Gutting a book: advice for grad students and the grad student in all of us ;-)

In grad school there are just too many books one *has* to read. It’s not possible–or even desirable–to read them all word for word, line by line, taking diligent notes. Now, having said that, there are some books–those you will use to make specific theoretical or applied arguments from–that you must, indeed, read CLOSELY and usually more than once. If, say, you want to use Bhaba’s notion of mimicry in your dissertation, you better know exactly what he meant, how its been used, the critiques…etc..However, if, say, you happen to be reading Fred Jameson’s,  Postmodernity: The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, you’ve got the argument of the book in two chapters, the rest is…well…the rest, examples, pontificating, but really the argument has already be laid out, one either buys in or they don’t.

So, the basics of gutting are this:

1. Read the intro chapter (or chapter one as the case may be) closely. The author *should* lay out their thesis and basic sub arguments here–even stubborn authors like myself succumb to editorial pressure and start writing sentences like “In this book I argue…”–HIGHLIGHT it, remember it, write it down somewhere. However, the Godfathers (i.e. Foucault, Gramsci, Derrida, etc.) and the Old Guard (i.e. Jameson, Bhabha, Hall, Gates, etc.) actually WON’T use the old “IN THIS BOOK I…” giveaway, so instead look for “keywords” that are associated with that scholar to discern what the hell they’re going to do.

2. Read the first few paragraphs and the last few paragraphs of each chapter carefully looking for specific patterns and evidence proffered in relation to the thesis. Look for subheadings–stop at these–the title will give you clues (usually, except in the case of those damn postmodernists who use clever subheadings that mean nothing to anyone except them =)) to the sub-arguments that the author is using to establish her thesis. Write these down, remember them. The last few paragraphs probably link back to BOTH the main thesis and the sub-argument of the chapter. Read these closely.

3. Within each chapter skim liberally. Look for keywords that give away the authors intent, like, "I suggest that..." or "I argue that..." Stop on italicized terms (except in Derrida, then skip all italicized terms, or just skip Derrida altogether, that’s my advice)–read these closely and link them to the thesis. Read one or two of the examples closely, skip the rest. As you read them think about how they establish evidence for the author’s argument.

4. Read the conclusion closely. The conclusion should wrap back around and reiterate the thesis while also suggesting links to sub-arguments and also ways forward for piggyback research etc.

5. Read any extended or block quotes in a chapter.  If a scholar is using precious page space to quote another scholar or author at length then it’s significant…either because it supports the primary scholar’s argument (or he/she has built his/her argument out of that scholar’s idea) OR the primary scholar is trying to dispute the quoted scholar.  Either way, it’s important to understanding the primary argument.

6. Read footnotes (or endnotes as the case may be) & the bibliography. Scholars are notorious for “hiding” some of their best, and most illuminating, ideas in the notes.  Who knows why?  Once you start questioning why scholars do anything you’re venturing into the rabbit hole. One can also build one’s own bibliography from other’s bibliographies and footnotes, always make your own “to read” list (organized by subject and project).

7. Skip Derrida. Really. If you know what “differance” and “deconstruction” are you pretty much know as much Derrida as is humanly possible.

Leave a Reply.