I want to talk (and think) about what I read.
December 14, 2014 3:42 PM   Subscribe

I am looking for a system or tips on, basically, how to write a summary of a book that explains its main points.

I mostly read non-fiction books and after a while I realize that I can't objectively explain what they are about. I can't go into details without checking out the index or scanning a bit. Is this normal when you read a lot? I can give my opinion but I think I could do a better job at articulating what a book is really about, using my own words.

I know that the best way to really understand something is by explaining it to somebody else (it has worked for me in the past), so that's what I want to be able to do.

I am looking for a system or tips on, basically, how to write a summary of a book that explains its main points. This would be a strategy for me to actually THINK about what I just read and understand WHY I feel it's so awesome, and go beyond "it was a really interesting book about [whatever]" and move on to the next one. I want to ask myself questions about what I just read but I really don't know how to do that. I feel that I am consuming books like they're TV shows and I hate that.

Can you help me?
posted by divina_y_humilde to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (6 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
As a graduate student and college instructor, I regularly need to do this with book chapters and scholarly articles. Though I haven't done it much with full length books, I think the same approach would work.

I start by outlining the contents of the book. You can do this with or without the material in front of you. Start broadly, and progressively fill it in on lower levels as much or as little as you think necessary. The other thing I do is try to distill the work into one or several take-home messages. Usually, I start thinking about this right after I've finished my broadest, roughest outline of the work. Anything else I add to the outline is motivated and shaped by those take-home messages.

Once you've got all that, you're ready to write your summary. Start with a sentence or two about the main premise of the work, give a brief summary of the contents, write some criticisms (positive and negative), conclude with those take-home messages or sprinkle them around–I'm being more general here, because it depends on what you want in the final product. I use this to develop lesson plans and to write scholarly article reviews.
posted by whiterteeth at 4:05 PM on December 14, 2014 [5 favorites]

Is this normal when you read a lot?

Yes, totally. I read probably 400 books a year; I remember very few of them distinctly unless I've written a review. Therefore my suggestion is:

Read reviews for books you've enjoyed on Amazon or Goodreads. You'll find that rather than reviews, a percentage of them are summaries, which is basically what you want. See how those reviewers approach the topics and basically, emulate them and try your own. It's a pretty low-stakes way to find your own system for doing these.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:44 PM on December 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think what you're describing is very normal, and the usual approach is to just read more and also look at what labels and categories other people use to break down the kinds of texts you're reading. But on the assumption that you're reading non-fiction prose (not, like, computer manuals or something), I can think of some very advanced tips.

Kenneth Burke and Hayden White both provide models for how to break down non-fictional narratives to say what they tend to focus on, in contrast to what other non-fictional narratives tend to focus on, and you can use them to quickly sketch out what a particular text is about or to keep track of what it's doing more than another text would do.

Burke suggests considering six elements of what's under discussion. Together, they're called the pentad, because he added the sixth one later. Anyway, they're the Scene (setting/place/time/history/background), Agent (people, actors, etc.), Agency (the means, instruments, technologies, etc.), Purpose (goals, aims, telos, morals, etc.), Act (events, activities, what happened, etc.), and Attitude (style, manner, etc.). Somewhat obscurely, most of these are borrowed from Aristotle (material cause, efficient cause, instrumental cause, final cause, and formal cause), but you can understand them more simply as when/where, who, by what means, for what reason, what, and in what manner, or you can generalize them to schools of thought: Materialism, Idealism, Pragmatism, Mysticism, and Realism.

But the point of breaking things down with the pentad is typically to observe that only one or two elements are being focused on, because it's hard to juggle them all at once, and they're used to explain each other in what Burke calls ratios. For example, people may say things like, say, society has needs (a scene/purpose), and that's the driving force that shapes individuals and makes us who we are (i.e. agents are secondary in significance). Or they'll say, well, if the technology (i.e. agency) is unavailable, then the activity it permits wouldn't occur (suggesting an agency/act ratio). So, using Burke's system, you can sort of keep score for how a particular text tends to explain or highlight what's going on and see that other ratios are excluded.

White is well-known for a similarly systematic analysis of how 19th C. historians tended to put their narratives together. I'm not sure he makes both axes of his categories completely clear, but my feeling is it goes like this: list the master tropes (metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony) as one column, and treat that column as itself a set of metaphors for how historical narratives are connected from point to point to create a plot, connected from part to whole to create an overall explanation, and made to have an ideological implication. It's slightly arguable, but I think the result looks like this:
(Metaphor)    (Metonymy)          (Synecdoche)         (Irony)

Master Trope  Mode of Emplotment  Mode of Explanation  Mode of Ideological Implication
------------  ------------------  -------------------  -------------------------------
Metaphor      Romance             Idiographic/Formist  Anarchist
Metonymy      Tragedy             Mechanistic          Radical
Synecdoche    Comedy              Organicist           Conservative
Irony         Satire              Contextualist        Liberal
And I've seen similar charts used to map out research strategies that were actually intended to cover aspects of a situation very widely. That is, I know of at least one work of non-fiction that tried to illuminate its topic from all the points of view the author could get from recombining the master tropes.

Anyway, the point of that is to consider how the text makes equations between things, makes connections between different parts of things, makes the parts add up into a whole, and makes some ideological argument overall. You can do that without really knowing anything about rhetoric or historiography.

In explaining both models, I've given a lot more information than you really need, but maybe they're inspirational for building your own set of terms for comparing non-fiction.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 4:48 PM on December 14, 2014 [8 favorites]

Check the book jacket or back cover, first chapter (or introduction), last chapter, book reviews, and the book's Amazon page. Those are all good places to look for summaries, or at least important points.
posted by alex1965 at 5:59 AM on December 15, 2014

Thank you so much for your answers so far!

Maybe I wasn't clear enough, but I don't want to read other people's reviews or the back cover of the book, I want to make the effort myself and think about what I just read, and "writing a summary" is the excuse to actually use my brain.

For example, thinking about "categories" or specific aspects of a book that I should consider when reading seems really uselful and that's kind of what I had in mind. I would like to hear from more people, even if you have a tiny suggestion, everything is welcome.
posted by divina_y_humilde at 12:45 PM on December 15, 2014

I wonder if the book How to Read a Book might be useful.
posted by Lexica at 6:47 PM on December 15, 2014

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