A systemized Method for Focused Professional Reading

By Brandon Sanders, MTI Contributor

I sat deep inside the Pond Creek National Wildlife Refuge. In past mornings, the swamp was a symphony of noise. Owls, coyotes, and things left unidentified filled the dark mornings. Today, it was painfully silent. The sudden influx of trucks, side by sides, and generators rendered the swamp chorus a void. 

I saw nothing that morning. However, I had about six hours of uneventful hunting to think about how to solve my problem. “How do you successfully find and kill mature whitetail bucks in heavily pressured public lands?”  Luckily, I have a reasonably robust research system that allows me to answer tough questions with quality answers. 

Capture Suggestions

When it comes to getting to the bottom of a topic, you must have many sources from which to choose. Therefore, I always capture book suggestions and references anytime I find them. For example, when a meeting, podcast, or YouTube video references a book, I enter it into a Google sheet on my phone. 

When I come across a book suggestion, I must capture it immediately. Most of the time, this goes directly into the Google sheet. If not, I will forget it entirely. 

Returning home, I began searching my list of books. Since I moved back to Texas, I have been listening to and watching all sorts of whitetail podcasts and videos. Whenever I heard about a book about whitetail hunting, I entered it into my rough list. 

Authors like John Eberhart, Will Hunt, Bryce Towsley, and Jim Roy earned a place on my rough list. Each was suggested to me by other serious hunters trying to find mature bucks on pressured public land. So, lucky for me, I had a lot of material from which to choose.  

Construct A Research Question

The next part of the system is to define what you want to get out of your reading. In this situation, I needed to know, “how do you successfully find and kill mature whitetail bucks in heavily pressured public lands.” I am not looking for just “deer”, I am looking for bucks. I am not interested in quality deer management; I hunt public lands. By being precise in the research question, I set the conditions to look for things that answer it directly.

Build a List

Next: Pull all the relevant works from your suggested books into a rough list. The original rough list can be fifty titles long. While this may seem extreme, the more books you can put onto your rough list, the higher your chance of gaining quality insights. 

As I went to build the white tail list, I had over forty titles from which to choose. I quickly weeded out many by scrutinizing them with my research question. Some titles focused on understanding the white tail as a species. Other titles were focused on the ideal ecology that whitetail deer seek out. While these are interesting topics, they didn’t focus on answering the research question. Therefore, I eliminated them. 

The final selection of books is critical to the quality of the reading list. In his timeless classic, How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler outlines how to assess the quality of research into a nonfiction book. I use his methodology religiously. 

He encourages you first to look at the book’s index to assess the level of sources the author has drawn from to make his point. This practice will tell you if you are getting objective analysis or just someone’s opinion. Secondly, he says to look at the table of contents. Ask yourself, how is this organized? That will tell you how relevant the book is to your research. Lastly, he encourages you to read bits of the book to see if the author is any good at communicating this information. 

However, this process can be challenging when constructing a whitetail reading list. As you can imagine, whitetail hunters don’t draw on many citable sources when writing their books. Therefore, I substituted experience for research. The authors on the whitetail list are all accomplished whitetail hunters in their own right, be it holding multiple records, years of employment in the outdoors industry, or authorship. In many cases, they are all three. 

One of the biggest tasks you have concerning the rough reading list is weeding out the nonsense. Specific topics, like leadership, are especially prone to books that should have been blog posts at best. Other issues are so niche and nuanced, like pastoral counseling, that they are not inclined to people just writing books so they can sell them. So from your rough list, you must cut off all books that will ultimately waste your time. 

Hunting books, concerning any query, find themselves somewhere in the middle of these extremes. There is an industry trying to push products that aren’t worth anything, books included. However, there are some extremely well-written, well-researched books out there. My whitetail list consists of guides, record holders, and scientists that want to share their knowledge. 

When selecting books, you don’t want any of them to answer the question directly. Instead, you want them to inform the answer you intend to write yourself. Therefore, you have to have variety in your reading. Seeking contradiction is a great way to pull a topic apart. As each side makes its case and contradicts the affirmations and negations of the opposition, you will be able to understand all aspects of the issue at hand to a high degree. 

For example, John Eberhart in Bowhunting Pressured Whitetails advocates for scent control to the extreme. When done correctly, he tells his readers there is no need to pay attention to the wind. However, Dr. Bob Shepard, in Whitetails: A Research Based Hunting Model, will advocate for always playing the wind to your advantage as a crucial task for success. Both men are accomplished hunters that have mastered their environments. Therefore, I can only conclude that reality is somewhere in between their two contrary views.

