How to Write a Book Summary: Explained With Examples

Book Summary: Explained With Examples

Writing a summary is not only a way of synthesizing in a few pages the main content of a book, but also a very useful exercise to capture the most essential theoretical and/or methodological aspects of an author’s work. Doing good social science involves, among many other things, having the ability to clearly and faithfully expose the ideas of other authors, both those on which we base our reflections as well as those who are the subjects of our criticism.In this sense, developing the skill of writing a good summary of a book is essential for the work of the social scientist.

In this essay, the steps to elaborate a book summary are presented in a didactic way. The process can be divided into two stages: 1) preparing for the summary and 2) writing the summary. In order to describe the process of writing a book summary we draw on “The Eighteen Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” by Karl Marx to elaborate illustrative examples on each step of this process.

Phase I: Preparing for the summary

Step 1: Choosing the book

It is a truism to say that each book says different things. It is not so obvious, however, to state that the content of the book determines the process of summarizing it. In general, a student or a professional in the social sciences reads more than one book to develop each of the activities he or she plans to carry out. In this sense, the activity that we want to carry out delimits the universe of texts that will be useful to us to carry it out successfully. Therefore, it may be the case that there are books for which we do not need to summarize.

Let us imagine that our aim is to write an essay on sociology as a social science. There are lots of books that develop this topic exclusively, so we will probably want to summarize each of them, or at least the most important ones. Other books, however, may deal with the subject only in one chapter or in some passages. In these cases, it is not necessary to summarize the contents of the entire book, but only those parts that are relevant to our task.

[Explanation through example: Let’s imagine that we have to write an essay on Marx’s class struggle theory. The bibliography of this author is extensive, but we’ll surely find his “The Eighteen Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” cited in several introductory texts or in the recommendations of our colleagues or professors, so it would be a good start point. This book is an excellent exposition by Marx himself of his theory by means of an historical example. Its entire content is relevant for our research, so it may be a good idea to write a summary of it.]

Also Read: What is Bibliography?

Step 2: “Why am I reading this book?”

This step is the natural result of the previous one. In a sense, it means narrowing our field of interest a bit more. Once we have chosen a relevant book for our research, we must keep in mind that, even when it deals with our topic of interest, there will be elements of the book that will not have the same relevance to our objectives. Sometimes, authors use stories or anecdotes to illustrate a point. This is for expository purposes, so it adds nothing to the substance of his theoretical argument. We are not interested, therefore, in the author’s storytelling qualities, nor in the content of the stories, but in his or her ideas related to our research topic.

All research starts with a question. The book we read should provide us with the means to answer that question and not others. This does not mean that what does not answer our question is irrelevant. Instead, it highlights the fact that the same book can be read in a thousand different ways, depending on why we are reading it. Therefore, the summary we make of such a book should be guided by the answer to the question “why am I reading this book?”

[Explanation through example: In previous step we decided that “The Eighteen Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” is a good starting point for studying Marx’s theory of class struggle. Since we’re interested in one particular aspect of Marx’s intellectual work, we will probably want to devote most of our effort to getting the most out of his reflection on the class struggle. This Marx’s work is full of very detailed historical descriptions. Being that our interest is to write an essay on the theory of class struggle, what we seek in our summary is to rescue the material logic behind the mechanisms by which the different classes and class factions ally and confront each other, and not so much the particularities of the French case. Therefore, in this particular case, it is best not to spend too much ink on the descriptions of the processes leading up to Louis Bonaparte’s coup d’état and, instead, focus on setting out clearly how Marx develops the key aspects his theory in this book.]

Step 3: Defining our strategy

There are lots of ways to read a book, especially if we want to write about it. Some people like to underline the most relevant ideas. Other people prefer to use post-it in order to avoid writing over the book. Also, if it is a digital book, some will add explanatory notes. Whatever our case, we should choose a strategy for highlighting ideas and taking notes that makes us feel comfortable. Like any text, a summary is not written in one go, so it is important to be able to easily locate the relevant elements within the book. Therefore, we must establish codes or nomenclatures to identify among our notes and underlines the key ideas, concepts, actors, relationships or any other elements that we consider important. Using different colors can be a good resource, but, as we said, the important thing is that we use those means that make us feel comfortable and are useful to us.

[Explanation through example: Since “The Eighteen Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” is the explanation of a sociopolitical process trough a theory, its structure is largely determined by the chronological succession of events surrounding Louis Bonaparte’s coup d’état. Although this makes it easier to read, it creates some problems when it comes to ordering its theoretical argument. Sometimes, the same concept is dealt with in different chapters, so if we follow the structure of the book to make our summary, it is likely that the exposition of his theory will not be so clear. For this reason, it is important that we use different resources to classify the contents of the book as we progress in our reading, either by means of post-it, notes or underlining. This will facilitate the subsequent writing of our summary, which is developed in Phase II.]

Phase II: Writing a book summary

Step 4:Taking notes

Following the previous step, it is important to take notes as we read the book and not at the end, as we may forget important details. If the book is new to us, we will not know in advance which elements to pay attention to specifically. Sometimes the introduction or foreword (usually written by someone other than the author) can provide some help. But in those cases, in which we do not, what we must keep in mind is that the key ideas will emerge from the text throughout our reading, so it is important that we take note of them in order to organize them properly once we have finished the book.

[Explanation through example: Throughout “The Eighteen Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte”, Marx makes several characterizations of the various actors, individual and collective, who are the protagonists of the historical phenomenon he is describing and explaining. Given that each actor (proletariat, peasantry, petty bourgeoisie, etc.) plays a specific role, not only in Louis Bonaparte’s coup d’état, but in the Marxist theoretical argument about class struggle, it is very useful to take notes on what Marx says about each of them. This will help us to integrate the theoretical argument and establish more clearly the relationships between these actors.]

