Tips for Undergraduates: How to tackle a reading list

Have you felt the panic rising, when you were handed an exceptionally long reading list? Have you felt the desperation taking over in minutes? If yes, you should read this post.

You are not supposed to read every book on the list! I don’t expect you to do so. Most teachers know that this is more or less a wish list. Ideally, we would like our students to read everything but, in practice, we know that this is impossible.

Books on the list make a great background reading on the period but usually articles are more targeted to your essay topic. In addition, articles are shorter and can be read quicker. So, focus on these. After you finish reading one or two of them, make certain you look at the footnotes for additional bibliography on your topic. The reading list is just a starting point of the most important (but not the only) works.

Make sure that you do not read the books and articles from the beginning to the end. Select carefully the passages you are interested in. The best way to do that is by looking for relevant keywords across the text. In the case of books you should use mainly the table of contents and the indexes.

Bear in mind that you should not only read quickly but also smartly. If a passage is of interest, focus on it and read it in depth. Make sure you understand it correctly before you use it in your essay.

Economic historian and numismatic consultant


  1. Yes, I remember my first year in Roman history! My heart sank when I saw the list. I think I *tried* to do all the readings but gave up in the end and only covered the primary material that was listed.

  2. In the beginning, yes! But I’ve learned to appreciate those lists when I have to write essays. It’s a good starting point as well, because most of the time it’s an annotated bibliography.

    I think the message that the list gives is that it’s not a one stop shop, and for us to understand a topic there’s a wide range of readings that needs to be done first before we can discuss it. Obviously the primary sources are most important, but a lot of scholars have written really good articles as well, that help digest the primary information into more bite sized chunks. =)

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