When reading a scholarly work, you want to approach it as an analyst, actively peeling it apart instead of working your way page by page. The main things that you need to cover are: topic, structure of the book, author’s thesis, evidence used, and significance in the field. These items should be able to be covered in a 4-6 page dissection, this does not include the references page.
Much of this information can be gleaned by looking at the table of contents, paying careful attention to the introduction and conclusion, and reading reviews of the book. Before making your way through the body chapters, the meat of the book, you should read the introduction and conclusion and think about the topic, structure etc. You will need to read the main chapters to get a sense of the evidence used and the success of the author’s argument but can search for these things more effectively when you already have a sense of the author’s goals. Here is an example of a book dissection from another semester: Use a book review to help understand the importance of work within the field ad to help critique the work.
The dissection should follow this structure:
- List book as a citation. Indicate the topic and structure of the book (what the sections cover–not each chapter) and the author’s thesis or argument (which will be in the introduction). Here you should note if the author has any exceptional bias (e.g. worked for the Ford Foundation before writing a book on its history).
- Summarize each section in terms of the evidence the author uses to support his/her thesis. You should have one paragraph per section. Often the author will have additional arguments that are not the thesis but interesting to you–include those here. You should also note if the author is relying upon original research or synthesizing other research.
- Analyze the thesis. Does the author do a good job supporting the thesis with evidence? Are there points with which you disagree? Book reviews can help you start thinking about what is missing but make sure you include your own view too.
- Evaluate the importance of work in the field. What is new about this work? How does it change our perspective on philanthropy, civil society, or the nonprofit sector? Here you can compare to the other readings you have and you may need to rely upon book reviews to help understand the importance of work within a field. Over time, you will pick up trends and be able to judge significance on the basis of your own knowledge of the field.