How to gut a book

As you know, most of your work as a history student involves reading. You will have been reading history books since your A-level studies, but university reading is different.
The tendency at A-level is to read looking for 'relevant' information (and especially quotations) to put in essays on particular topics. At university you should be reading in order to understand what it is that the author is trying to say to you. What is the point they are trying to make? And just as important, how successful are they?

Since the quality of an essay or other piece of work is significantly affected by how much you have read and understood, it is useful to be able to maximise the amount of meaning you can extract from your reading in the shortest possible time. This is where gutting books comes in.

What is gutting a book?

Gutting a book means quickly establishing the book's thesis (i.e. the main point the author is trying to make), together with the main lines of argument and the main evidence used to support those arguments. It can be a prelude to more detailed reading, or you might never need to look at the book again, depending on what you are trying to do and what you need to find out.

How do I do it?

You probably already know. A well-tested method is to follow the sequence below, taking notes as you go (remember to include page numbers, and mark out your own ideas as your own).

  1. Table of contents
    1. can you spot any overall pattern to the book?
    2. are the subheadings listed?
    3. are there any tables, maps, or figures listed in the Contents that look particularly useful?
  2. Introduction and Conclusion
    1. read both of these carefully
    2. write down the book's thesis!
    3. looking for summary of basic argument and perhaps types of evidence used
    4. Note: the Introduction (occasionally the Preface) is usually where the author explains where their work fits within the relevant scholarly debates
  3. Opening and closing paragraphs/sections of chapters
    1. looking for basic point of each chapter, and what evidence will be cited
    2. relate this back to the summary you got from Introduction and Conclusion
    3. what fits where? Does the evidence seem to work?
  4. This can be repeated for subheadings, if there are any/if they look useful
  5. Skimming for interesting information
    1. looking for evidence supporting (or failing to support) key concepts
    2. are the tables helpful?
    3. you should take some worthwhile details from at least one chapter

What will this achieve?

Once you have gutted a book, you should be able to answer the following questions:

You should be able to gut a scholarly monograph in about an hour. This means it is likely that you will be able to extract a great deal more meaning from a great many more books in the same time it might normally take you to read just one or two.

Your lecturers commend this method to you.

Return to Front Page Previous Next Last updated