not mean its contents are bad, but it makes it awfully difficult to get through, especially if it is an important book in your field. Scholars are notorious for run on sentences and jargoning themselves right out of comprehension. This is not always the fault of the author but it sure limits an already limited audience for the book. Without pointing any fingers at specific books, suffice it to say that there are indeed many books that are just about unreadable due to the simple fact that the writing is impenetrable. To point just one finger, Judith Butler lamented Jacques Lacan’s “tortured prose” (Bodies That Matter 99) and expressed her desire to not emulate it for hers, by her own admission, was “difficult enough” (99). Anyone who has read these two knows what she’s talking about.
Other reasons books are bad can be found in the writing itself – a bad translation, perhaps – or maybe the book really is full of unsubstantiated opinions and bad reasoning. This happens. A lot. I guess the thing that I have learned is that academic writers, like grad students, are not deities and therefore what they write is not infallible. I have been through the fanboy phase of academia when Foucault could do no wrong, but I have since learned that just because someone who is a supposed authority says something I don’t have to take it as the gospel. In fact, this is bad scholarship because any good scholar should know that debate and discourse are a healthy way of doing things and if their writing is the Word then that ends. Be wary of false idols in academia and elsewhere and don’t feel like you can’t question the veracity or quality of a piece of writing. Sometimes a prof might throw a crappy book on a syllabus just to test your critical thinking/reading skills. I know I would like to do this some day, so let this be a warning to all of my future students.
You don’t have to read every single book every prof or colleague recommends (even though that would be awesome!).
I suppose this tip builds on the bad academic book philosophy above. As you go through coursework, get more entrenched in your specialty, and work out what it is you and your project are about, there are going to be a million and a half books you absolutely “have to read”. Problem is, however, that you don’t have time to read all these books (you’re busy working your way through Oprah’s book club, after all). Every professor you encounter, from your supervisor all the way down to those you may awkwardly talk to during an intense three floor elevator ride, will have book recommendations for you. Ditto for other colleagues. All these people who recommend books are doing it because they want you to be as knowledgeable as possible about your topic(s) and to succeed. I have never encountered, I don’t think, an academic looking to sabotage anyone by recommending bad or unhelpful books. This would be a really lame and drawn out way to sabotage somebody anyhow. So long as you graciously accept these recommendations and even check out the titles in question, you are under no obligation to read them. You can’t physically read them all. You might get by with reading a couple of good reviews or the introductions to learn all you need to about whether it is a good fit for your interests. Which brings me to my next point…
Read book reviews.
Scholarly book reviews, that is. These are an integral way to save yourself plenty of time when deciding which books will be useful to you. I try to read at least two or three reviews on books I want to read, if they are available. On brand new books this is a bit of a problem as it is likely they have yet to be reviewed. Most books that have been out for a couple of years should have at least one solid review from a reputable source. Often the review will give an interpretation of the book’s contents and point out some of its strongest and weakest parts and arguments. This can be helpful again when you’ve finished the book and exclaim “Great Caesar’s ghost! I didn’t understand a solitary word of that!”
This second part has turned out to be much longer than I usually allow, but I could find no suitable place for a natural pause so, if you’ve made it this far, thank you for reading almost 2000 of my words. I think I hear the Golden Girls theme song playing just for you.