How to Read a History Monograph—or Why You Shouldn’t Just Open the Book and Start Reading

1) Don’t open the book!  Look first at the title on the cover.  In almost every case, the title makes an analytical claim, something that clues you in not only to the subject matter of the book, but also the approach and even the main argument made by the historian.

 

2)  Look at the back cover.  On some books, you will find a one-paragraph summary of the work, plus blurbs from other noteworthy scholars.  Both will give you a sense of the book’s scope, the kind of history pursued by the author (cultural, social, political, environmental, intellectual, military, transnational), and perhaps even the sources used.

 

3)  Open the book.  Find the table of contents.  Look at it closely.  By now you should be able to answer the who, what, when, where, why questions about the book.  How does the author divvy up the chapters?  What kind of claims is the author making in each section?  How does she or he lay out her or his argument?

 

4) Find the bibliography, bibliographic essay, or endnotes in the back of the book.  Study them closely, even if you are not familiar with the particular subject at hand. What kinds of secondary sources does the historian rely on?  Particular historians or particular books that keep getting referenced over and over?   How about the primary sources used by the author?  Government reports? Newspapers?  Oral histories?  Manuscript letters?  Organizational documents?  Why might the scholar be using these sorts of documents?  What can they tell her or him that other kinds of documents can’t?

 

5) Read the acknowledgements.  Usually authors take the time to thank other scholars for reading drafts of the work, or providing research assistance.  Often times, you can even find out which archives a scholar visited or the type of field research they engaged in.  Think about these things in relation to what you’ve already learned.  Now you may know the four or five people who happen to be experts on the particular subject of the book.  This provides insight into other, related reading—the historiography of the subject.

 

6) Next, read the forward or introduction.  Here, historians usually map out the arguments that you will encounter in the book.  These summaries are especially useful because they offer a preview of what you’ll be seeing in each chapter.

 

7) Finally, you should start reading the book.   It’s important to remember that the first page (or pages) and the last page (or pages) of a chapter almost always introduce and summarize the main ideas found in that chapter.  Close attention to these sections will help you move through the chapter more efficiently and more quickly.  It will also help you evaluate whether or not the historian has succeeded in what she or he claimed would be their task.

 

8) Write in the margins of the book as you move through the chapters.  It is good to flag particular pages or underline or highlight important sections, but you should be responding and grappling with the author and the ideas presented.  You can also make notes for yourself, reminders of questions or issues you wish to raise in the next week’s discussion of the work.