How to Read Big Books

“…it is a principal task of a successful modern university to teach people how to read [big, difficult, flawed, incredibly insightful, genius books]. Indeed, it might be said that one of the few key competencies we here at the university have to teach—our counterpart or the medieval triad of rhetoric, logic, grammar and then quadriad of arithmetic, geometry, music and astrology—is how to read and absorb a theoretical argument made by a hard, worthwhile, flawed book. People need to understand what an argument is, and the only way to do that is actually go through an argument—to read the argument and try to make sense of it. People need to be able to tell the difference between an argument and an assertion. People need to be able to do more than just say whether they liked the conclusion or not: they need to be able to specify whether the argument hangs together given the premises, and where it is the premises, and where it is the premises themselves that need to be challenged. People need to learn that while you can disagree, you need to be able to specify why and how you disagree.

The first order task is to teach people how to read difficult books…Teaching them how to read difficult books will stick with them over the years. Knowing what to do with a book that makes an important, an interesting, but also a flawed argument—that is a key skill.

…we urge you to focus on the “meta” to the extent that you can: it is not so much the ability to answer the question “what does Marx think about X?” that we want you to grasp, but rather “how do I figure out what Marx thinks about X?” that is the big goal here…

We have our recommended ten-stage process for reading such big books:

1. Figure out beforehand what the author is trying to accomplish in the book.

2. Orient yourself by becoming the kind of reader the book is directed at—the kind of person with whom the arguments would resonate.

3. Read through the book actively, taking notes.

4. “Steelman” the argument, reworking it so that you find it as convincing and clear as you can possibly make it.

5. Find someone else—usually a roommate—and bore them to death by making them listen to you set out your “steelmanned” version of the argument.

6. Go back over the book again, giving it a sympathetic but not credulous reading.

7. Then you will be in a good position to figure out what the weak points of this strongest-possible argument version might be.

8. Test the major assertions and interpretations against reality: do they actually make sense of and in the context of the world as it truly is?

9. Decide what you think of the whole.

10. Then comes the task of cementing your interpretation, your reading, into your mind so that it becomes part of your intellectual panoply for the future.”

-Brad Delong, “A Note on Reading Big, Difficult Books…Brad DeLong’s Grasping Reality. December 28, 2019

Open Syllabus Project, Visualized

“A new interactive visualization from Open Syllabus turns this trove of data into a color-coded stippling of different-sized dots, each one representing a particular text. Float over each dot and a box appears in the corner of the screen, showing the number of syllabi that have assigned the text, and a link to a profile page with more detailed analysis. Called the “Co-Assignment Galaxy,” the infographic does what a list cannot: draws connections between all these works and their respective fields of study.

-Josh Jones, “A New Interactive Visualization of the 165,000 Most-Frequently Assigned Texts in College Courses.” July 22, 2019.

A list of the top 50 works is available from the Open Syllabus Project website.