What is a précis?

The précis is a form of writing that translates directly from the French into “handbook.” I say writing because inevitably the words find themselves on paper, but more accurately it is advanced active reading (the elementary version is reading with pen in hand). Reading of any sort is much like writing. It is a process of transcribing on the mind a book bearing significant resemblance to the one in the hand. That transcription is the précis.

A précis receives the book’s contents in their entirety, houses them in the memory, and restates the author’s meaning back at him. To give it a working definition, it is an original translation of the author’s words.

Characterizing the précis as a commentary, analysis, or review misses the point. It is more like a map of a thesis. It draws out the main points and blazes the shortest and most sensible route through them. Moreover, the reader’s role is not to assert himself but to submit to where the author guides him, like a New World cartographer on the heels of a native.

It is a good habit, I find, to ask aloud at the end of any chapter, “Now, what have I just read?” and write down the answer. This makes a modest but excellent précis. I reflect this habit in the conclusion of each précis, where I restate the author’s key points as questions, followed by a response drawn from the text.

A précis is no substitute for the real text (like a summary), but it is a miniature of the real thing, like a map for a continent. The writer of préces achieves an inner mastery of a book’s landscape. He knows his way around. And like a map, the précis may be useful to others maneuvering through the same work. For the rest, it makes a fine mâche.

The précis is said to be made up of an introduction, body, and conclusion, but I suspect we have this confusion because the typical book has this structure and the précis, in its purity, reflects the book it is précis-ing. There are exceptions. For example, I frequently rearrange the chronology of arguments from how they appear in the book into one I find more intuitive.

I punctuate each précis with a Commonplace section where favored quotes, paragraphs, and obscure (or savory) vocabulary words are listed and cited. Each vocabulary word includes…


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