Trey, a loyal MR reader, asks:
What are good techniques for becoming a better reader of popular non-fiction and history? I analytically approach articles and academic monographs in one way but often find myself having just finished a volume of history or popular non-fiction and am unable to bring my social scientific knowledge to bear on the topic. Rather than asking myself, "What is this a case of?" or "What does social theory have to say about this?" I find myself saying, "That was interesting. What’s for dinner?" Any advice for breaking down this wall is appreciated.
There are (at least) three kinds of useful popular non-fiction works. The first open up a whole new world to you where previously none had existed. Many people felt this way when they read Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene for the first time. For obvious reasons, books like this are increasingly hard to find as you continue your reading career.
The second kind are to be read in batches. No one of them is good enough to thrill you and maybe no one of them is accurate enough to trust. But if you read five to ten of them you get a sense of a field and its critical issues.
The third kind are to be read as marginal additions to a body of knowledge you already have a good grasp of.
The key is to have the kind of book that matches the kind you want.