I’m teaching a class at Harvard this semester, and was satisfied to discover that even there, students balk at my tendency to assign what seem like humanly impossible amounts of reading for class. Because I basically just want everyone to like me, I frequently backpedal on this otherwise gratuitous display of pedagogical power. I do however, intend for students to read the books I assign, and because I am myself an incredibly slow reader, I sympathize with my students, especially when I assign things I haven’t read and I think: now why did I do that? But I also find that it helps to make explicit what I mean by “read.” For this purpose I have frequently relied on Paul Edwards excellent handout, “How to Read,” which counsels that one can read a book in 6-8 hrs. I’m upping the ante, though, because I think you can read a book in one hour and gain a reasonably good sense of the argument, stakes and main areas of investigation, even if the details elude you. Here ’s my snake-oil, use only as directed, and I disclaim all warranties, implied or expressed.

To read a book in one hour requires a particular kind of book. It works for most scholarly books, especially in history and social science, the denser the better. It works less well for books in philosophy or for heavily argument driven texts that require the reader to follow along (I would not recommend trying to learn calculus in this manner). More importantly, it requires the apparatus that a scholarly book gets when it is published—i.e. it does not work for dissertations, drafts, self-published works or poorly-published ones. Indeed, a well-crafted scholarly book is fantastic machine, one that can be readily approached, understood, extended and critiqued. In this era of the crisis of scholarly publishing, it seems to me that presses should be doing a lot more to indicate that they can turn an otherwise messy manuscript filled with hard-to-find but good ideas into a scholarly hot rod tricked out with everything necessary to teach generations upon generations, connect up scholarly communities, and parse out complex topics into loadable modules of delicious knowledge. Publishing a scholarly book is not about making it available—it is about making it readable, and this is what you pay for, or should be paying for anyways. If you can follow these steps, especially with a work of history or ethnography, then the book is a well-produced scholarly work.

How to read a book in 1 hour.


  1. Read the whole book at once: Start by flipping through it, read the TOC, the preface and forward. if there are any, look for subheadings and for a general sense of whether the book has internal divisions (parts, chapters, subheadings that do not appear in the TOC), and whether it has a conclusion or other kinds of sections, interludes, or breaks in the text. Browse the notes to see if they contain merely references or extended parts of the argument. If the book does not contain an index, you can stop here: the only thing left to do is sit down and read from cover to cover, as slow or as fast as you permit yourself.
  2. Turn to the index.
  3. You will make two lists. Begin by looking for the largest entries, those indented with sub-headings, and lots of page references. Write them all down: people, places, things, concepts. In a normal academic tome (300ps) there should be anywhere between 10 and 30 pages of index, so this list can range from 5 terms to more like 100. But really, start with the longest and most detailed, which should yield a good list. This is your list of the main subjects and problems of the book.
  4. Now go through the index again, and look for entries that do not have subheadings, but have more than 3-4 page entries. Some authors go crazy with the subheadings, so the first list might be a lot longer than the second, other authors (or index makers) are content to list everything once, with page refs. You have to exercise some judgment here. If your first list is very long, then for your second list pick out those entries which are not people, institutions or events, but analytic or conceptual designators—i.e. look for entries that are analytic sounding: “assemblages” “neo-liberal shenaniganism” “trading zones” “network forums” etc. If your first list is very short, it very well might already contain these terms, and the second list will be a list of people, places or things that reappear throughout the book.


    Note at this point that you have two lists of terms which you can use in class to remind you of the details, even if you haven’t yet read the book. The index is the Platonic ideal of the text, use it.


  5. With your lists in hand, turn to the Introduction. But don’t start at the beginning. Read the last few pages of the introduction, where most likely there will be a series of paragraphs here dealing with the content of each of the chapters. Read carefully, noting which chapters relate to which entries on your two lists. If your author has chosen to express their individuality here and forgo such a list, you can wing it by looking at the beginning and end of each of the chapters to see whether the author gives you a hint there.


    Note that you still haven’t “read” very much yet, but that you should already have a deepening sense of the main themes of the book, and a map, complete with precise coordinates of where to find the main arguments and the main subjects of the book.


  6. Now read the introduction carefully. Make sure you are clear what the author thinks the main arguments and sub-arguments are, and that you could reconstruct them if asked, even if you can’t offer any details or reasoning behind them.
  7. If there is a conclusion, read that carefully too. I know this sounds like cheating, but it isn’t. It is a rare scholarly book that demands of its reader that they wait until the end for the argument to make sense. {Aside: Indeed, many graduate students make this mistake in writing, assuming that it is necessary to defer and defer and defer until you get into the very heart of the most detailed detailage before revealing the a-ha! of the argument. No no no, give it up, right at the beginning and let the reader work through your example to convince themselves you are correct!} Read the conclusion for how it tries to tie up the arguments presented in the text (which you haven’t yet read) with the promises made in the introduction. Note especially if the author makes clear what the significance of the argument is beyond the text, which will help you care about the details.
  8. Now return to your two lists. The shorter of these two lists (the one with the analytic entries) should now give you a very good guide to where the theoretical meat of the book lays. Having read the intro and conclusion, you can now turn directly to each of those sections (you have the technology!) and “read from the inside out.” The longer list (filled with people, places and things) in turn gives you a good sense of where the data is, and how it is distributed across the chapters (if you go back and look at all the subheadings in the index). “Reading from the inside out” means literally starting in medias res, looking for the precise places where the author has made it a point to connect theory and data. Read the paragraphs leading up to it and following it. Note the references to empirical material marshaled or referred to, and decide which of those things you need to read more about—turn to list two, and find the places where you can follow up. After running through the entries of the shorter list, you will have read a fair amount of the most important parts of the book.


    Note that this approach is fractal in nature: with a good index you can make progressively longer and more focused lists that give you “random access” to the text, and allow you to dig deeper and deeper until you approximate the actual cover to cover manner in which a text seems (wrongly I hope I have convinced you) that it was meant to be read.


Needless to say, this is a strategy that works only for good books, and for books that are primarily dense with detailed empirical material, which most histories, ethnographic and other forms of social science research usually are. It is less useful for philosophical works, completely useless for books that do not have indices (like much work in French! damn them!), and it will only confirm the badness of a bad book. However, if you are faced, as many students are, with reading as many as 4-5 books in one week, this is one way to avoid ending up in a class with a vague sense of what a book is about and a detailed understanding of only the first 30 or so pages. I am of course curious to hear from people how this approach fails.