Mindsnack is a new week-end only feature. We will present recommendations, links, interesting tidbits on music, culture, culinary arts, philosophy and other areas. We promise to  keep it light. Just a little snack for our minds. Sometimes that is all you want on a week-end.


When I started graduate school, I had to take a class on methodology during my first semester. The purpose of such a class is to make a student familiar with the field, in my case, history. We were taught how to search for and use dissertations, interviews, newspapers, newsreels, and various archives; we were shown different kinds of history, written from different perspectives on the same issue, and made to understand what questions could be fairly asked of each method; we learned how to analyse an argument, interrogate its sources, and uncover its assumptions. Done well, these skills give a deeper reading experience than just picking up a book and reading it for its “facts” as most people are wont to do.

I appreciated being shown the tools of the trade, so to speak, especially since I came from an engineering background as was new to this whole concept of reading as a profession. However, one thing that really struck a raw nerve with me was how…incompletely…we were advised to read.

I still remember my professor, a very smart and friendly person, leaning against the front of his metal desk, a copy of Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream – that week’s reading – resting on his knee. “At least until you graduate,” he said, “you will find yourselves reading at least four books a week, not to mention papers and reviews.” There is a lot of material graduate students must be familiar with, and to cover even a fair-sized chunk of it would not be easy. Our professor advised us, for the sake of our sanity, to read the first chapter and the last chapter fully, and to read the first and last paragraphs of each chapter in-between.

But what does that teach us? To race through a book without contemplating its arguments? Racking up more books that you have read? Boasting of a faster reading speed? Impatience? Such techniques, though understandable as shortcuts evolving in the face of competition, do not make one better read. At a rate of four books a week for three years, you can probably hold your own in an argument or fake your way through a dinner conversation or TV interview, but you rely on the ignorance or magnanimity of others to pull it off. To my mind, if I had left a more lucrative career as a software engineer to do history, I was going to do it right!

So what is the right way to read? First, be sure to read arguments from all sides of an issue. Many prefer ideologues to scholars because they resonate better with deeply held beliefs. After all, reading is supposed to be subversive…planting new ideas in your head, challenging what you know all the time. Second, check the author’s credentials and writing history – someone with thirty years of experience in the oil industry may be better informed about the business than an HR executive with an extracurricular interest. The reviews of previous works will also help place a writer on a spectrum of wisdom in that field.

Third, look at the sources or references a book has – it will tell you how well the author has considered various perspectives on his subject. Four, read at a pace you are comfortable with, with time between paragraphs, chapters, or books to reflect on what you have read. For me, philosophy requires more breaks than history or literature.

There is no race, and the objective is comprehension, not pages turned. Five, if you are lucky, you may have friends who can discuss what you have read with you – even if they have not read your book. Do so, for discussion shows you how many ways something can be interpreted. Vigorous classroom discussions are the real strength of graduate programmes over the autodidacts.

And six, try to write a review of the book you have read. It sometimes helps to come back to it after some time and remember, or perhaps you have a fresh perspective and the review works as a second voice to sharpen your arguments. I have found this to be the hardest part – I am criminally lazy – but Abhinav Agarwal seems to have mastered this step!

So read well – carefully, widely, and deeply; there are whole new worlds out there to explore!

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Jaideep A. Prabhu is a specialist in foreign and nuclear policy; he also pokes his nose in energy and defence related matters.

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