Robert Webber: How to Read an Academic Book

DO NOT read an academic book word for word, page for page, chapter for chapter.

DO read a book like you would look at a picture, study its frames, and finally examine its details.

Here’s how:

1. Get the big picture in sight. Read the back cover, the Contents page, the Introduction, the Conclusion. Spend some time just thinking about what you have read.

  • Where is the author coming from? Background, schooling, current position? What may be the author’s bias?
  • What is the point of the book? Summarize it in a sentence or two.
  • How will the author develop the point? Find this in the outline and the Introduction.
  • What does the author want you to do or think? Find this in the Conclusion.

2. Frame the book. That is, find out the author’s sources and look for ways to connect your own understandings and experiences with the overall picture the author is painting.

  • Scan the footnotes. Who does the author quote? Are you familiar with any of the authors quoted? Do these authors give you a clue to where the author of this book will take you?
  • Read the general index. As you come across topics or names that are familiar, look them up in the text to see what the author says about the material you are already familiar with.
  • Read the scripture index. How does the author interpret passages with which you are familiar? Does this author stretch you? Agree with you? Differ with you?

3. Continue to look at the frame of the book, looking now for the structure of the presentation.

  • Look again at the Contents page. Is there a discernable developmental structure from beginning to end?
  • Now scan the Introduction and Conclusion of each chapter thinking about the goal of each chapter.
  • Now scan the entire book reading only the headings and subheadings stopping to read where curiosity leads you.

4. You are now ready to analyze the book in detail.

  • Will this book take me beyond my present knowledge? If the answer is “No,” then you have read enough.
  • Will this book contribute to my knowledge? If the answer is “yes,” then read on.
  • Is this book an incredible tool that will reshape my ministry? If the answer is “yes,” then outline the book or the parts that contribute to your knowledge and memorize what is of particular use.

5. By outlining and memorizing the content of a book that will reshape your understanding and ministry, you have created a framework for building a house of knowledge (excuse the introduction of another metaphor). The next book you read on the same subject will bring a room together and perhaps even furnish it. Then again, another book may force you to move the furniture out and bring the new in, or, perhaps, rebuild the house, and on it goes.

About the author

Founding President of IWS and pioneer of Christian worship renewal.