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Choosing your reading

Know your library

I was teaching a first year class on Wordsworth’s sonnet ‘Composed upon Westminster Bridge’. I’d set my students some questions about the poet and the poem to research for the next class. ‘Where are you going to find out the answers?’ I asked. ‘Internet,’ someone muttered. ‘And where else?’ Silence. ‘What’s that place that no-one ever goes to?’ As one person the class chorused ‘The library’.

I already knew from other students that people were reluctant to go to the library. Why? Some people voiced the common complaint that there were never any books they wanted. However, many others said it was because they didn’t understand how to use the library.

So get to know which part of the library contains books about your subject. Books in libraries are organized by subject according to the Dewey Decimal Classification system. This can seem quite complicated if you’ve never encountered it before but remember that the library staff are there to help you. Most libraries will have short guides to their stock that list the main subject areas and classifications.

Make sure you use the full range of services on offer in your library. Many university libraries will offer a range of literature and services for users: guides to doing literature searches, training in how to use the catalogue and the Internet, and a range of subject specific guides. Many libraries offer induction tours for new students – if yours does then go on it.

Be selective

Here’s what a former student, Mark McArdle, said about reading at university in an article in The Times Higher Educational Supplement:

“It was impossible to read all the books on the reading list. I sought shortcuts. Collections of selected readings or journal articles saved me the bother of reading the original texts. Academic books can be difficult – if I found myself re-reading sentences or nodding off, I would stop. In all my time at university, I did not read one book from start to finish – I plucked out just what was needed.”

Let’s read Mark’s first and last comments again: “It was impossible to read all the books on the reading list […] In all my time at university, I did not read one book from start to finish – I plucked out just what was needed.”

Trying to read with these principles in mind is not a bad place to start.

How to pluck, or, you don’t have to read it to find out if it’s useful

You can find out if a book is going to be useful before you start reading it. Start with the index and look up words and subject areas relevant to your essay and see if they are covered. If they are then go straight to these parts of the book and have a quick skim through and see if they look relevant. You can do a similar thing by looking at the contents page and chapter titles. Chapters in academic books are often divided into subsections and can look something like this:

Chapter 5: Reading & researching

5.1 – How not to read

5.2 – You, the reader

5.3 – Choosing your reading

You can also get a good idea of how useful a book might be by looking at the introduction. Academic authors often announce what they are going to write about in the first few pages. Or they might spend a few pages setting the scene of their subject or their view of it and then say what each chapter of their book will do.

Don’t be afraid to use books in this way – it will save you a lot of valuable time.

How to pluck 2

Try to develop judgement about what to read. For example, imagine you are writing an essay that needs a definition of ethics although ethics isn’t its main subject. Do you need to struggle through four huge volumes with a title like The Meaning of Ethics in Western Philosophy? Or will a six-line definition from a Dictionary of Philosophical Terms be enough?

Who does the author think she is? How old is the book?

These are important questions to ask about a book in order to decide if it’s useful. Is the author a recognised authority in her field – e.g. Reader in Sociology at the University of Brainstorm – or is she a Sunday Times journalist? Different types of author will write in different ways and with different readers in mind.

The age of a book is also important. This does not mean that old books aren’t useful but you are studying your subject now and your studying needs to be informed by current ideas. As an example, let’s think about what’s happened in Shakespeare studies over the last 150 years. In the nineteenth century, scholars were primarily interested in answering questions about the sources of the plays and whether Shakespeare’s plays were accurate descriptions of real historical events. For much of the twentieth century, the emphasis switched to the qualities of Shakespeare’s verse – how, for example, chains of imagery work within single plays and across several plays. In the last twenty years, scholars have become more interested in how the plays contain ideas about the self and the world that can be found in other contemporary sources.

The age of a book is particularly important in the sciences and social sciences where you need to be aware of the most up-to-date research. In fact, students in these subjects are often advised to ignore books and articles that are more than 15-20 years old.

Be purposeful

Whatever you are reading at university – whether it’s for an essay or not – always ask yourself: why am I reading this? Always read with a purpose in mind. Or, to put that another way, always read towards something. Are you reading a book because your tutor said it was important or have you just picked a book off the reading list at random? If you don’t know why you are reading something then you may be reading the wrong thing.

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