How to Hack an Academic Book

People are intimidated and off-put by academic books. This makes sense, because academic books usually are very boring (and even the best academic books out there have sections of really boring material). But scholarly texts are also like diamonds for your brain; they are relatively small and incredibly condensed forms of knowledge and new ways of thinking that are forged over decades by the pressure and heat of academic life.

If you are a person who enjoys learning new things and increasing your knowledge, it’s useful to know how to read an academic book efficiently, because, otherwise, you will probably get bogged down in all of the boring stuff. In this post I will show you how to hack academic books. By “hack,” I mean “an inelegant solution,” or “a strategy or technique for managing one’s time or activities more efficiently.” These are techniques I learned and perfected in graduate school, where you are required to read and write a paper on at least one (if not two, three, four or five) academic books a week.

One way to read an academic book is to read it cover to cover. But this really not the best way to go about it, as I hope to show below.

The reason why it’s not good to read an academic book from beginning to end is that they are not novels. Reading a novel is like walking a labyrinth or driving on a highway; they are teleological, and they should only be engaged from point A to point B. While driving on a highway you should not exit if you want to arrive at your destination. Of course, you could, but that would leave you at a creepy gas station in the middle of nowhere. Eventually you need to get back on the highway and pass through all the plot points and character development the author has expertly laid out for you.

Reading an academic book is more like going shopping at a town square or plaza. Your trajectory will really depend on your shopping list, on what you are hoping to cook or make. So while you will inevitably enter a plaza from only one location, you can exit it really anywhere. You could buy every single thing from every single stall, but that would be time consuming and prohibitively expensive. More likely than not, you will peruse the stalls, maybe chat with the vendors and try out their products, buy a few things, and leave. You could also leave and go have a cup of coffee and come back later.

It’s good to have a shopping list. What are you trying to buy and take home? Most likely you want specific things, unless you’re just looking to waste an afternoon, which is cool too.

Enough metaphor. Let’s explore a real example. I’m going to use Ann Gleig’s new book American Dharma, which was just released last month. I’ve never met Ann in person, but we’ve messaged a few times; if Buddhism in America is a pond, then smart, queer person feminist dharma writing world is a puddle.

Here’s how you do it.

1. Check the date

A good place to start when reading an academic book is to check the year it was published — in our case, 2019. Great! Anything written more than five years ago is trash. Just kidding. But, when shopping at the market place of ideas, it’s important to understand the temporality of the text. Something written in the 80’s is going to have a different significance than a book published this month or a hundred years ago.

2. Hunt for the phrase “I argue” in the introduction

The next thing to do is read the introduction. Introductions often begin with snappy vignettes to draw you in, introduce the topic, then discuss recent scholarship in the field. Don’t get distracted and dismayed by all the names! Unless you’re a professional academic you’re probably like “omg idgaf.” That’s fine. Keep a lookout for the thesis. A “thesis” is the main argument of the book. Remember when I said academic books are like diamonds? Some would say the thesis is the main value of the diamond. So think of finding it as a scavenger hunt. Introductions do not reveal the thesis immediately. They are usually towards the end of the introduction, and they are usually prefaced with the words “I argue.”

Gleig’s introduction is blissfully short, so you don’t need to hunt for long. It begins with a vignette of the 2014 edition of Time magazine on mindfulness, which sets up the frame, then almost immediately begins discussing previous scholarship on Buddhism in America. This is important because her objective is basically an expansion of prior scholarship. On page 6 she writes, “In this book I follow the preliminary efforts of McMahan and Baumann by fully fleshing out the distinctive characteristics that are shaping Buddhism in postmodernity.”

Alright, cool cool, Buddhism in postmodernity. Whatever that means. So we read on. “Modern” Buddhism arose in the 19th and 20th century. In response to Western colonialism, Asian Buddhist leaders rearticulated themselves in rational, scientific, universal language. Basically America was the tough kid on the playground and he always talked about science and universality, so Buddhist monks in Asia were like “Ok fine, if I say Buddhism is scientific and universal, can I keep my lunch money?” So they started writing treatises and giving speeches on how Buddhism was rational and applied to everyone, and America blew them up anyway (ok sorry, Gleig doesn’t articulate it this way! I just had to rant).

Postmodernity is what we’re in now (sort of). Gleig explains that postmodernity as it relates to Buddhism has these characteristics: embrace of hybridity and affirmation of difference (9). And then we arrive at her thesis. Oftentimes, especially if the writer is good, they will make their thesis very, very obvious by saying the words “I argue,” as Gleig does here:

In this book I argue that contemporary developments in American Buddhist meditation-based convert lineages cannot be adequately explained within the category of Buddhist modernism. After providing historical and theoretical contexts on the mergence of Buddhist modernism in Asia and its transmission to North America, I offer a series of case studies that show both an interrogation of modernist features and the appearance of characteristics more associated with the postmodern, postcolonial, and postsecular within these communities (12).

Yay! Introduction hacked. You can stop reading now. Although you might want to read the next paragraph or two, because that lays out the map of the book/ town square. She tells you exactly what’s in every chapter, so that you can go shop where you want.

3. Read the conclusion

Next you’ll want to read the conclusion.

You may be thinking “Say whaaaaa?” Yep, just skip to the end. Now that you know what to look for, you can use the conclusion to flesh out some points she laid out in the introduction. Specifically, in the introduction she mentioned how Buddhism can be characterized by the “postmodern, postcolonial, and postsecular.” These are some big, complicated words so in the conclusion she expands on them. She explains that Buddhism today is “postmodern” because of its “critical skepticism toward modern narratives of scientific rationalism, universal truth, and human progress,” as well as “its embrace of diversity in contrast to the modern tendency toward the erasure of difference” (290).

