Reading, Annotating, and Reviewing Books: My Method

As a scholar, my job consists of assimilating and disseminating information. The process of reviewing books entails both. My method prioritizes efficiency: reading as quickly as possible with as much comprehension and long-term retention as possible. The information also needs to be stored in a format that makes scholarly work on the material easy. For me, reading is aimed at reviewing; reviewing completes the process of reading. A book is assimilated only when I can express my reflections on it. The method is divided into three steps: 1) setting up the reading environment; 2) reading and taking notes; and 3) drafting the review.

1. Setting Up the Reading Environment

Reading is both a physical and mental activity. People vary as to what they find congenial writing environments, but some physical requirements are invariable. My method uses 1) a book stand, 2) a physical book, 3) a pencil, and 4) a computer. The book’s spine should be broken in to the point that it will lie flat on the book stand without falling shut. If you have to keep holding the book open, you can’t type with both hands. (If you can’t type with both hands, learn.)

The book stand should be positioned so that the book hits your eyes at a 45-degree angle. This improves reading speed. To minimize eyestrain, lighting should be bright but diffuse. Diffuse  lighting is generally from multiple sources or sunlight and doesn’t cast dark, sharp shadows when you hold your hand over the page. You should be able to see both the book and the computer without turning your neck too far. For typing ease, your computer’s resting surface should be at about elbow height when you’re sitting with your arms hanging down. Too high and you will scrunch your shoulders. All of these factors are aimed at allowing you to read comfortably for long periods of time. The book stand is especially important, since you lose too much time typing if you keep setting the book down and picking it up again or try to hold it one hand.

2. Reading and Taking Notes

a. Setting Up the Note File

A few minutes of preparation before reading saves time later. I create a file in OneNote, but other programs are fine. I type the title and author in the page title slot. Then, I type next to it the complete bibliographic information. I operate under the assumption that I may never see this physical book again; this note file needs to contain everything necessary for the review and any future scholarly work. Then I go to the table of contents and copy the chapter headings, giving me a skeleton for my notes. Here is an example of the first stage of setup:

setup shot

b. Reading and Taking Notes

I take notes by chapter; if the chapters are unusually long, I may subdivide the chapters into sections. With a pencil in hand, I focus on reading quickly but thoroughly. When I see a section that looks significant, such that it might be worth making a note, I mark its boundaries in the page margin with my pencil. I don’t write comments or underline each word, because the goal is to interrupt reading as minimally as possible. When the chapter or section is finished, I go back and decide whether the sections I marked are really worth making into notes. Often I find that a passage I marked contains a concept that the author expresses more succinctly later in the section, or even that the idea wasn’t as profound as I originally thought. Sometimes I read books without my pencil, typing notes as I go, and I always end up taking too many notes.

Having chosen the passages, I make a few types of notes. Regardless of the type of note, I always include the page number(s)! A note without page number is worthless for citing later. The first type is a verbatim quote. I make these fairly often, but I tend to sprinkle ellipses liberally to condense the best parts of paragraphs. The second is a paraphrase, in which I state a proposition from the book in my own words. The third just marks content that didn’t get detailed notes. For example, recently I came across a section on Manichean beliefs in a book about Augustine. This section wasn’t particularly relevant to my current resource, so I didn’t take any detailed notes, but I wrote “Manichean beliefs – 72-84” so I would know this section was there in case I need to look up that topic later.

Sometimes I mark up my notes to make them more useful. I often preface a note with a topic to put it in context. For example: Ambrose’s influence, “quoted portion.”  If there is a key word or phrase embedded in a longer quote, I highlight it. Likewise, I might mark listed items embedded in a paragraph. If a particular claim seems unsupported or I suspect the author has made a factual error, I mark the note in red.

c. Writing a Chapter Summary

Once the notes on the chapter are finished, I go back to the beginning of the chapter in my note file and write a summary of it. The summary is really more like a mini-review, as I am already thinking about and interacting with the material. The goal is to write the summary using only the notes in my file. If I did a good job understanding what I read and took good notes, I won’t have to refer back to the physical book. If I do, I may take an additional note or two to remedy the situation.

