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Studying literature it is part of the job to read greater quantities of texts from different periods and genres, both "primary" and "secondary literature".

Underline passages? Leave little notes alongside the text!

Most of us feel compelled to underline passages while reading. Underlined passages can allow a fast second reading if one knows exactly what one underlined. After a while one just has a book with lots of underlined passages which is more difficult to read than a fresh text. Leave marginal notes with information why this is an important passage.

If you read an article in a scientific journal restrict your text marks to a minimum. Ask yourself: what are the central ideas and statements and what are passages one has to quote to document this message?

In order to get the information out of the text write an excerpt.

Identify your text

Robinson Crusoe exists in hundreds of editions - page references vary accordingly. When you begin your excerpt note what edition you used. Try to use a critical edition: one with a scientific apparatus that follows the original as closely as possible (and that tells you where the editors interfered with the original text). EEBO and ECCO allow the use of first editions, they are always perfect to quote.

Quote your title according to the style sheet's advice. You can use this quote later on in footnotes and bibliographies.

Give information on length and structure of the book you are summarising

Modern books use a blurb (Klappentext) to give first information. Design and table of contents offer additional information. Early modern books had their own means to offer first information. Here some important things to look at:

Front matter

  • Frontispiece (an engraving - what does it show?)
  • Original title page information
The Original Defoe title page read (here with line breaks):
THE| LIFE| AND| STRANGE SURPRIZING| ADVENTURES| OF| ROBINSON CRUSOE,| Of YORK, MARINER:| Who lived Eight and Twenty Years,| all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the| Coast of AMERICA, near the Mouth of| the Great River of OROONOQUE;| Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, where-|in all the Men perished but himself.| WITH| An Account how he was at last as strangely deli-|ver'd by PYRATES.| [rule]| Written by Himself.| [rule]| LONDON:| Printed for W. TAYLOR at the Ship in Pater-Noster-|Row. MDCCXIX.
Is the author mentioned? Are there indications of a genre: "A novel"? Are there misleading elements: this is the true story written by Robinson Crusoe - whilst we know that it is Defoe's work. Are these elements handled in order to mislead or simply a convention readers understand as such? What information do we get about the publisher(s)? Scandalous titles can give (openly) misleading information.
  • List of subscribers (an indication that people expected this book to come out and even paid for it in advance)
  • Dedication - to whom is the book dedicated and to what effect? Irony, Flattery, Advertisement (persons of such a high status will appreciate this book)
  • Preface (why should one read this book?)
  • Table of contents


  • How structured? (chapters? single uninterrupted text?)
  • Mode of presentation (first person narrative? drama?)


  • Index etc.?
  • Publisher's book advertisements?

What kind of use can readers make? Are there indications of topics?

Produce a kind of quick diary while reading the text

  • While reading it is good to take quick notes - with page references. Write page numbers on the left hand side and add short remarks on content. If the book has individual chapters take a short note after each chapter. In case of a drama: give indications for each scene.
  • If there are interesting topics you may also produce an index of interesting passages under different headings.

After reading the entire text/drama

  • Give a short summary
  • Try to reflect your reading: Why did you read this text (working on a seminar paper with a certain question, or simply: private amusement)? What do you think you can do with your reading?
  • Note surprising moments, interesting topics
  • In case of secondary literature: summarise the argument and comment on its consistency.

you may place these condensed reflections with copy and paste at the beginning of your excerpt. (The diary of your reading is often difficult after a couple of weeks have passed). Do write your excerpt as if you had to take care for a person (yourself) suffering from progressing amnesia.

What do I do with my excerpt?

Open a file for all your excerpts. A chronological order (first publications, e.g. 1719 for Defoe's Robinson Crusoe) can be helpful.

Recycle your readings.