Monthly Archives: September 2013

How to Read A Book: A Student’s Guide to Non-Fiction


University professors love to assign mounds of reading. Looking at the book lists for your classes and realizing it’s impossible to get through them  by term’s end is a sucky yet common experience. But it doesn’t have to be like that.

Why do they do this, though? Are they just a bunch of sadists in tweed coats? How could they possibly think students have time to read five books for one class? Don’t they know that means 25 books a term?

Here’s secret number one: your profs don’t even have time to do that much reading. Yes, they’re full-time in the learning game. But mostly they’re busy preparing lectures, grading, attending committee meetings,  answering emails, and watching cat videos on YouTube. Occasionally they do some research.

So if they can’t keep up with the readings — or least can’t afford to spend roughly 168 hours a week with their nose in a book — why do they assign so much to you? Are they all gathered by the departmental Xerox machine snickering into their walnut pipes about the suffering they’ve managed to inflicted on you?

Well the truth is they have a technique. And for some reason nine out of ten of them don’t think to share it.

It’s strange. Everyone gets instruction in writing via feedback on the papers they write. But little is taught about how to read a book.

But that all changes when you begin your doctorate. (Not that you need to get a PhD, that’s just where I learned this.)  Once you’ve been through four years of undergrad courses and two years of Master’s seminars and thesis writing, then — and only then! — will they bestow upon you the secret knowledge. [Cue awesome gong sound.] It’s the knowledge that would’ve saved you unending hours of pain muttering curses at wordy textbooks in hipster coffee shops. It’s the knowledge of how to read.

I don’t mean read-read. We all know how to do that. I mean how to rip the guts out of a 300-page non-fiction book in an hour. Yep, that’s often how long your professors spend on a book. One hour.

How in tarnation is that possible? It’s a technique born of necessity, but it works. In the course of a PhD program you’ll have to complete “comprehensive exams” that test you on the contents of 150-200 books. You’ve got one year to get that reading done. When you factor in weekends, holidays, sick time, and days you inevitably must devote to tasks other than reading, you might be left with 200 days in a year to work on that. Which means you’ve got to get through a book a day.

So you’ve got to get through that book quickly. Simple math precludes reading it cover-to-cover. There just isn’t enough time.

This, however, is a good thing. Because reading cover-to-cover often leads to drowning in details without seizing the book’s main point. Ever have that problem where you read a book and then some asks you what it was about? Uhh, it was, um, it’s was about like, uh, this guy. And he was, um, he was  the president, of like this country? Yeah, I think I’ll have to go back…

That’s what comes of passively reading front-to-back. Novels are a different animal and need to be read one word after another. They build suspense all the way through, and if you don’t follow the structure outlined by the writer, you’ll spoil the whole business.

But non-fiction is designed differently. Especially academic work. There’s no suspense. Any author worth his or her salt will expose the main ideas in the prologue or introduction, and will summarize them in the conclusion. This applies to the entire book and to each chapter. In other words all the key information is found at the extremities. So that’s where you should start.

Reading non-fiction is like eating pizza. You need to nibble on the edges and work your way in. Unless you want to get sauce all over your face.

I’m not saying you should ignore the deep dark interior of the work you’ve been assigned. I’m just suggesting you approach your reading in a different order. An ideal reading order might look like this:

  1. Read the prologue. This is usually only a couple of pages. By the end of this, you should already have heard about the book’s main ideas. Note them down.
  2. Read the conclusion. If it’s a long, read the last paragraph first. This is where the author should give the last word on what this book is really about and why it matters. And those are the things your professor wants you to know.
  3. Read the introduction. This will also lay out the book’s main questions and will suggest how the author intends to answer them.

If you’ve done this, you should have a clear idea of what the book is about. These are the  sections that reveal the high-level, conceptual elements of the work. The lack of detail in these chapters is a good thing. It allows you to zero in on what’s  important. Then, when it comes time for class discussion, written responses, mid-terms, or final papers, you know you’ll be on the mark. Your prof is far more likely to appreciate your  grasp on the book’s main point than your ability to cite random details.

From this point, you can delve deeper as time allows and as the nature of your course assignments require. Do this as follows:

  1. Identify the chapters you are going to examine. If the table of contents shows that the book is divided into parts, choose at least one from each part.
  2. Read the introduction and conclusion of each chapter you’ve chosen. From this you should be able to seize the essence of the chapter material.
  3. If you want to go further, identify all the chapter subsections. Read the introductory and concluding paragraphs of each one. Continue reading if necessary, or if the book is so good you actually want to.

Of course some books lack proper introductions and conclusions. These books suck to read. These books are chrono-monsters. They eat your time without mercy. The only way to heal the wounds they cause is by writing a critical-yet-polite email to the author:

Dear Evil Genius,
I’m interested in your ideas but I found your book inaccessible. Might you think of including more comprehensive introductions and conclusions in your future work?
Some Frazzled Twenty-Year-Old
p.s. You owe me four hours.

To conclude, please don’t send this post to your angry professors when they discover you didn’t read all the material. No one likes a grouch in a tweed coat.