Here is an example of a section of notes:

notes sample

3. Drafting the Review

A book review’s purpose is to allow the reader to determine whether to read the book and what priority to place on doing so. The reviewer does not just give a generic recommendation, because people are not generic. The reviewer needs to keep in mind individual readers’ interests and abilities. I am still developing my style as a reviewer, but I make adjustments based on the criterion of the review’s purpose. [My reviews are listed here.]

My first paragraph gives a general overview of the book. I introduce the author and outline the theme and general plan of the book. A few body paragraphs summarize the content of the book. However, a review is not an abstract. I try to take a few body paragraphs to highlight remarkable themes or arguments. Here I interact with the book, offering some evaluations and showing how it has influenced my thinking. Toward the end I try to make general remarks about register (academic, literary, popular) and style. I offer an evaluation of the book as a whole and suggest what types of readers would benefit most from it.

The review completes the process of reading by forcing me to think through how the book as a whole fits into my broader intellectual development. It is only in teaching, in the sense of speaking authoritatively to others after a period of reflection, that one completes learning.


The above is my method. Was this helpful? Do you have questions? Do you want to share your own methods?

Published in: on January 3, 2013 at 8:07 pm  Comments (6)  
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Silva on the Purpose of Greek

Moisés Silva writes on the purpose of learning Greek. I notice, with some self-satisfaction, that his main point and even his illustration closely match mine in my The Role of Greek in Theological Education. Silva’s statements are available on Rod Decker’s blog.

Published in: on April 11, 2011 at 8:01 am  Leave a Comment  
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Scholarship – Playing the Long Game

In dating, “I’m playing the long game” might be code for, “I’m too scared to make a move now.” In any serious pursuit, however, it is essential to focus on long-term goals while navigating short-term challenges. Activity is measured not primarily by quantity (how much am I working?) but by direction (where is this getting me?).

Aspiring scholars must play the long game. The first step is imagining the end game. What sort of work do I want to do? Well, as a historical theologian, I would publish original research on figures, groups, ideas and/or themes from the Church’s past. I think that I would like to concentrate on the pre-modern period, perhaps particularly on the polemical interaction between Protestants and Catholics during and after the Reformation.

Next, I ask what knowledge, skills, and resources I would need to do that work, and do it excellently. (If you are aspiring to be a mediocre scholar, you may disregard that last qualification.) Well, to be a scholar of any sort requires certain mental equipment. You need a decent memory to retain hoards of information. Close reading requires analytical skill; effective writing calls for proficiency in grammar, organization, and rhetoric. Curiosity and creativity drive research and publishing. All these are inherent faculties, but the scholar must hone them until she is far above average.

Scholars must be proficient in multiple languages, in order to be conversant with both primary and secondary literature.   Almost every humanities subject requires two foreign languages just to read the secondary literature. Historians studying material outside their first language usually need several more. My interests require Greek, Latin, French, and German. Hebrew, Dutch and Italian would be helpful. Many aspiring scholars play around in their research languages. Many learn just enough to pass an exam. I believe proficiency entails the ability to read comfortably for pages at a time with a dictionary. If a primary source hasn’t been translated, you should be able to understand it and use it in your research, even if you’re not comfortable publishing your own edition of the text.

Scholars read. They devote a large portion of their time to reading. Not all reading, however, is equally beneficial. Research reading can be categorized by proximity: about my topic, in my field, or in a related field. A well-rounded scholar reads in each area, but proximity often determines the ratio of primary to secondary sources. Right now, I am studying Augustine, a key figure in Protestant/Catholic polemic. I read mostly in the primary sources, even ones considered less important. In my field of historical theology, I read many primary sources, focusing on the most influential. Secondary sources cover lesser features and areas outside my primary interest. When drawing from related disciplines, I read a few primary sources but often rely on secondary accounts.

I pursue a “great books” approach to reading. By reading the most influential books of all time, those that have altered the course of social and/or intellectual history, I develop my mind and make other reading easier. Within my field I apply a similar great books approach. I have marked certain theologians – Origen, Augustine, Thomas, Luther, Calvin, and others – that I simply must know intimately. By knowing them, I can quickly grasp the contours of figures and groups influenced by them.

