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PHIL 4491: Seminar on Music and Values

Finding Books

Books may provide a comprehensive overview of your topic. Scan the index or the table of contents for key ideas, arguments, and thinkers. Use the bibliography for additional leads.

how to gut a book

Much as you might like to, you don't have time to read lengthy monographs from cover to cover. You need to read quickly and efficiently to locate the information you need. This process is sometimes called "gutting" a book, which is an accepted academic practice for assessing a book's relevance to your line of inquiry. Here are some steps to doing it well.

  1. Read any copy on the dust jacket if one is included. This will give you a basic sense of the author's argument.
  2. Read the table of contents. Which chapters are most useful? Can you discern the shape of an argument or the direction of the author's thought by the way a book has been organized?
  3. Read the preface. Authors will often tell readers why they wrote a book and for what purpose.
  4. Browse the notes and bibliography. Which kinds of evidence has the scholar adduced in support of her thesis?
  5. Skim the index and note major subjects. Do any patterns emerge?
  6. Read the introduction, then the conclusion. Can you identify the author's thesis in the introduction? Does the conclusion present a claim about the significance of the findings?
  7. If time allows, repeat step 6 for each of the book's chapters. Read the first and last sentence of each paragraph, paying close attention to anything that strikes you as especially interesting or important.

Once you've skimmed several books this way you'll know which books require closer reading and which can be safely ignored.


Adapted from a guide by Naoko Shibusawa, associate professor of history at Brown University