External Readings to "hack" your reading ability

Most of these books listed here are really helpful if you are struggling a lot with Reading Comprehension. Now there’s a lot of content flying around on the internet recommending students to read more, which is extremely important.

But what these guides fail to tell you is that often, the sources recommended are either linguistically or structurally too simple to make a difference. When doing Reading Comprehension, you basically have a really short time (3-4 minutes) to analyze a passage in depth, keeping in mind its main point, author’s attitude, sub-points, logical coherence, and any additional details you can.

Now this is where outside reading comes into play. Now we know that in order to ace RC a total of four skills are involved: Improving our overall reading ability; maximize information ordering and extraction under timed conditions; understanding and prophesying potential answers based on questions; and answer choice comparison. 

Back to improving our reading ability in a limited time frame: there are three key skills that we must practice besides familiarizing ourselves with potential topics on the LSAT. They are:

Active Recall

The ability to remember what you just read is so crucial to success in Reading Comprehension. Practicing active recall really helps force us to actively read and to have a solid grasp of the knowledge presented in each paragraph. So basically what you want to do is this: immediately upon finishing reading a paragraph, close the book and try to write down in one sentence what you have just read. As you get better at this, you can skip the writing part and just make a mental note to yourself of what you just read.

Concept Linking 

Once you have a strong ability to quickly summarize what each paragraph entails, its now time to move on to examine the passage as a whole. Link together the summary/main points that you have developed as you read, constantly connecting what you have discovered in this paragraph with what you have gathered in the last, building up a mental outline of what the author is trying to establish. Do this in RC passages as well, ask yourself what each paragraph is trying to express, what is the relationship between each paragraph, and how do they all come together to support the author’s point of view?  

Reading for Logical Structure

Now that you have a good macroscopic overview of the passage and are able to answer more generalized questions (main point, author’s attitude, author’s purpose) now its time to develop the skills necessary to answer more specific questions (infer, textual). Imagine the whole RC passage as one giant Logic Reasoning question, with its conclusion (main point), premises (support provided in each paragraph), and auxiliary information. If you were to create an outline for this passage, how would you structure it? What is the main point/conclusion/author’s view, and what are the premises he or she provides? Do these premises have additional support, how are they presented in the details of the passages, are they presented as additional elaborations on a point or examples to illustrate this point?

Some books which helped me and my students immensely in our LSAT preparation:

If English is your second language or you are extremely determined to attain a 175+ score, I highly recommend checking these out. 

Douglas Walton

Informal Logic: A Pragmatic Approach

For students who would love to have an in-depth understanding of the background knowledge behind the LSAT. Now most of this book is probably irrelevant to obtaining a high score on the LSAT, but if you prefer a big picture overview of the logic behind this test, then this book is really helpful.

PS. the chapter on logical fallacies/flaws will be really useful if that’s a question type you have trouble with in logic reasoning.

Difficulty: 3/5

Lawrence Friedman

American Law in the Twentieth Century

A good primer/introduction to the evolution of the American legal system in the past hundred years. This book is relatively easy to read compared to the other recommendations, it also examines the law from a cross-disciplinary/holistic perspective, which is something really helpful for those with no prior exposure to the law. The book examines the undercurrents of American legal developments in light of the political, social, and economic transformations accompanying them.

Over all, I think this is a really nice introduction to the law, to familiarize oneself with the concepts that can potentially appear on the LSAT and definitely appear in law school classes.

Difficulty: 2/5

Theodore Plucknett

A Concise History of the Common Law

A lot of the harder law based LSAT RC passages have to do with themes, issues, and topics related to the evolution of the common law. Plucknett’s volume is quite heavy and abstract, the language used is also dense and esoteric, but the information available is invaluable.

The book is divided into roughly two parts, part 1 retraces the evolution of the common law from its roots in Roman, Norman, Anglo-Saxon, and church laws; part 2 focuses on specific topics such as the development of the jury in English legal history.

If you are interested in the historical development of the English common law system, and don’t mind dense writing, then this book is for you.

Difficulty: 4/5

Robert Cooter

Law & Economics

The topics of economics in law does not appear so often in RC passages, but for those interested, I found this to be a comprehensive introduction to the topic. The book should be relatively straightforward for those with economic knowledge, but the concepts might be a little harder to grasp for those who don’t.

Difficulty: 4/5

Joel Feinberg

Philosophy of Law

This book helped me immensely in understanding some of the jurisprudence issues that have come up repeated in the hardest RC law passages (Hart vs. Dworkin debate anyone?) The language is extremely difficult and probably the hardest book in this list. But if you push through and consistently practice the skills we have talked about in class (recall/logical linking/structural summary), its doable.

Difficulty: 5/5

William Burnham

Introduction to the Law and Legal System of the United States

Now the difference between this text and the others is that this one is a proper law school textbook. I actually read it after talking the LSAT and after having applied to law school. I found the content informative, the chapters are divided into subjects that you will cover in law school, and the discussion of the academic scholarships pertaining to the issues being discussed.

Now if I were aiming to get a more in depth overview of the Anglo-American legal system, I would read this in companion to Friedman’s American Law in the Twentieth Century. Upon familiarizing myself with the legal terms and vocabulary, I would move on to Plucknett’s History of the Common Law for a more in depth examination.

Difficulty: 4/5

Brian Greene

The Elegant Universe

This work on string theory by Brian Greene, a Pulitzer finalist, was the single most helpful book for me in tackling Science based passages. The early chapters of the book, on Newtonian physics, relativity and quantum mechanics, are very similar in language and complexity to science RC passages. The book gets progressively more difficult and abstract, so it is important to fully grasp the ideas behind what you read and build upon it as we move forward. (An invaluable skill also required in RC!)