Anyway, I’m not advocating  you skip your readings. By all means, if you have the time, read every page. But start at the edges. That way, by the time you reach the steamy jargon-jungle at the book’s heart, when details supporting the book’s thesis are assailing you left and right, you might actually know what that thesis is.

At the very least, instead of showing up completely unprepared because you didn’t have time to read those three seminar papers front-to-back, you’ll have skimmed the intros and conclusions while busing to class. If you do it that way, who knows? You might even get more than a simple attendance mark out of the session.

If you do execute this “pizza reading” technique, make sure to perk your ears up on the last Sunday before final grades are due, right around midnight. Somewhere your professor will be madly marking your term paper, and you just might hear a soft noise. That, dear student, is the sound of happy tears falling on tweed.


Review: And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

Thanks to Penguin for a review copy of Khaled Hosseini's 'And the Mountains Echoed.'

Thanks to Penguin for a review copy of Khaled Hosseini’s ‘And the Mountains Echoed.’

In some ways And the Mountains Echoed reflects Khaled Hosseini’s previous novels. Like The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, it’s set in Afghanistan — though not exclusively. Like them its title draws from a poem. And like them it’s an earnest, sentimental work that seeks to educate.

But in other respects it’s different. And the Mountains Echoed is of far broader scope than Hosseini’s earlier work. It features a bevy of characters and a slew of plot lines. It moves from Afghanistan to Athens to California to Paris and back. It’s not just about Afghans but those who’ve been drawn to their country since the Taliban’s fall: surgeons, nurses, and aid workers.

The themes it touches on are many. Property theft spawned by the refugee crisis. Pain caused by Afghans settled in the West who come to Kabul and make promises they can’t keep. The rebirth of mujahideen leaders as opium lords. Homosexuality and women’s rights in Amanullah Khan’s reformist era. Domestic violence. The current medical crisis. The heroism of foreign doctors who devote their lives to Afghans. The trauma of fractured families. The question of filial duty. The quest for meaning, and the fear of freedom to search for it.

These are weighty ideas, each worth considering. But there are too many of them.

I laud Hosseini’s intentions. He clearly has much to say about his home country. Sometimes, however, less is more.

The virtues of a sharp focus were manifest in his earlier novels. The Kite Runner was about a man searching for his childhood friend. A Thousand Splendid Suns was about two generations of women who suffered through war and patriarchy. And the Mountains Echoed, however, is harder to sum up.

But here’s an attempt. In the 1950s an Afghan peasant, Saboor, is persuaded to give up his baby daughter, Pari, to a wealthy family, the Wahdatis. Pari winds up in France, unaware of her true origins, while her brother, Abdullah, suffers trauma from the separation. Abdullah eventually immigrates to California and runs a kabob house. The siblings aren’t reunited until half a century later when Abdullah’s mind has been ravaged by senility.

A Greek plastic surgeon, Markos Varvaris, comes to Kabul on a short stint in 2002 and decides to settle there after years of globetrotting. He is offered accommodation in the house of the Wahdatis– though the family is dead and only the servant who arranged the adoption, Nabi, remains. A couple of California-based Afghans, Idris and Tabur, go to Kabul to claim the property their father abandoned years before, and they bump into the Varvaris and Nabi. It turns out they lived on the same street as Nabi in their youth.

When Nabi dies he requests Varvaris to find Pari, reveal her true origins, and give her the house he left her in his will. Varvaris finds her online and unveils the truth of her birth family. This allows her to eventually track down her brother in California.

If the story’s ultimate direction isn’t jumping out, that’s because it doesn’t in the book. There’s plenty to like in the novel, though. Hosseini draws beautiful portraits of his characters. Some — like the servant Nabi and the troubled poet Nila Wahdati — are memorable. But the book explores so many characters in such depth that the narrative grows muddled. For example, Varvaris’s main role in the story is to find Pari and reveal her family roots. Yet there’s a sixty-five-page chapter devoted to his childhood in the Greek Isles.

And it’s a great chapter — one of the best. But it doesn’t advance the core narrative. Instead it exemplifies how the book covers too much ground: its true aim is humanizing the foreign medical volunteers in Afghanistan.

That’s a great thing to do, and Hosseini has drawn great characters in Varvaris, his resolute mother, and his maimed cousin. But they barely connect to the rest of the novel. The result is a book that reads more as a series of snapshots of contemporary Afghanistan and not as a cogent story.

The same goes for a forty-page chapter on California brothers Idris and Timur who visit Kabul in 2003 to reclaim their father’s house. The only connection this pair have to the main story is that as children they lived on the same street as the Wahdatis. Their presence doesn’t further the plot at all. Rather they allow Hosseini to explore cultural insensitivity on the part of Westernized Afghans and to raise the plight of injured children. Again, these are important topics. But story-wise this is another dead-end.

Khaled Hosseini’s strength has always been narrative. His prose is adequate. But he is known for great stories, not great sentences. And in the absence of a story that’s lucid and driven, And the Mountains Echoed sags.

A short story collection would’ve better suited Hosseini’s purposes. With a number of subplots barely touching on the novel’s core, it almost reads like one already.