During my childhood there was a popular saying: “Reading is fundamental.” I completely agree since reading opens your mind to new ideas, experiences and therefore possibilities. Reading allows you to benefit from the life experiences of other people and therefore spare yourself wasted time. Reading also increases your understanding of the world, your vocabulary and your knowledge and intelligence. It is not an overstatement to note that reading therefore, is a cornerstone of personal growth. This article will explore a method of critically reading nonfiction books. This method works mainly for history, education and the humanities. Biographies and autobiographies require a slightly different approach because they are subjective (more opinion-based and reflective).
When critically reading nonfiction books, you have 4 main objectives (whether you’re reading for personal growth or in an academic environment):
- Understanding the author’s objective in writing the book (The author’s premise).
- Identifying the structure/format of the book.
- Identifying and understanding major arguments the author raises.
- Understanding how the author supports his/her arguments
- Developing your own critique of the book (Did the author accomplish what he/she set out to do? Did the author present clear and well-supported arguments? Was the information in the book accurate and well-interpreted? How did this material compare with that by other authors on the same topic?)
To accomplish these 4 tasks, you must read with a purpose and with a structure. Simply reading a book word-for-word, cover-to-cover does not mean you actually comprehend the material or that you are reading critically. In addition to the four tasks mentioned, you should also make sure you understand the terms and references the author uses. You also should read the footnotes or references to gain more clarity about the writing, and supporting information. Critical reading is engaged and active reading. This type of reading requires you to act like a detective or investigator. Confronted with tons of information, you must skillfully sort, filter and determine which information is most important to understanding the book. You can do this in four major steps that will both save you great amounts of time while helping you grasp the most important information provided.
Closely read the introduction. A good author uses an introduction to explain the objective of the book, the time period discussed, the topic covered in each chapter, the structure and materials used to write the book, and its main premise. You can use the book itself, your computer, or paper to take notes about these issues. Once you understand the introduction, you will have a wide-frame view of the entire book. It is also helpful to read the conclusion as well.
Now that you know the topic or information covered in each chapter, you can begin developing a bird’s-eye view or specific understanding of the book. Most people do this by literally reading each chapter word-by-word. This might work for a small book, but what if you’re a graduate student who must read a 750-page book. another 500-page book, and write a paper all within the same week? The read every single word approach won’t work in this scenario. And as I mentioned earlier, that approach also won’t ensure that you comprehend what you’ve read. So how can we read and understand a large book without reading every single word?
The introductory and concluding (first and last) paragraphs of every chapter summarizes the entire chapter. Reading and understanding these two paragraphs of each chapter will provide you with the author’s most important arguments. Therefore, you should do this for every chapter, making sure that you underline important information in the first and last paragraph, and take notes that identify and summarize the author’s main arguments.
At this point, you should understand the general objective of the book, along with the main points of each chapter. You are almost done! But there are two more things you must do.
In order to determine if the author’s arguments or claims are valid, you must investigate to see how he/she supports their arguments. Credible and reliable ways of supporting an argument include: perspectives from experts or people (sometimes other authors) considered knowledgeable on the subject, statistics/facts from a credible agency/organization (surveys, census data, special reports, etc.).
After completing the first two steps, you now go back to each chapter searching for the proof the author provides to support his/her arguments. I suggest that you identify at least three forms of support provided by the author to support his/her main points for each chapter. Authors often use footnotes (references within the chapter) or reference notes (at the end of the chapter) to provide their evidence. Identifying these type of notes is one reliable and quick way to find the author’s proof. Underline, circle and/or take notes to identify this information in each chapter.
If you follow the preceding three steps you should thoroughly understand the most important information in the book (its objective, main arguments, and how the author supports these arguments. Some people (including advanced graduate students) read line-for-line and word-for-word in a book and still don’t understand what they’ve read, or they’ve taken so many notes and underlined so many words that it’s difficult for them to decipher and interpret the information they read. To make matters worse, such people spend so much time with this method that they are fatigued, discouraged and anxious. You now have a method to save precious time, get proper rest, and still thoroughly understand a nonfiction book. Congratulations!
But if you anticipate debating the book, providing a review for it, or preparing for discussion in graduate school class, your job is not yet done. To critically read a book, you must not only understand it, but be prepared to offer a sound critique of what you read. If any of these situations apply to you, now is the time to really distinguish yourself from being a casual or passive reader. If you’ve followed the previous three steps, you have much of the information you need (though you might need to do additional research). To critique a book you must address the following questions:
- Did the author accomplish what they claimed they would accomplish?
- Were his/her arguments sound (did the author use credible references/information to support the arguments? Did he/she support their arguments at all? Were the references or information they provided outdated or disproved by experts and new information?)
- Did the book provide any new information or a new perspective than those offered by other important books on the subject? Or does it simply duplicate old or already existing information?
- Did the author reach a conclusion or make an argument that is faulty or flawed?
- Are there any important implications of the book? If so, what are they?
- Does the author use a variety of sources/references, or do they rely too heavily on one or a few resources?
- How does this book compare with others like it?
Important Note: Reading involves comprehension. You cannot effectively read if you don’t understand certain words. Don’t be intellectually lazy and skip over words you don’t understand. Use a dictionary or thesaurus to understand words you’re unfamiliar with. Not only will you better understand what you read, your vocabulary (and thus ability to decipher what you read) will grow exponentially!
Reading is indeed fundamental…to learning, personal growth, and developing wisdom and skill. I’ve provided you with a more effective way to read nonfiction books. Try it, and tell me if this method was useful….
Agyei Tyehimba is an educator, activist and author from Harlem, N.Y. Agyei is a former NYC public schoolteacher, co-founder of KAPPA Middle School 215 in the Bronx, NY, and co-author of the Essence Bestselling book, Game Over: The Rise and Transformation of a Harlem Hustler, published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster. In 2013, he wrote The Blueprint: A BSU Handbook, teaching Black student activists how to organize and protest. In April of 2014, he released Truth for our Youth: A Self-Empowerment Book for Teens. Agyei has appeared on C-Span, NY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, “The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.”
Agyei earned his Bachelor’s Degree in sociology from Syracuse University, his Master’s Degree in Africana Studies from Cornell University, and his Master’s Degree in Afro-American Studies from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
If you are interested in bringing Agyei to speak or provide consultation for your organization, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.