The “great books” approach applies to secondary literature, too. No one can study historical theology without carefully studying the Bible, perhaps in several languages. It is the universal reference point. Harnack’s History of Dogma is a standard in the field; it must be consulted. Underneath Emperor Bible and General Harnack, the various sub-fields have their own governors. For the medieval period, Etienne Gilson is unavoidable. Anyone who gets cited repeatedly on many topics from opposing points of view is probably a governor. If you want to move through their territory, you need their permission.

Finally, scholars need a rigorous environment with a compatible mentor. The best 10 or 20 programs in a given field will produce a disproportionately high number of jobs, particularly the best jobs. Some of that is prestige, but they really do produce superior scholars. Selective programs offer cooperative/competitive environments, funding, and access to resources and opportunities that second-tier programs lack. Since they have invested money in you, they are more committed to your professional success. Nevertheless, your mentor may matter even more than the general quality of the program. He or she is the person who trains you, who fights for you, who makes sure you do in fact survive the program. If he is not that interested in helping you, it’s like learning to swim by being dropped in a lake. You may make it; you may not.

So, the scholar who plays the long game has much to ponder and plan. I listed several components of the long game, but these need to be ordered. I won’t try to delineate an order now, except to say that languages are best pursued sooner than later. The key to making these goals reality is the ability to say no. Say no to the decent to embrace the best. Resist premature specialization. Refuse to take on many projects that don’t match the trajectory of your long game. Remember that it is a long game, and don’t try to rush. Whoever lays the foundation most precisely will in the end build the sturdiest edifice.

Published in: on March 21, 2011 at 10:20 am  Leave a Comment  

The Role of Greek in Theological Education

“How to translate a Greek text into English is altogether secondary to reading a Greek text in order to understand it.” ~ Carl Conrad

Although Greek is fading from seminary curricula, evangelicals that strongly emphasize inerrancy or have ties to historic Protestantism usually require divinity students to have at least some proficiency in it. No consensus exists regarding the reason for this requirement, the goals of the courses, or the level of proficiency that should be required. For example, some schools aim merely to equip their students to glean “exegetical insights” (whatever that means) from electronic and print resources. Greek appears to be a tool, almost a technique, that allows students to crack difficult passages in Scripture. Armed with Strong’s Concordance and Vine’s Expository Dictionary, they hunt for “nuggets” to flavor their sermons.

Against this approach, I argue that learning Greek does nothing other than enable one to read—in Greek. Reading is reading, whatever the language. “Exegesis” is just a fancy term for attentive, analytical reading. Most Americans think they know how to read, and on one level, they do. But many do not know how to read on an analytic level. (That’s why there are books with paradoxical titles like How to Read a Book, a very useful help in this area.) Imagine that a bright 12-year-old girl, a sophomore English major, and literary critic Harold Bloom were all assigned to read Twilight and sketch the main character. The tween might enjoy the book the most, but we all know that the most insightful commentary would come from Bloom, assuming he had the fortitude to complete this agonizing task. All read the same book, but they did not all read the book the same.

If someone is a poor reader, learning Greek will provide almost no benefit. A poor English reader makes a poor Greek reader. Greek does not provide magical solutions to difficult passages. It does not furnish isolated nuggets of exegetical power. It does not compensate for underdeveloped thinking skills. It is a language, and in text form it exists to be read.

Now, if someone is a good reader, Greek has much to offer. Penetrating the veil of the translation, the reader of the Greek New Testament can interact with the text without potentially misleading English connotations. She can grasp the structure of a passage, often obscured in the translation to shorter English sentences. She can weigh areas of interpretive ambiguity, instead of settling for a translation’s questionable interpretive choice or overly literal non-choice. In short, she can apply all her powers of reading to the Greek text.

However, before even a good English reader can read Greek analytically, she has to be comfortable in the language. Analysis is a layer added on top of casual reading. If a student can’t read casually, make out the text and give its basic sense, she is in no position to go mining the depths of verbal aspect, causal participles, or obscure genitive uses. Crawling must come before running.

