On Reading


[Author’s note: There are all types of reading material and all reading time is well-spent. This information is specifically focused on books and how to study books. Thoughts on reading are never final; I may be adding to and editing this piece until I die.]

Do not undertake the acquisition of a book lightly. In fact, do not even pick up or buy a book that you do not sincerely intend to read. Books not only take up physical space but mental space. Now you are expected to do something with that thing you bought; that money you spent. When you buy or acquire a book, you are making a promise. Think of the book as a living being. You are now committed, at least until the last page of the book, to that being. In the acquisition of a book you are saying, “I may place you on the shelf, but you are there for a good reason. I will see you. Although you must wait your turn, you will have your time to shine. You will be lovingly handled, read, contemplated, marked, discussed, explored. What is inside of you will end up inside of me. I will not make you wait for nothing. You mean something to me.” If you are not going to read the book, why have it around? Ego boosting? One who has a well-curated bookshelf but does not read is only a fake.

Do not short-shrift the reading of the book. The reading of the book is the enactment of the commitment you have made to the book. Don’t attempt to read deeply in noisy or distracting places. Everyone knows you are not absorbing that Shakespearean play in the middle of a Starbucks. You are not contemplating moral philosophy while also watching television. Turn off your music. Turn off the tv. Go to a quiet place. Set yourself up for success by having something to sip within arm’s length. Have a pen or pencil nearby. Chew gum. I prefer the use of a bookmark rather than torturing the book with dog ears; that’s disrespectful. (Remember when I said to treat your book like a living being?) Bookmarks can be any flat material (even that Starbucks napkin), so don’t say you don’t have one. Proper bookmarks that have flat-edged stiffness are good to use for underlining so your annotations look less palsied. Choose active brain time to read as well. Sure, you can read at bedtime, but once you have determined you are falling asleep, you are no longer absorbing the material. Magazines are better suited for this purpose. If you only use reading in order to sleep, then you are not sincerely reading; you are using the text for an off-brand purpose. What you need is chamomile tea, not zombie-like meanderings through books.

Once you begin a book, commit to finishing the book. Don’t punk out. You can view the book as a challenge: You won’t best me! I have endurance! If the book evokes your fighting spirit, all the better. Don’t allow even the longest of books to intimidate you. YOU intimidate the book! If you are not on a timeline, who cares how long it takes you to complete the book? A page a day is for babies, but even three or six pages a day will eventually lead you to complete that book. Of course, it is best when the book absorbs your mind and you cannot put it down. In this case, you have found your genre and/or author. Find more books of like-kind because now you know this is your jam. The converse may be true. You may be reading a sci-fi paperback and early on you think this crap is really not for me. What are you going to do…give up? No! Finish that book if only to come to learn what you don’t like. It is difficult to argue against something you’ve never tried. When I find myself committed to a book I am not enjoying, I shift into viewing reading as a practice. I am practicing reading. I am practicing mindfulness. I am practicing patience. I am practicing reading aloud. I am expanding my vocabulary and knowledge. I am exploring what I don’t like. It sounds counter-intuitive, but we can’t constantly surround ourselves with only the things we like. We also learn from fully engaging in the things we don’t like. We are learning all the same.

Reading is The Great Escape. Don’t want to twiddle your thumbs in that waiting room? Take a book. Standing in line at the DMV? Take a book. Being told to take a nap but you are wide awake? (I’m thinking of my granddaughter here.) Take a book. Called for jury duty? Take a book. In jail again? (What did you do this time?) Demand your reading material! Reading is a tool to make certain periods of time that would normally be torture, fly by with the greatest of ease. We can’t all travel the world, but most of us can get to a library. We can’t all afford luxurious lives, but we can read about those who can. We can’t all be heroes, but we can find them in books. I know about so many things I’ve never experienced in real life because I’ve read about these things in books. In books, we can travel to far-away places and learn of ancient customs. We can envision people on the other side of the earth or aliens from outer space. We can explore imaginary worlds or knock around the thoughts of a crazy person. Being able to escape our current moment to experience the world through the eyes of others allows us a greater capacity for empathy. Perhaps there is a connection between an ancient sherpa’s quest for home and your own longings for your childhood abode. We can escape by reading more profound thoughts than we could ever think on our own. We can find words that represent images in just such a way to make us burst out laughing or crying. We can come across a set of ideas so achingly beautiful that we tattoo it on our arm…and it came about through words on a page!

Don’t judge yourself regarding the type of reading you prefer. Who cares? Like trashy romance novels? At least you are reading! Into manga or graphic novels? Historical war novels or biographies? Plays or sports writing? Children’s literature or Native American narratives? The topic is up to you; the exercise is the reading. When it comes to reading, there is literally something for everyone. Here is where your local library comes in handy. Walk right up to the closest librarian, plant your feet like Superman and say with all dignity, “I’m into dancing robots who farm but also use technology to learn about humans. Have anything like that?” They’ll come up with something, and it’s free! If some jerk comes along and says, “Ech…why are you reading that?” You could possibly deflect punching them in the nose by asking, “What are you reading?” If they don’t have an answer, you just won. If they do, then maybe you can discuss reading again in the future. You will just as often find people who say, “Oh wow! I love that book!” Instant friend. Books can bind people.

