Taming Scholarly Book-Length Sources for Use Under Deadline Pressure

        Scholarly print publications follow the same rules English 105 is teaching you for formatting your papers, with some additional apparatus that is added when the source is bigger than an article (i.e., a "paper").  Book-length sources contain reader aids that articles do not need to have, because professional scholars are jealous of demands on their research time just as you are.  These specialized devices are the "Table of Contents," the "Introduction," and "the Index."  These three devices help book readers in addition to the two article-length source strategies your papers also should provide: a scholarly title, which is especially careful to describe the topic and indicate the thesis as your papers' titles should do, and the source citation strategy (in MLA, parenthetical source citations and a "Works Cited" section at the end, before the Index). 

        Just reading the title establishes the book's, article's, or paper's key interpretive terms and the scope of its topic, and the title usually suggests clues about the thesis, as well, preparing readers for the introductory paragraphs.  In a book-length publication, the author turns those introductory paragraphs into a formal chapter called "Introduction," which explains what is being done, why, and how, using what sources and what kinds of methods.  Skim reading such an introduction, paying especially close attention to its first and last paragraphs, will tell you whether this book has a chance of answering your research questions.

        Even before the Introduction, the Table of Contents lists chapter titles and tells you whether the book includes illustrations ("ill." in the catalog), tables, charts, maps, etc.  The chapter titles are the "article titles" of the book's smaller parts, and they also usually will clearly indicate what subordinate task they perform.  In a biography, for instance, chapter titles usually contain a period of years covered together with indicators of the main issues the subject faced during that period.  In an analysis of a group of books or movies, the chapter titles will indicate issues that incorporate several works, or they will indicate that the book develops work by work, often with issue-topics added to the title.

        Once you have skimmed the Introduction and Table of Contents, you should know whether a book is likely to help you, but the Index will tell you for certain.  For that reason, experienced scholars often start operating a book by skimming its index for topics they know ought to be there based on the title and topic.  The better you know your subject, the more readily you can do that.  Some indexes, especially for commercial, non-scholarly books, are created by machines and consist only of proper nouns mentioned in the  text (persons, places, and named things).  If you think about computers' limitations as interpreters of natural languages like English, it will become clear why they can perform that task so easily and why it takes a human indexer to create a really useful issue-based index that cross-references ideas to one another.  An index like that gives you an intellectual audit of the book's contents and values, broken out in alphabetical order and referenced to the pages on which the contents and values occur.  This can teach you a lot. 

        For instance, an entry for "Hawthorne, Nathaniel--Works--"Rappaccini's Daughter"--science, might be near a similar entry for "Hawthorne, Nathaniel--Works--"The Birthmark"--science, which would alert you to the fact that both stories deal with Victorian ideas about the powers of science vs. philosophy and religion as sources of wisdom.  That tells you it was an issue Hawthorne returned to more than once because he cared a lot about it, and that means it might be important as a possible paper topic.  From there, you might backtrack to "Hawthorne, Nathaniel"--"science" to test the idea further.  The same process could be repeated with any abstract idea the human indexer noted in the index. 

        If you can find an Internet site that offers a tool of such power, I would be grateful to learn of it, but so far, unless the site is built like a scholarly book, it will be incapable of it.  A "Control-F" search will find only words, not ideas.