Buddhism is “postcolonial” because people are critiquing the way white people have ruined Buddhism. No, that’s not right. Um, Buddhism is “postcolonial” because Buddhist leaders in America now “highlight and promote the local and the particular and celebrate cultural difference over assimilation” (293). In other words, we are moving away from the idea that “true Buddhism” is meditation, and anything else is “cultural (i.e Asian) baggage.”

Lastly, Buddhism is “postsecular,” meaning, I think, neither religious nor secular (I was a bit unclear on this last point, to be honest). For example, in the mindfulness movement, “the distinction between the religious and secular ha(s) lost relevance and meaning” (296). American Buddhism is not religious but basically serves a religious purpose.

Ok, great! Conclusion achievement unlocked: Buddhism is postmodern but more specifically it is “postmodern” because it is critical of scientific rationalism and universality, rejects the notion of Asian cultural baggage, embraces diversity and peculiarity, and is sort of, but not really secular.

4. Read the last paragraph of each chapter, or some of the chapters

Now that you’ve read the intro and conclusion, you should have a sense of what is specifically in the book. This is because she tells you in the introduction, and then fleshes this out in the conclusion.

Flip through each chapter and read only the last paragraph. Or even last sentence. It’s a fun game!

Chapter 1: “Although these six case studies are by no means comprehensive or exhaustive of all the shifts occurring in convert lineages, they should indicate whether it is useful and necessary to think of American meditation-based convert Buddhism as having entered a new period, what McMahan, extending Martin Baumann, dubs a “globalized postmodern Buddhism” (49).

Chapter 2: “The social justice turn, in particular, demonstrates a move away from an abstract universalism and a nuanced attention to the different sociocultural contexts of mindfulnesss… I conclude that the mindfulness critiques, emerging trajectories around mindfulness, and emic descriptions such as “second-generation mindfulness” and “Contemplative Science 2.0” are, taken together, indicative of a shift from Buddhist modernism to Buddhism in postmodernity” (83).

Chapter 3: “The second pattern revealed is that although therapeutic incorporations are often dismissed as forms of modern Buddhism that have distorted traditional Buddhism, the dialogical approaches emerging act as correctives to as much as continuations of Buddhist modernism” (110).

Chapter 4: “Diversity, inclusion, and equity advocates see Buddhism as a potent remedy for collective American suffering — the dukkha of racism — and racial diversity and inclusion work as a potent remedy for certain limitations of modern Buddhism… Demonstrating a postmodern and postcolonial sensibility, racial inclusion and justice work therefore should be seen as both a corrective to earlier Euro-American Buddhist modernist trends and a continuation of the modernist applications of Buddhist teachings to contemporary Western forms of suffering” (175).

Chapter 5: “I conclude that the trajectory of the Buddhist Geeks and Meditate.io projects is best understood as signaling a shift from Buddhist modernism to Buddhism in postmodernity” (208).

Hmmm, I’m noticing a trend. Are you? Almost as if… all the chapters… are in service of… proving her thesis? Diabolical, really.

Chapter 6: “Gen X should be seen as expanding the first generation’s application of Buddhism to contemporary forms of suffering: from the individual to the collective, or, as one interviewee put it, from “the ‘me’ to the ‘we’” (248).

Chapter 7: “The collective turn signifies the multiple challenges to the individualism of meditation-based convert lineages.. the contextual turn refers to an awareness of how Buddhist practice is shaped and limited by the specific historic and sociocultural contexts in which it occurs… the other dimension of the contextual turn is an understanding of the particular formations of power and privilege operating within various Buddhist contexts” (279).

Alrighty then!

Universalism and “true Buddhism”= for olds.

Particularity, diversity, and context= 🔥🔥🔥

5. Enjoy, meander, shop, read as you like

Now that you’ve sucked all of the life from this book and converted it into digestible fuel on your selfish scavenger hunt for knowledge (mixed metaphor? Okay, how about now that you’ve plucked all the diamonds out of the ring, melted down the metal, and pawned the diamonds?) go back and read some of the chapters. By now you should have a sense of which chapters seem interesting to you. You’ve read the last paragraph of each of them, so go where your genuine interest is. At this point it’s really only necessary to read a chapter or two.

Personally, I read Chapter Three, “Sex, Scandal, and the Shadow of the Roshi,” because, of course. Reading it made me feel validated in my path to become a psychotherapist. Then I read most of Chapter Five, “The Dukkha of Racism.” I enjoyed seeing the argument that racial justice work in sanghas is not some extracurricular work; it is the work. That is an important reconceptualization. Then I skimmed the chapter on Gen-Xers until I felt too much jealousy and insecurity about my own failings as a Buddhist teacher, and stopped. But apparently a lot of them can’t make a living being a teacher either and are kind of a mess, just like me! So that was nice.

The book makes me think, which I like. I have some lingering questions about what is “secularism,” and also, what “Buddhism” is if Buddhism is also, inherently and inextricably, therapy and racial justice (although I think if Gleig were here she would say it’s not that Buddhism is therapy, but American Buddhism is postmodern because it embraces hybridity). It seems that even in trying to avoid an essentialist definition of “pure Buddhism” we fall into a trap of further reifying it. It’s the problem with the notion of “hybridity” in the first place; you need more than one thing to make something hybrid. To say “the work of Buddhism is racial justice” implies there is a Buddhism that is separate from racial justice work, but also that they are the same.

Then my brain kind of explodes and I realize it’s 2:00pm on a Saturday afternoon. My dogs are napping beside me and I’m still in my pajamas. I could write more but I think I’ve done enough my fair share of engaging with the marketplace of ideas for the day.

And that, my friends, is how you hack an academic book.