Some people are book borrowers (like those library visitors) while others are book keepers, like me. Both are excellent and most people are probably a combination of the two. People who frequent libraries perhaps seek a wide variety of reading material without having to give up money or space for the luxury of reading. They are discouraged from marking or dog-earring the books; they are merely a temporary keeper of the kingdom. They can start something, dislike the proposed journey and return the book the next day; no harm done. Book keepers are involved in a deeper commitment. They are willing to invest money and concede space to inanimate objects that simultaneously capture their hearts. They mark books. They highlight, underline, circle and write in the margins. They revisit the book and stick nameplates inside the front covers. I write short summaries at the end of each chapter. Lately, I’ve taken to writing not only my name inside the front cover but the season and year in which I read the book. I can picture my son or grandchildren one day inheriting the book and seeing what their grandma (or great-grandma!) marked in a book decades before. If I have enjoyed the book more than normal I make a note to myself to read it again in the future. Conversely, I may get to the end of a book and be so happy it is done! I don’t place a nameplate in those books; I give them away or take them to the Goodwill.

There are many different reading levels. You will hear of a child in third grade who “reads on a ninth grade level.” That means they are able to comprehend material above the normal reading comprehension for their age group. Try to diversify your levels of reading. Some stuff you read might be kind of dumb or just for fun. Some stuff you read is right at your level and you don’t have to spend a lot of time worrying about unfamiliar concepts or words. Every once in a while, try to tackle a reading project that is a bit beyond your normal comfort level. You are pressed to do this in school, but don’t drop the habit just because you’ve graduated. Pressing your reading into territory just beyond your total comprehension stretches and exercises the mind. There may be so many words in a row that you don’t completely understand, but are you comprehending the broad overview? Are you able to understand the overall idea? You may not want to spend time looking up every word you don’t know while in the midst of this exercise because it would prove too time consuming (unless looking up the meaning of unfamiliar words is your new super cool hobby). In this case, read slowly and in smaller chunks. Write notes in the margin when you clearly understand an idea. Spend time simply sounding out the words and reading upper-level sentences out loud. It does feel strange to be exploring a world of words and ideas that seem abstract, but if we practice reading beyond our level every once in a while we become less stressed by the practice. There is no shame in saying, “I don’t understand half of what she is saying, but I’m trying.” 

On that note, don’t forget that you can always bring in outside reinforcements if you are not understanding what you are reading, or if you simply want to know more. If there is a concept that is not quite clear, you can always Google it! If you have completed a short story and now you are wondering how a certain theme works within it, you could use Google Scholar and type in something like “the role of domestic violence in the works of Zora Neale Hurston” and see what comes up. You could also use the search word “critique(s)” which will lead you to critics who have analyzed and written about the work. For example, in a Google, library or Google Scholar search box one could type: critiques on “the mother” by Gwendolyn Brooks. You may then be bombarded with different points of view pointing out different ideas of that one work. Filter through and see what you are looking for. The text is not simply the text; there are usually texts (or some sort of outside reference) about that text that expand upon and attempt to explain the original work.

Reading for School/Study

Once you have signed up for a literature course (in high school or college) see if you can acquire the syllabus or reading list right then. Ask the teacher or school which books you will need and find a way to get them. If you are reading older material, don’t forget you can find many works in full on the internet or through your school’s library or online resources. Project Gutenberg (gutenberg.org) has tens of thousands of works-in-full whose copyright has expired. Beginning the reading list and taking notes before the semester begins is a life-saver. We are unable to predict a future in which we may acquire a new job or experience a bump in the road that will throw off our reading schedule. Reading early safeguards against unforeseen misadventures.

Once you have received the syllabus, (a rules and to-do list for the semester) create a reading calendar. The best syllabi will have the reading pages listed for each entry. This will let you know how many pages are required per week/project. If the page numbers are not listed, go inside the book and, using the table of contents, jot down how many pages are involved in each reading. Only you know how much reading time you have per day or on particular days. Break down the number of pages into a per-day goal. If all the readings for the week add up to one hundred pages, you will have to read 14.2 pages per day over the course of seven days. In school, there is no getting around this. If you skip a day of reading, guess what? Instead of fourteen pages tomorrow, you will have to read 29. Now you are under pressure and you are not going to absorb the material as well as if you’d stuck to the reading plan. At the end of each week check to see if you have met your reading schedule. If not, you have to set your alarm earlier or stay up later in order to get the reading done. Mark the readings off in your calendar as they are completed; this will boost feelings of success and accomplishment.

