I often get asked how I go about doing my research for a book I’m writing, especially the scholarly ones.  One question people ask on occasion: do I take notes on what I read?  If so, how?  I dealt with the question on this date six years ago, in answer to a specific question.  I still follow the same system today.  Here is the question and my response!


You’ve told us about reading book after book after book before you even begin writing a book. I’d appreciate your sharing a little info on how you take notes during all of this reading.  And how do you decide what to make notes on and what not to put into notes?



Right – this is a very big issue for scholars in the Humanities, since what we do, for the most part, is read books and write books.  So knowing how to read books is very important.  In particular it is important because there are so *many* books to read (not to mention articles – there are even more of these).  How does one master the massive amount of scholarship that is out there, on any one problem?  Every year, for example, there are dozens of books and articles written about, say, Jesus, or the Gospel of John, or the writings of Paul, or – pick your topic. So if one has not kept up with scholarship on, say, Jesus, for ten years, and wants to get back into it, how does she do so?

It ain’t easy!  All of us realized this way back in graduate school.  For our graduate preliminary exams it was a big issue.  Graduate PhD exams are called a variety of things: “Prelims” because they are preliminary to writing a dissertation; “Comprehensives” because they are to cover fields of inquiry comprehensively; or sometimes just “PhD exams.”  So the deal is this.  In the U.S., in a typical Humanities program (such as our program in Ancient Mediterranean Religions at UNC, where students can focus on early Judaism, for example, or New Testament, or early Christianity, or Greco-Roman religions or philosophy, and so on), a PhD student enters the program, takes seminars for two years, and then prepares for exams.  The exams take about 6 months to a year to prepare for. There are five exams in my field in different areas that a student has to master.  For a student in early Christianity, e.g., they would be these: 1. Language exam (for example, Greek, Hebrew, or Coptic; the student is assigned a passage and has to translate it and explain the grammar, without a dictionary); 2. Greco-Roman religions (other than Christianity and Judaism); 3. History and Literature of Early Christianity exam (for example, covering the NT and the apostolic fathers; or the second century; or the third century; etc.); 4. Dissertation exam (in whatever field they will be doing the dissertation in – Gospel of John; Historical Jesus; textual criticism; early Christian apocrypha; Apostolic Fathers; early Christian apologists; whatever); 5. Outside Field exam (in any area other than their main area of expertise (for an early Christianity person that could be early Judaism, Hebrew Bible, literary theory; women’s studies – anything that is not directly in their field).

So for each of these areas, students have to master a bibliography.  And that in a sense is the beginning of a life-long task of mastering bibliography, which can never be finished, because scholarship is being produced all the time.  So how does one read everything that needs to be read?

When I was in graduate school …

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