Step 5: Consulting what we do not understand

Many times, we come across terms or phrases within a book that we do not fully understand, especially when we are confronted with authors from periods or contexts relatively distant from our own. The way of writing in the past may seem strange to us, to the point that many terms commonly used in other times have fallen into disuse today, so it is quite possible that we do not understand their meaning. Similarly, many authors use concepts without specifying their meaning, assuming that the reader already knows them.

In these situations, it is important to have means of consultation to clarify our doubts, such as dictionaries, other books, the Internet or even a colleague. We cannot make a good summary if some aspect of the book we are working on is not entirely clear to us. It is possible that the omission of such an element will lead us to misunderstand the author’s argument and, thus, our summary will be of little use.Therefore, it is important that we clear our doubts at the moment they arise, in order to be able to advance in the reading with greater clarity.

[Explanation through example: One of the class factions referred to in Marx’s book is the lumpen proletariat. However, beyond referring to it as “what the French call la bohème”, he does not offer a concrete definition to distinguish it from the proletariat or the peasantry. A quick search on the internet will lead us to several definitions. In this case, we can resort to the definition offered by the glossary of terms on, the largest virtual library of Marxist literature. This page gives us the following definition: “Roughly translated as slum workers or the mob, this term identifies the class of outcast, degenerated and submerged elements that make up a section of the population of industrial centers (…) persons who have been cast out by industry, and all sorts of declassed, degraded or degenerated elements. In times of prolonged crisis (depression), innumerable young people also, who cannot find an opportunity to enter into the social organism as producers, are pushed into this limbo of the outcast”. This gives us a clearer idea about who makes up the lumpen proletariat: those who, living in the cities, have not been able to insert themselves into the industrial apparatus alongside the proletariat. This definition should be enough to continue reading.]

Step 6: Using our own words

As we have said in the introduction, writing a summary is a very useful exercise to capture the most essential ideas of a book. But “capturing” these ideas involves more than simply transcribing them. A summary is more than a collection of quotes. The best way to know that we have understood a key passage in a text is to rewrite it using our own words. Each author has his or her own particular way of writing. Although we are writing a summary, we also have our own writing style, so it would be wrong to imitate that of the author we are reading. It is our summary.

Some authors have a somewhat obscure writing style, so if we want to extract the most relevant elements of their argument, we must strive to put it in clear and concise terms. Naturally, this does not mean that we do not include any quotes from the book we are reading. Sometimes a quote expresses a complex idea very clearly, so not including it would be a mistake. However, we must be able to weave together the different ideas that we extract from the text, and that often involves synthesizing in a few lines ideas that the author presents in several pages. So, we must be able to express the author’s ideas by our own means and not simply transcribe them on paper.

[Explanation through example: In a central passage of his book, Marx writes: “What kept the two factions apart, therefore, was not any so-called principles, it was their material conditions of existence, two different kinds of property; it was the old contrast between town and country, the rivalry between capital and landed property (…) Upon the different forms of property, upon the social conditions of existence, rises an entire superstructure of distinct and peculiarly formed sentiments, illusions, modes of thought, and views of life. The entire class creates and forms them out of its material foundations and out of the corresponding social relations”. In order to capture the substance of this passage, I would rewrite it like this: “It is the economic conditions, particularly the type of property over the means of production and its relationship with it, that ultimately determine the antagonisms between classes and/or their factions.What politics and culture do is reproducE economic antagonismin non-economic ways”.]

Step 7: Tidying up the summary

Only once we have completed the book can we get a clear idea of the final form our summary will take.Our summary does not have to follow the order in which the book is presented.As we have already mentioned, each author has his own way of presenting his ideas and this can sometimes be kind of unattractive.Many authors, especially those of the past, do not follow today’s common parameters of academic writing, so we will often find ourselves with argumentative “jumps” that make reading difficult. Therefore, it is important that, by means of our notes and underlining, we organize the summary in such a way that the exposition of the author’s ideas is as clear as possible.Our reading strategy should have allowed us to identify the basic premises of the author’s argument, so that, from them, we can integrate the subsequent elements that allow the author of the book to reach his conclusions.

Similarly, the summary of a book does not have a specific length; this will always depend both on the length of the book itself and on the density of its contents.In any case, in my opinion,I would recommend that the length of the summary be such that it can be read in no more than two hours.A summary is not intended to replace the reading of the original text, but to synthesize its most important ideas related to our research objective.In a way it is a memory aid, a support to consult the original text with greater agility, knowing what we are looking for and where to look for it.

Finally, it is important that the summary maintains a neutral tone. It is not a critical reading of a book, so our judgments about the author’s ideas have no place in the summary.Our objective is to present the author’s ideas in a faithful manner, respecting his argument and the conclusions he reaches, even if we consider them to be erroneous.As we have already said, the summary is a tool for quick and efficient consultation, not a critique, another very important type of text, but which is beyond the scope of this essay.

[Explanation through example: The order in which we redact our summary depends entirely on us. Let’s suppose that we decide to follow a general-to-specific order of exposition of Marx’s ideas on class struggle in “The Eighteen Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte”. In this case, we’ll begin our summary with Marx’s characterization of class struggle in terms of the domination of one class over another, and, from this, to develop his ideas about social classes and their factions, the interests of each class, as well as the relations of alliance and confrontation between these social classes in contexts of political crisis. In Step 3, we defined our strategy for taking notes and highlight ideas, so it’ll be easier to find these key elements, even though Marx does not present them in this particular order.]

Also Read: How to Write a Summary: Academic Writing Skills & Example

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I'm a sociologist, a budding political scientist and a football fan. My areas of research interest are democracy, development and social behaviour. I'm an enthusiastic reader of the classics of sociology.