How to Read a Scholarly Monograph

Most scholarly monographs make their general argument in an opening section that very often comprises an introduction and sometimes a preface or the first full chapter as well; they work out the particulars of the argument in the chapters that follow. For this reason, it is best to read the opening section before reading the specific chapters that interest you.

The title of a monograph will identify its topic, and the opening section may define the topic further. The opening section will also lay out the argument that the monograph is making about this topic. In many cases, this argument will connect literary works to nonliterary domains—to visual art, music, or theater; to contemporary scientific, religious, or political discourses; to contemporary social, cultural, political, or economic events; to current philosophical or political questions. Think about how the monograph accounts for these connections and whether they are justified. In laying out the argument, the opening section will also delimit the argument's scope, often by nation, genre, and period. Think about whether these limits make sense and how the argument is shaped by them. Very often, the opening section will also contribute to current critical conversations, summarizing debates in a given field and seeking to advance them (some of this may take place in the notes as well, so look for the particularly long ones). Think about whether the summaries are fair and what makes the contributions valuable. Finally, the opening section often offers an overview of the rest of the monograph, summarizing what will be discussed in the subsequent chapters, but also, and more importantly, explaining how these discussions contribute to the overarching argument.

Laid out in the opening section, the monograph’s argument is actually made in the chapters that follow. As you read them, attend to their use of evidence. Think about how the evidence has been selected. Ask why the chapter focuses on these particular literary works or on these particular passages within them; ask whether an historical document is representative of the era as a whole. Think about whether there are counter-examples to the evidence being cited, and think about how the argument would change if it accounted for them. Think, too, about whether the evidence actually supports the specific claims being made or whether other, more persuasive evidence exists. Also attend to the method of reading. Some monographs refer to a large number of works in order to describe a genre or era; others read a small number of works very closely—often against the grain. Some pay attention to what a given text fails to say, while others are more interested in the history of how a work has been read. Think about what method of reading is best suited to the kind of argument being made.

After you have finished reading a monograph, it’s worth pausing to reflect on what you can learn from it—beyond the arguments it makes and facts it presents. If you are persuaded by the argument, ask yourself whether it requires that you rethink the presumptions underlying your own work; if you particularly admire it, think about how you might do something similar with topics and texts that are important to you. Look, too, at the rhetorical decisions the monograph makes: how does it begin and end chapters and sections? how much context does it provide for authors, events, and texts? how does it deal with other critics? how many readings does it offer and how extensive are they? how many quotations does it include and how are they integrated into the text? how does it signpost the argument to orient the reader? what voice is the author writing in? Reflect, too, on your experience of reading the monograph. What did you like, what did you dislike? Where did it flow, where did it flounder or stall? When were you absorbed, when were you tempted to skim? Draw on this information when you are trying to imagine how your own work will be read.