Difficulty: 4/5

Daniel Dennett

Darwin’s Dangerous Idea

The most common science based passage is probably that dealing with evolutionary biology. Darwin himself figures predominantly in these passages. The level of difficulty of the book is comparable to LSAT science-biology based passages, although the thematic undercurrents behind this book is much more diverse, forcing us to practice having a strong grasp of the author’s main point and central message.

Difficulty: 3/5

Jim Al-Khalili

Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology

I found this book to be a good companion piece to Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe. While Greene’s book examines string theory predominantly, he gives a good overview of quantum mechanics and the basics behind that. Al-Khalili’s work examines the field of biology from a quantum perspective, so a lot of the concepts tie in. I would read this book after The Elegant Universe but before Darwin’s Dangerous Idea for an interdisciplinary perspective (physics and biology).

Difficulty: 3/5

Steven Pinker

How the Mind Works

Steven Pinker’s work is a little hard to read simply because the amount of information is massive and covers a lot of subjects. The book starts slow but gradually delves into the biological functions of the brain and the human decision making process. If you enjoyed Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, I think this book would be an interesting read for you, the book also covers a topic which has become more frequent in RC passages, so have patience and take a look.

Difficulty: 4/5

Elizabeth Kolbert

The Sixth Extinction

Kolbert’s book won a Pulitzer in 2015. It examines the accelerating extinction of organisms across the world, plants and animal. The language is understandably straight forward, targeting the general reader. The book examines a multitude of species and the changes affecting them. I found this book riveting and a good way to familiarize myself with a topic tangential to LSAT RC passages.

Difficulty: 3/5

Daniel Kahneman

Thinking Fast and Slow

Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman’s book on cognitive biases, heuristics, and prospective theory is a must for anyone interested in how the mind works. An overview of his prospective theory appeared in one of the harder RC passages. I find that instead of the purely science or purely humanities passages more frequent in earlier PTs, in more recent PTs we have seen more hybrid passages encompassing psychology and economics. This book, and perhaps Taleb’s incerto, provides a good introduction.

An additional note: if you have ever been in the following situation when doing RC questions, then you have faced what Kahneman describes as prospect theory. Prospect theory states that people are naturally risk averse, so when faced with a potential loss they want to avoid they subconsciously take on more risk. Imagine that you are stuck between two RC answer choices, you are leaning towards one but is afraid to choose it. For some weird reason you end up going for the other one, which ends up being wrong. With the benefit of hindsight you see that the wrong answer indeed has more problems than the right one, but because you were so suspicious of the correct answer, you have lowered the standard and chosen the wrong answer instead. The way to combat this would be by isolating keywords from two attractive answer choices and doing a balanced comparison, this is covered in detail in RC Perfection. 

Clifford Geertz

The Interpretation of Cultures

If you have ever dabbled in anthropology, then you will know what an important figure Clifford Geertz is to that field. This book, along with Feinberg’s Philosophy of Law, are probably the two hardest volumes in this list. Geertz’s writing style I also found to be extremely dense and esoteric: perhaps not as difficult to understand as Foucault or Derrida, but definitely challenging.

Reading Geertz or Feinberg I would run into two visible problems: one, I would understand every word in the passage, but have no idea what it means when put together as a sentence/paragraph; and two, as soon as I move unto the next paragraph, I have basically forgotten what we were talking about just before. The solution? As we have talked about and practiced in class: putting an emphasis on keywords and structure while reading, linking key ideas and concepts, as well as summarizing each paragraph as you progress through the content.

Difficulty: 5/5

Eric Cline

1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed

Cline’s work examines the invasion of Ancient Egypt by the “Sea Peoples” during the Bronze Age. He quickly introduces a myriad of locations, names, groups, and civilizations into the mix and I found this to be perfect for simulating the harder humanities passages on the LSAT.

The more difficult humanities passages will usually juxtapose a lot of diverse ideas, voices, writers, or schools of thought in a densely packed passage, and test you on the ability to differentiate between these different voices.

Difficulty: 3/5

Giorgio Vasari

The Lives of the Artists

A classic volume on the lives of Italian renaissance painters, art based passages are fairly common to the LSAT, so I would suggest picking up a book on art history or art theory.

While the scope of this book is limited to European painters of a certain age, it is a good way to quickly familiarize oneself with some of the concepts and terms we associate with art. An additional plus is that the book often refers to locations, persons or concepts that would not be familiar to the typical LSAT student, so reading for meaning/structure as well as isolating terms that we are not too comfortable with is a must in tackling this volume.

Difficulty: 3/5

Jonathan Weiner

The Beak of the Finch

This Pulitzer Prize winning work explores a family of evolutionary biologists who study the finches of Galapagos island, where Charles Darwin had the initial inception of the theory of Natural Selection and Evolution.

The book interweaves stories of the scientists’ experience with explanations of Natural Selection, Sexual Selection, and the history of the theory of Evolution.

I found this book to be a highly enjoyable read, if you find Darwin’s Dangerous Idea too hard, start here.

Difficulty: 2/5

Lastly, if you are pressed for time, I highly recommend checking out the “Very Short Introduction” series of booklets. These cover a wide variety of topics, and the ones on the Philosophy of Law, Kant, Hegel, Foucault, and Derrida can be especially helpful to students who have trouble with overly philosophical or abstract topics in RC.