How to read an essay

Note: this excellent process can be applied to books, chapters in books, articles, and all manner of reading.

What is the title?

What does it tell you about what the essay is about? What do you already know about the subject? What do you expect the essay to say about it--especially given when it was written and who the author was (see next questions)?

When was the essay written?

Do you know anything about the state of the historical literature on the subject at that time? If so, what do you expect the essay to say?

Who wrote it? What do you expect him or her to say here?

What are the author's credentials, or affiliations?
What are his/her prejudices?
Are you familiar with the authors' other work related to the subject?

Read the essay, marking the information that is crucial to you.
When the text gives you crucial information, mark and note it:

What exactly is the subject?  How does it correspond to the title?
What are the main points--the theses?
What is the evidence that the author gives to sustain the thesis or theses?

What is the factual information that you want to retain?

Is there a good description of something you knew, or did not know, that you want to remember its location?
If so, mark it. If for research, make out a research note on it.

Does the author cite some important source that you want to retain for future reference?
If so, mark it. If for research, make out a bibliographic note either now or on reviewing the article for such citations.

Once you have finished the article, think about the important questions:

What have your learned from this essay? How does it relate to what you already know?
Did you find the argument sustaining the thesis or theses convincing on its own terms?
Given what you know about the subject, do you think the main point(s) might be correct even if the argument itself was not that convincing?
Can you think of information that makes you doubt the main point(s), even if the essay argued it well?
How does the essay relate to other things you have read--that is, how does it fit in the historical literature?

Make out a summary sheet on the essay (see below):

SUMMARY OF READING

TITLE OF BOOK, ESSAY OR ARTICLE:
AUTHOR:

 

PUBLICATION INFORMATION:

 

SUBJECT:

 

MAIN POINT(S)
(I.E., THESIS OR THESES):
ELABORATION:

HOW ARE THE THESES TESTED, WHAT SORTS OF METHODS AND SOURCES:
HISTORIOGRAPHICAL CONTEXT AND RECEPTION/PLACE IN THE LITERATURE:

 

HOW PERSUASIVE AND OTHER COMMENTS:

 

IMPORTANT INFORMATION:

 

RELATED WORKS:

 

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