How to read around a subject

When tutors suggest you ‘read around’, what do they really mean?  When you get a reading list with hundreds of books on it, where do you start?


photo by Valentina_A

photo by Valentina_A

Reading around covers a lot of ground and is important for undergraduate work:

“Reading will be a crucial element of your study in higher education…There is a much greater expectation and requirement, if you are to be successful, to read more independently and more widely than you may have previously.”
Studying and Learning at University – Alan Pritchard (p28)

So, reading needs to be ‘independent’ and ‘wide’.  Let’s go further:

“University work needs more than simple reproduction of facts.  You need to be able to construct an argument and to support this with evidence.  This means that you need to draw on the literature that you have read in order to support your position…What is important is to present a tight, well-argued case for the view you finally present as the one you favour.”
The Smarter Student – Kathleen McMillan & Jonathan Weyers (p226)

What you say must be backed up.  That’s where reading around comes in.  Your aim isn’t to get a unique view on the world.  That’s almost impossible.  You need to refer to what’s already out there, which is why you can’t rely on a small number of sources unless you’re content with a bare pass (or worse).

Here’s what reading around does for you:

  • Reading around helps you fill in the missing gaps you didn’t realise were there;
  • Reading around lets you know the subject, rather than just the facts;
  • Reading around is like filling up a jar in stages.  You start with big rocks of information.  When the big rocks fill the jar, you can still put in small stones of detail that fall between the big rocks.  When the small stones fill the jar, you can still put in fine sand of specifics to fill in the smallest, unclaimed areas in the jar.

How do you start reading around?  Here are a few ways:

  1. Read more than the key texts on reading lists – When tutors list ‘further reading’, ‘extra’ texts, or ‘suggested’ materials, they aren’t giving you anything that’s surplus to requirements.  The purpose of further reading is so you can learn more, not to read more stuff you don’t need to know;
  2. Highlight research that considers similar issues and explore their findings – You are discovering what has gone before.  How have we reached where we are today?  Is research still going on, or have we reached a dead end?  What is influential and why?;
  3. Don’t rely on textbooks alone – Read up online, in journals, in textbooks, in the news, and so on.  Check for the most recent research going on, even if that means no more than a quick Google Scholar search for papers in the last year or two;
  4. Find links between your subject and another field – If you stick to your subject alone, you can’t appreciate the bigger picture.  How does your subject impact upon others and vice versa?;
  5. Don’t think ‘answers’, think ‘questions’ – You’re finding what fits with your argument and how matters can move forward or be explored further.  Research wouldn’t be necessary if we had all the answers;
  6. Check bibliographies of the most useful books – When you find a corker of a book, or you rely heavily on a general textbook, the bibliography and references within can help in the same way a tutor’s reading list does.

Reading lists are detailed for a reason.  For first years especially, they need to show variation, given that students will be coming from many backgrounds and with varying levels of understanding around the subject.  You’re not expected to read everything from cover to cover. You’re not even expected to check every single title out.  But you are expected to use the list to explore and make your own discoveries.

Some books will sing to you like beautiful music, while others relentlessly scream nonsense at you. If a book’s content confuses you, don’t despair.  It doesn’t mean you don’t understand the subject; it means the book isn’t a good fit for you.

To get an idea of how a book or article speaks to you and if it’s important to your research, check out:

  • Chapter titles;
  • Abstracts;
  • Introductions;
  • Conclusions;
  • Headings/Sub-titles
  • Lists, activities, images & tables;
  • First & last paragraphs of chapters.

If certain texts aren’t available in your library, make reservations and remember to do some quick and easy online research about the book.  You can often find a lot of content long before you get your hands on the text.

Whatever you’re studying, a lot of reading is involved.  With so much out there, you may be stuck for a starting point.  John Kay explains that there’s no point in making a specific plan at times like these.  Just jump in:

“When faced with a task that daunts you, a project that you find difficult, begin by doing something.  Choose a small component that seems potentially relevant to the task.  While it seems to make sense to plan everything before you start, mostly you can’t: objectives are not clearly enough defined, the nature of the problem keeps shifting, it is too complex, and you lack sufficient information.  The direct approach is simply impossible.”
Obliquity: Why our goals are best achieved indirectly – John Kay (p175)

Kay’s point can be taken further.  You may worry that you couldn’t possibly read everything.  If you’re meant to read around, how can you do that when there are millions of potential reads?

The answer is to read enough and know when to stop.

How are you expected to know that?  Well, there’s no magical answer to finding a time to stop.  However, as you read around and research, there comes a time when your viewpoint is more confident and you have plenty quotations, references, similar views, and so on.  At this point, it’s pretty safe to start.

If you need to go back later, then do it.  Reading around doesn’t happen in one sitting.  It’s an ongoing process throughout your degree.

Part of the reason why you’re given reading lists in the first place is so you can see what is already viewed as important in your field.  You’ll see the big names, be introduced to the crucial concepts, be handed the most influential texts, and get an idea of what authors/books other academics have heavily referenced.

Reading around gives you a chance to be independent in your research, whilst being pointed in the right direction so you don’t veer too wildly off topic.  There’s no trickery or punishment involved, even if you do feel overwhelmed at first.

As with most things, the more you practice, the more you’ll get into the swing of things.

What experiences have you had with ‘reading around’?


  1. Thanks for this well thought out, no-nonsense, informative post. Reading is such an important skill, and it’s not only first year undergraduates who have problems. I’m reading for a PhD and I’ve racked up more years university experience than I care to remember. But recently I’ve gotten bogged down in trying to ‘read as much as possible’, rather than ‘reading what I need to’. Thanks for reminding me what I had intended to be doing!

  2. Following “leads” – search for an article/book referenced in an article that you’re reading, and so on and so on – is hugely fulfilling and, I find, the best way to find quality resources. I combine reference database searches with lead following and find an enormous amount of quality papers…the challenge is trying to get through them all!

  3. @Notes to Self, thanks for the kind words. We all slip into doing more than we need from time to time. One of my past mottos used to be “Know when to stop”. 🙂

    @Bex, I love finding a piece that speaks to me and checking out the texts the writer used. The hope is that their choice of reading will be just as pleasing as their choice of words!

    @Ian, Very kind of you. Hope the piece manages to help them.

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