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LSAT Reading Comprehension Book Club II: 1491

This post is the first in a series of reviews of books by veteran Blueprint instructor Dan McCarthy that may help you improve your LSAT reading comprehension skills.

In my LSAT Reading Comprehension Book Club introduction last week, I said that now is a great time to work on your LSAT reading comprehension skills. Today, I’ll give you a concrete suggestion of a book that can help you develop those skills.

That book is 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles Mann. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book more perfectly designed to help you improve your LSAT reading comprehension skills. In some ways, the book is almost like a 400-page LSAT reading comprehension passage.

I hope those last two sentences didn’t make you want to run screaming away from 1491. I admit: “This book is just like taking the LSAT” wouldn’t be a smart marketing angle.

So let me assuage some of your fears: 1491 is a really interesting book. It’s about the New World before the arrival of Columbus, but it doesn’t try to tell a full history of thousands of years of life in the Western Hemisphere. Instead, it deals with a number of the most important civilizations and tells stories that you haven’t heard before unless you’ve been reading a lot more archeology journals than I have. Did you know, for example, that the Amazon rainforest, which according to stereotype contains mostly half-naked bands of hunter-gatherers, may have actually supported complex civilizations for thousands of years prior to the arrival of the eco-tourism industry? Or that, in 1000 A.D., there was a major city located just across the river from modern-day St. Louis, Missouri? It was called Cahokia, an Algonquian word that means “East St. Louis.” Or that the Mayans never actually predicted that the world would end in 2012? Apparently, Roland Emmerich’s translations of Mayan hieroglyphics were a little off.

If none of that sounds interesting to you, I’ve got bad news about what you’ll be reading during your first year of law school. (Hint: more discussions of mandatory and permissive joinder of parties in a lawsuit, fewer apocalyptic Mayan prophesies.) But being interesting is not enough for a book to obtain membership in the exclusive LSAT Reading Comprehension Book Club. It also has to be useful in preparing you for the LSAT.

1491 is great for the LSAT in two ways: First, it’s about Native Americans. And the people who write reading comp passages for the LSAT love to write about Native Americans. There have been many such LSAT Reading Comprehension passages already, and there are likely to be more. Just by becoming more aware of the subject, you’ll be better prepared.

Second, and more important than the subject matter, is the structure of the book. The author doesn’t just tell you the facts of a particular civilization. Instead, he tells you about the controversies among archeologists. You’ll hear the traditional view on a subject, then a challenge to that view, then maybe another challenge to the challenge, and so on. After a while, the author will come in and point out which side he thinks is right. That’s exactly how LSAT Reading Comp passages on often work. By reading this book, you’re exposing yourself again and again to just the kind of writing you’ll see on the LSAT.

As you read, avoid the temptation to skim over the details. Try to track specific points of agreement and disagreement between scholars. What assumptions or errors does one point out in the work of another? Can you anticipate which side the author will come down on? LSAT questions are often based on just these issues. If you’re out of practice with that kind of reading, or you don’t think you ever developed those skills, this is a perfect time to get started.