How to Read for a Bibliography

For a couple of years before I started grad school, I was reading theology on my own. I read what interested me, I read intensely, and I read very, very fast. I vividly remember what it felt like: I was racing through the material as fast as I could (and I read faster than almost anyone I know even at my normal speed), absorbing what fit well into the framework I had and was developing, and discarding what didn’t fit or didn’t make sense.

The summer before I started school, a friend advised that I read How to Read a Book. I was pretty resistant – I’d been reading all my life, of course I knew how to read a book! But she persisted, so I gave it a try. It helped me figure out how to approach reading academically in the humanities, how to write in my books and argue with the author in the margins. My first, required course was “Reading and Writing in Theology,” and that helped reinforce my ability to read critically.

So all through my coursework, my reading slowed way down, as I engaged more thoroughly with the material and thought more about what I was reading.

But now I’m doing a literature search for my thesis proposal, and I need to start reading fast again! Because the point isn’t to read critically at this point; it’s just to figure out whether to include it in the bibliography, and whether it will be a source to seriously engage with, or to set the paper in context. I think I’ve figured out a basic approach for books: read the ToC, the introduction or preface, the last chapter, and the bibliography or notes, and maybe leaf through the rest of it. But it’s tricky, because it’s all so interesting!

It takes a different kind of discipline to refrain from reading carefully. But I think those memories of voraciously reading as fast as I can, absorbing what fits and discarding the rest, will be very helpful in this stage. And here I thought I’d “outgrown” that kind of reading. Who knew?? 😉

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