Here’s where many seminaries fail. Impatient to produce profound interpreters of the Greek New Testament, they rush through producing readers of the Greek language. The movement is away from learning a language to merely learning a text. But reading doesn’t work like that. What would we think of a Russian speaker who wanted to study the novels of James Joyce, but who started writing critical articles before being able to read Joyce without two grammars, a dictionary, and a Russian translation in hand? Also, he speaks and writes almost no English. We would not expect any quality work. We would rightly suspect that those critical articles really cover the Russian translation of Joyce, with just enough English references worked in to make the author appear conversant with the English.

This is what most seminarians do. After a year of beginning Greek, which often consists of pages of charts and paradigms rather than any real Greek, the student enters an “exegesis” class, in which he is expected for the first time to read more than a sentence-length segment. Even after several years, few can sit down, open up their GNT, and simply read. Obviously, these students are not nearly capable of exegeting Greek. Since they cannot actually read and understand Greek, they craft clunky, overly literal English translations and exegete those. In short, Greek exegesis classes are self-congratulatory smoke-and-mirrors shows.

If we believe that Greek really does benefit the student of Scripture, as I believe it does, the standards must be raised. Students must become competent readers, then competent Greek readers. It’s not impossible. It’s just that after a century of atrophy, it’s hard for the seminaries to remember the feeling of strength. Below is a college entrance exam from 1897. It requires students to translate an English paragraph into Greek. Most seminary graduates today could not even read the Greek text of Xenophon on which this paragraph is based. But they could once, so there is hope for the future if we are willing to embrace the hard work.

Published in: on February 23, 2011 at 2:13 pm  Comments (2)  
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The Plight of the Humanities

Jacques Barzun remarks that the plight of the humanities (or liberal arts) exists not because of a hostile takeover by science, but because the humanities abandoned their birthright by mimicking science:

Then begins also the sad story of the humanities, the endemic “plight of the liberal arts.” In earlier days they had lived on excellent terms with science—what there was of it, usually a professor of physics and astronomy and one of chemistry or “natural history.” Those sciences had nothing illiberal about them; all types of knowledge were born equal. But in the 1880s and 1890s the increasing squadron of specialized sciences invaded the academy banners flying and claiming a monopoly of ceritified knoweldge. It would be wrong to suppose that the scientists wne out of their way to maim or kill the humanists. The latter’s wounds were self-inflicted. In the hope of rivaling science, of becoming sciences, the humanities gave up their birthright. By teaching college students the methods of minute scholarship, they denatured the contents and obscured the virtues of liberal studies.

“Research” was the deceptive word that made humanists devote their efforts exclusively to digging out facts about their subject without ever getting back into it. Nicholas Murray Butler, another university builder of the period… used to relate a telling example. When he was an undergraduate taking a course in the Greek dramatists, the professor opened his first lecture on Euripides by saying: “This is the most interesting play of our author: it contains nearly every irregularity in Greek grammar.” It is this fallacy of misplaced significance that continues to deprive the humanities in college of their attractiveness and their practical value. The curriculum may have a large offering of “liberal arts courses,” but they are worthless as education if they are not taught humanistically. But again, the science faculty is not responsible for the folly of their colleagues across campus. The humanist’s fear and envy of science in the 1890s was groundless. Huxley had truthfully pointed out that science appealed to the young mind and developed it for all intellectual purposes, because it was observation and organized common sense—nothing their to frighten or repel the liberal arts major. Science has become something other than common sense, but that is another story. (From Dawn to Decadence, 606-07)

Published in: on December 19, 2010 at 3:17 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Why Not Evangelical Seminaries?

To expand the title a bit, I’d say, “Why evangelical students of theology pursuing academic careers should not choose evangelical seminaries or grad schools for education past the M. Div. level.” As I write this, I’m applying to PhD and MTS programs in theology. None of them are at evangelical schools, and here I’m explaining why.

