The most important question to ask of any book you read is “what’s the point?” or “so what?” This question aims at finding the thesis, the main point of the book. And this doesn’t only apply to nonfiction. Fiction books have their own main points, often in the form of a major theme.
In fiction, a theme is a universally applicable claim, one that you can take out of the context of the book and apply to real life. So, I’ll use Gone with the Wind, since that’s what I’m reading right now. The book has a lot to say about life, love, and the human will to survive, but those are subjects, not complete themes, because they aren’t full statements that are universally applicable.
One of the main themes of this epic book is that survival depends on a fierce determination and adaptability in the face of violent upheaval and change. Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler, the main characters, embody these traits and are rewarded for them. But separate this theme from the context from the book and apply it to real life, and you might find that you disagree or think that it’s not a biblical perspective. It’s amazing how many themes makes sense in the context of the book, but when you take them out and apply them to your own life, you notice how unrealistic they are.
Most nonfiction books have a main, overall thesis, but they also contain mini thesis points, arguments that support the main thesis. You can generally find these at the chapter level. So, for each chapter, ask, “what’s the main point?” or “so what? “ Chapter titles might help you get a basic idea of the thesis, but typically, thesis statements are far more complex than the couple word title of a chapter.
I encourage my students to write each chapter’s thesis in the margins somewhere at the end or beginning of it, so they can always recall the main point for that section of the book. This works well for articles that you’re reading, too. If you’re doing a research project and consulting multiple sources, it’s very handy to have a quick reference for what the text was about.