This post is part of my "research" series.

Blue. How to Read Books and Write Essays. Overly Sarcastic Productions, 2019.


This got recommended at the end of Red's video on how to do research and can be considered part of the same series.

In one paragraph

Academic reading is often boring reading, which is hard. Summaries, audiobooks, and limited or "focused" reading will help you get through a boring book, while annotating it will help you re-find things. Literary analysis accommodates as many meanings as you can sell your audience on. Good project management helps with writing too: schedule abundant time, make a point of taking breaks and revisiting drafts, and seek early feedback. Also texts should flow, try reading your writing aloud.

Table of Contents

Table of Contents in the original is embedded as text on the video.

Part 1: Reading
    1.1 Reading for meaning 0:29
    1.2 Getting the Most from Summaries 0:59
    1.3 Reading efficiently 2:44
    1.4 Understanding Content 3:24
    1.5 Sourcing a Thesis 3:53
    1.6 Annotation 4:34

Part 2: Argumentation
    2.1 Relativism 5:16
    2.2 Authorial Intent and You! 6:14
    2.3 Good and Bad Logic 6:49
    2.4 Interpreting a Text 7:24
    2.5 Supporting an Interpretation 7:49
    2.6 Crafting an Argument: Change 8:52

Part 3: Writing
    3.1 Scheduling Your Writing 9:41
    3.2 The Good, the Bad, and the Outline 10:55
    3.3 Writing Lean Essays 11:35
    3.4 Writing Like You Speak 12:37
    3.5 Editing Drafts 13:10
    3.6 In-class Essays 13:55
    3.7 In Videos and Essays, Conclusions are Key 14:54

An alternative outline

Broadly, how this article reads from my perspective.

Prologue 0:00
Introduction 0:20

Part 1: Reading
    1.1 Do not rely on summaries 0:29
    1.2 Academic reading as a skill 1:16
    1.3 Using reading aids
        1.3.1 Summaries, their purpose and mode of employ 1:49
        1.3.2 Audiobooks 2:44
    1.4 Academic reading
        1.4.1 Plot, character, theme, symbolism, style 3:24
        1.4.2 Thesis LAST 3:36
        1.4.3 Reading with a focus 4:01
        1.4.4 Annotation 4:34

Part 2: Argumentation
    2.1 Relativism
        or "Why there are infinitely many right answers" 5:16
    2.2 Evidence: the Foundation of Argumentation 6:31
    2.3 The danger of circular logic 6:49
    2.4 Evidence 2: Electric Boogaloo
        or "Why there are also infinitely many wrong answers" 7:31
    2.5 Annotation revisited 8:32
    2.6 A heuristic for literary analysis: look for change 8:52

Part 3: Writing
    3.1 If you don't write it, it doesn't exist 9:41
    3.2 Schedule your writing 9:48
    3.3 Diminishing returns: why you need breaks 10:15
    3.4 Accountability 10:45
    3.5 Outlines as a trap: Blue's personal journey 10:55
    3.6 Creating flowing prose: speaking aloud 12:37
    3.7 Fail faster!
        or "How to avoid writing your essay twice" 13:28
    3.7 Thinking on your feet: how and why 13:55
    3.8 Do or do not, there is no try 14:54


The good, the bad, and the extremely revealing. Direct quotations in no particular order. Some of these ideas may not be discussed at length, but it still seemed worthwhile to put them here.


[A summary] gives you a top-down view of the plot roadmap and the important points along the way, so instead of wading through a huge mess of incomprehensibility, you have landmarks to ground yourself by.


That's really what a summary does best: It primes you on what to expect so that you can read for detail with the broad strokes already in your mind.


[...] it's a much better idea to look up the summary before you read the book than after. If you didn't get the book when you first read it, odds are you won't remember it too well, and the summary won't jog memories that you don't have.


Five things

Broadly speaking, you can read a story for five things: plot, character, themes, symbolism and style.


[...] if you find that you're struggling with too much information, picking at random to focus on either plot, character, themes, symbolism or style is a good place to start.


Thesis LAST

[...] usually when papers are assigned, the teacher tells you to pick a thesis and support it with evidence from the book. I don't know why they phrase it like that because it's completely backwards. Your thesis arises from your thoughts on the book after you read it. Here's a fun secret, lots of college professors will actively tell you to write your thesis statement last, since your opinions on the text will naturally evolve as you examine it in more depth.



You're basically building an outline of important details and events right into the pages of your book so you can effectively keyword-search it later just by flipping through. It's command-f in real life. So you can narrow your search for a detail or quote down to a page rather than an entire chapter.



The difference between a coherent argument and a crappy headcanon is evidence. Relativism at its worst is everybody throwing ideas around carelessly, but at its best, it's a rigorous examination of every available idea to determine which ones have ground to stand on. What you end up with isn't the correct answer but one of many valid explanations.


General commentary

Some of the ideas in this video seemed surprisingly novel to me:

  • Reading with an explicit focus. Narrowing down to one aspect of a text instead of trying to understand everything at once was a revelation to me.
  • Annotations as Command+F in real life. This isn't the first argument I've found in favor of annotations, but it is perhaps the most convincing one.
  • Taking breaks between writing sessions. I'm honestly shocked that Eco's "How to Write a Thesis" didn't mention this.

Like with Red's video, I really wish there were pointers to more information.

Using "things that change" as an analysis heuristic sounds useful, but probably any reading focus could serve that purpose: things that change, things that don't change, things that are beautiful, things that are ugly, common attributes in every character, heroic flaws, heroic virtues... I think a more general heuristic is just picking out any pattern or thing whatsoever and asking "suppose this thing was written on purpose, with the aim of illustrating something; then what would this thing be meant to illustrate?".

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Thank you so much for sharing. It's very helpful for me.

You're welcome! I'd like hearing a bit about how it helped, if you are ok with sharing.