I’m glad to hear that you are seeing the pattern inside my recommended reading strategies. For all those I’ve told you about so far (primary sources, textbooks, and scholarly studies) the pattern is to get a clear big picture, and then moved toward the details.
Think of it as the concentric circles that emerge when a stone plops into a still pond. If you want to get to the center, to find where the stone dropped, start with the outer circle and move to the middle, circle by circle.
Make Reading Fast and Effective
Now that you have that pattern in mind today I want to tell you about a key resource for getting the big picture quickly on a book before you dive in to study it: Read book reviews. That way when you open the actual covers of the book you know what you’ll find and what to look hard for.
Think of it as part of reading the book — just another helpful strategy as a master’s-level student.
Some people think reading reviews first is cheating. It isn’t. It is why most scholarly journals you look at have big sections of reviews.
Scholars don’t have time to read all the books they need to know about. They read reviews.
But I am sort of letting you in on the scholar’s dirty little secret here. Most don’t discover book reviews until they are in a doctoral program.
Read Scholarly Book Reviews
If you have a scholarly book to plow through, scholarly book reviews are the best to get the big picture quickly and clearly in mind.
Your seminaries library will surely give you online access to the full text of many scholarly journals.
1. Look for the ATLA Religion Index, though there are other useful ones too.
In the advanced search window, specify “author” or “title” of the book, and look for a checkbox to specify “reviews.”
2. Find Scholarly reviews.
When the results come up look for two things.
- Look for a PDF symbol or something to indicate the full text of the review is available online.
- Look for titles that indicate that the review is in a scholarly journal.
What I mean is avoid magazines that are written for the general public, whether those are denominational magazines or something like TIME. Look for titles like “Journal [or Bulletin, or Review] of the Society of XYZ” or “XYZ Journal”. Or, in the search results, look for a reference to the journal being “peer-reviewed.”
These will be reviews written by scholars in the field, for scholars in or out of the field. That’s you.
3. Read 3 of these scholarly reviews.
- Each one will be about a page or two long.
- The writer will summarize the book and its purpose.
- You’ll get a sense of what one scholar thinks is good and not so good in that book.
Then you can make better use of your reading time since you’ll already know what is inside, what is useful to you, and what you ought to be trying to learn more about.
Preparing the Ground
Think of reading reviews as preparing the ground of your mind to learn. If you’re going to plant a garden gift to break up the soil to make it fit to receive the seed.
In terms of study you need some background knowledge to make your mind ready to study in detail on any topic. Book reviews are the way to get that background for an unfamiliar and challenging book.
Once you once you plow the field your actual reading will be both faster and more fruitful.
I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!
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