You will want to construct a list of eight to twelve books on your focused reading list. You will likely only get to them if you have less than twelve. If you have less than eight, you risk not exposing yourself widely enough to do your analysis. The last thing you want to do is to canalize yourself into one train of thought when there are several to consider. 

My whitetail list consists of nine books. This number allows for a wide swath of ideas, approaches, and opinions to get aired without being drowned in data. There is a balance you have to seek with each topic. Too small of a reading list, and you will grow biased. If it is too big, you will be overwhelmed as you crash and burn trying to complete it. In this instance, nine seemed to give the most extensive variety in opinion while avoiding fluff and exploring contrary ideas.

Reading 

Mortimer Adler will also describe reading a book as taking a college class where the professor writes to you instead of lecturing. With this perspective, it only makes sense to “take different classes simultaneously. The result is a roundtable discussion-like environment with different authors talking to you about the same topic. With the discourse, it is easy to identify contradictory ideas. However, the real value is finding “principles,” or commonalities, across different authors. 

For example, while reading through my whitetail reading list,  Eberhart and Shepard disagree completely on scent control. Reading those two opinions simultaneously formed a debate between the two authors. Eberhart advocating for active carbon technology and hunting primary scrape areas is much different from Shephard’s downwind feeding zone hunting. However, seeing the two side by side allows me to discern when to use what approach and avoids forming a bias for either. 

Notes and underlines are the reading equivalent of participating in class. Use a pen to underline important ideas and write notes on notecards. When done with the book, take your notes and organize them in a way that is effective at categorizing your key takeaways. Modern authors like Ryan Holiday and Robert Greene are famous for using this method. However, it has been around for a very long time.  

I highlight and take notes on my Kindle relentlessly. The notes and highlights get automatically backed up into an app called Readwise. That allows me to categorize each note and highlight it for later use.

I look at each note, highlight, and thought as bricks that I will use in building a cathedral of knowledge. My notes and ideas harvested from my reading are useless by themselves. Therefore, I integrate them into a knowledge structure to contextualize them.  You do this naturally in your mind when you read, but your brain is for having ideas, not for holding them. Therefore, you must structure your notes to take ideas and build them into a cathedral of knowledge. 

While there are many ways to accomplish this, I use the “North, South, East, West Method.” Imagine a note card with John Eberhart’s idea that “the wind is meaningless if you control your scent” written on it. North is where this idea originates. Therefore, write on top of the card” Scent Control.” South is essentially the “so what” behind the idea. On the bottom of the card, write, “use active carbon technology to eliminate all scent.” West describes what other idea is similar to this one. On the left, you would write, “Peter Fiduccia says only during the peak rut will whitetails tolerate human scent.” Finally, South means what idea contradicts this one. On the bottom of the card, write, “Shephard advocates for always being downwind from your target buck.”

Summarize: 

At the end of every chapter, write down the key ideas you discovered. This should be done in a bulleted form and be as brief as possible. Doing so will help solidify the learning from your reading by distilling the author’s main points into a few quick bullet points. It also lays the foundation for the final summary you will write. 

When I summarized Eberhart’s chapter on scent control, my bullets went as follows:

  • Scent control is a regimen, not an act
  • There is no room for error when hunting this way
  • Use actual tarsal glands
  • Boots and other clothing that is breathable leaves odor

This summary not only allows me to review the book as one whole unit of thought when I am done reading it, but it also sets the stage for the summary I will write for myself at the end. Drawing from my chapter notes, I can derive the book’s essence into a five-hundred-word summary. This process allows me to regurgitate what I have learned from the reading and how it is relevant to the research question. These summaries, in turn, become a significant force in answering the research question.  

Answering The Question 

In only three sentences, answer your research question. Being so brief makes you derive the principles you learned from reading several books written by accomplished authors who are authorities in their field. Precision in the answer is just as crucial as being precise in formulating the question. While getting the essence of the question on paper is easy, boiling it down to the bare minimum is much more difficult.

Lastly, it would be best if you shared your work. Whether this is in an email, forum, blog post, or social media, sharing your work will allow others to see your answer and begin to pick it apart. Or they may affirm it. Therefore, here is my research question and answer.

Research Question:  “How do you successfully find and kill mature whitetail bucks in heavily pressured public lands?”

Answer: “You successfully find and kill mature whitetail bucks in heavily pressured public lands by going into areas that are difficult to get to and unpleasant to be in. Since they rely on scent as their primary sense, your scent should be controlled through technology and proper playing of the wind. Mature whitetails will always be near primary scape areas and food sources, so those areas should be given priority for hunting.” 

Brandon Sanders is a freelance writer and chaplain in the Washington National Guard.

Want to be a paid, MTI Contributor? Email rob@mtntactical.com a current resume and 3 topic ideas. 

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