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Reading Criticism

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Researching a specific piece of literature can sometimes be overwhelming. A simple keyword search, even in the library database, can sometimes yield a hundred hits or more, and a national database can yield thousands. Even when you narrow down the field to something rather specific, you can still find yourself faced with a pile of books and essays. How do you absorb all that info?

Calm Down

You won’t, and you shouldn’t, read everything you pull off the library shelves or order through inter-library loan. Reading criticism requires looking through books for the information you need and ignoring what is irrelevant. Even if your stack of books seems taller than you, keep firmly in mind the knowledge that you will actually read only a portion.

Preview of Coming Attractions

If your can, skim a book’s table of contents and introduction, or skim the first few paragraphs of an essay. This should give you a basic idea of the substance of the piece and, once you’re used to the language, a hint of the author’s critical stance.

The Index is Your Friend

Most scholarly books are well-indexed, and you should head there next. Search around the index for words that are the same or similar to your topic then check out the pages wherein those words appear. Read the paragraph or paragraphs surrounding the word to get an idea of how connected the passage is to your own work. You may find something very useful or it may be a passing reference.

Watch the Feet

The footnotes and/or endnotes of a scholar’s work demonstrate the author’s research and may provide additional sources of information to you. If you find a chapter or article particularly interesting, chances are the author’s source material will be helpful as well.


You may find yourself disagreeing, sometimes significantly, with what you read in a critic’s work. do not let yourself be convinced based solely on the scholar’s expert status, and do not let an opinion you don’t share turn you away from material you can use. Make a note of your disagreement and press on.

Worksheet for Reading Literary Criticism

  1. Vital Stats: List Author, Title, Publication Date, Year
  2. Introduction/Conclusion: Rank usefulness to your project on a scale: 1= least useful 5= most useful
  3. Index: List page numbers with keywords having to do with your project: Keyword #1:, Keyword #2:, Keyword #3:
  4. Footnotes: Check around your keywords in the text for useful footnotes: Footnote #1:, Footnote #2:, Footnote #3:
  5. Decision: Is it worth reading the whole article, chapter, or book? Yes/No
  6. Objections, Notes, and Ideas:

Practice: Time yourself doing steps 1-5 with 10 books.