First, one has to consider the quality of education available at various schools. To do that, though, one has to have a concept of what education entails. If education were the accumulation of facts or the reading of books, then it would make little difference where or how one pursues it, provided there is a well-stocked library nearby. If, though, education is about forming a certain type of mental character, about refining one’s cerebral palate, about fostering intellectual virtue; then where, how, and predominately with whom matters a great deal.

In any given academic field, only a small minority drives the research and sets the agenda. The rest of the academic community diffuses their thinking and follows their bushwhacked trails. Assuming that one’s goal is someday to join that group of perceptive and influential scholars, it makes sense to study with someone already participating in that group. Naturally, this reduces the choices considerably. For most concentrations in theology, I suspect that this decision to study with influential scholars reduces the ideal choices to less than ten schools. Most likely, none of them are evangelical. Though my religious commitments lie with evangelicals, I recognize that, compared to their mainline and secular counterparts, much of their scholarship is sloppy, dated, derivative, or eccentric.

Furthermore, the nature of education at many evangelical schools works against ideological diversity in the student population. For higher academic work, diversity is not an ethical cause; it is a necessity. Scholarship is a collaborative enterprise that requires a chorus of voices, even if not every voice carries the same weight. It is through exposure to the breadth of Christian (and even other religious) traditions and to the depth of historic Christianity that one’s own faith and thinking are expanded. This chorus of sometimes uncomfortable diversity challenges, provokes, and inspires; a room full of Baptists bores with its flat monotone.

Although I deeply appreciate my own Reformed, evangelical tradition, much of my best thinking has been excited by Augustine, Thomas, Barth, Gunton, and Milbank. By contrast, many evangelical grad students seem not to want to be challenged. Rather, they would prefer studying somewhere where the ideas they already hold will be applauded and deemed clever, where they can remain safely ignorant of broader theological trends, contemporary questions, and the prejudices of their professors. They crave confirmation, not education. On the faculty side, many evangelical graduate schools are bipolar: they either shun other Christian traditions fearfully or fawn obsequiously over the latest theological fad. Neither attitude is useful to the graduate student.

Beyond what may appear to some as academic idealism, there are several practical considerations that make evangelical schools a poor choice. Higher education is, unless the student is independently wealthy, partly vocational training. Each student needs to ask what his or her job prospects will be upon graduation. Most PhD graduates intend to teach on the college or graduate level. Theology PhDs, at least the males, have the additional option of pastoring,  since most churches are unaware of how poorly equipped most PhD’s are to pastor.

That aside, what prospects does the average PhD from an evangelical seminary have? Seminary degrees are widely believed to be inferior to university degrees. Since most evangelical theology degrees are awarded through seminaries, you’re already at a disadvantage in the job market. Woe to the graduate who thinks his degree-awarding institution will hire him. Except for a few fringe institutions like Bob Jones University, most schools have policies limiting the number of faculty drawn from their own graduates. Besides, most evangelical schools would gladly drop their own grads if an Ivy League or Oxford grad applied to the position. Before applying to an evangelical school, ask for their placement statistics, particularly how many students have secured employment at graduation and how many are in tenure track positions 5 years from graduation. If they won’t tell you, they’re hiding something.

Evangelical grad schools present problems along the way, as well. Only a handful of programs provide funding without exacting egregious slave labor in return. Thus, grad students at evangelical schools often have to work while studying, all the while piling up debt. The amount of tuition is irrelevant; the real issue is how long your degree will take and how much debt you will accumulate along the way. According to the Survey of Earned Doctorates conducted less than a decade ago, the median school debt for religion PhD grads at Duke University was $0. Notre Dame? $0. Yale? $0. Good schools know how to take care of their students.

Of course, this piece is the result of my own search for a program, so it reflects my goals and priorities. Not everything that goes into my decision making process can be directly translated into someone else’s. Likewise, I recognize that I have generalized; there are some very strong programs at select evangelical institutions, and they meet some people’s needs. I hope, though, that this will stimulate some prospective grad students to explore their opportunities and consider their priorities.

Published in: on November 10, 2010 at 7:22 am  Comments (3)