Accept the challenge that while taking a literature course you must do the readings. This is not a sit-in-class-and-I’ll-probably-pick-it-up scenario. Your professor may focus on one work and not the others for the week. They may focus on answering questions rather than deeply exploring the text. They may discuss historical events or the backgrounds of authors rather than the text. In all of these scenarios, you have not gained a deeper understanding of the readings themselves just by being in class. Do not take a reading class unless you sincerely commit to the process of reading deeply.

When reading for school you are always reading for a purpose. If you are not given reading guides or questions to answer along the way, then you are reading in the wilderness out there on your own to decide what is and is not important to note within the text. Whatever situation you are reading for in school, always incorporate your reading tools. You should never just plop down with only the material. You must have a pen or pencil and notebook paper or computer to take notes. With the amount of reading you have to do for school, you are not going to remember everything. As you read, mark what you have critically determined to be the most important elements on the page. Train yourself to think of a page, section, or chapter like this: If a person asked you “What was _ about?” what would you tell them? Would your notes (without the book) sufficiently answer their question? Imagine even more pressure: you are in the classroom and the professor asks you, “So, what takes place on page 375?” Would you be able to answer the question from what you underlined or highlighted on page 375? What would your notes from page 375 reveal? In this particular situation there is a handy trick: as you are writing or typing notes from the reading material, note the number of the page you are on along the left-hand margin of your notes. For each new page of material, update the page number. This trick helps in many ways. Page numbers within your notes help you save time when you are searching for something specific, and the professor can never trip you up in class with the above question. When the professor asks about the plot twist in chapter five, you have noted “Chapter Five” at the top of a page along with the page number. Your notes reveal the unusual twist that happened in this section. Boom! You raise your hand.
You are taking separate notes in addition to your in-text annotations for three reasons: 1) it keeps you on-task while reading. Constantly going back and forth from the page to writing/typing notes keeps your thoughts engaged and your body alert; 2) knowledge of the material goes deeper into your brain if you not only read the material but also put the ideas into your own words by writing or typing reading notes; 3) you will study these notes for quizzes and exams. Once you have read the material and notated the most important information into your own words and notes, you have a way to go over and over the material for whatever may be thrown at you in the future. Many professors allow/encourage open-note quizzes or exams. How smart would you look without your book having taken excellent notes you can now use to pass the test? Score!

When you are reading elevated college material, you may come across various unfamiliar textual practices. Anthologies are collections of writings that are merely pieces of larger texts. For example, instead of the entire novel of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in the anthology you may get chapter one, chapter seven, and bits of chapters thirteen and twenty. The point with anthologies is to give you a broad overview of the best works in a certain genre or area of writing. To read the entire work, you’d have to buy or borrow it separately. Ideally, while reading anthologies you will come across an author or work that resonates with you leading you to go out and seek the entire work to read later on your own. For school purposes, you are merely learning more about the characteristics of certain types of writing performed during a certain time in history (sometimes associated with a particular country or geographical area). Because the works do not appear in full, you will see the word “From”, often in italics, which indicates that what you are about to read is not the entire work but selected pieces. You may also come across a series of asterisks running across a page. This signifies that at this particular juncture, the editors removed material from the original work and we are jumping ahead; something is missing. In addition, you will often find little numbers (in order) scattered throughout a work. These mini-numbers indicate footnotes which can usually be found at the bottom of the same page. Footnotes provide a reader additional information shared by the editors of the anthology or the author of the piece. The information may not flow in the body of the text or the information gives a definition, background, or historical information not needed in the body of the text. I prefer to stop at each footnote to read it right then. Afterwards, I go back and apply that new information to the sentence and context. Others view footnotes at the beginning or end of reading the page.

While reading for school pay special attention to the full names of authors, the full titles of the pieces, the year they were published, and from what country or area. For each new text, write the name of the author in large script at the top. Include their birth and death date. Before their works begin, there is often a biographical section that tells us about the author. Begin taking notes here. Where were they born? Did they suffer through unusual hardships? Did they have early success? Were they rich, poor, educated, or not? Was there anything unusual about their families like mental illness or extreme poverty? What writing characteristics did they come to be known for? What are two or three titles of their most famous works? What I search for is any biographical information that may have influenced their writing. What in their background can give us insight to their work?

Once you get to the text itself, note the full title of the piece. It may be long, but thems the breaks. (Yes, I meant to write that.) Pay special attention to lead sentences (the first indented sentence of each paragraph) that announce the topic of the paragraph. You don’t always have to notate them, but each new paragraph should move the story or material forward. Also, pay special attention to the last sentence of the paragraph. Pause at the conclusion of each paragraph. Do you understand what is going on? If not, go back and read it again. If you still do not understand the material, jot down a question (or place a sticky note) next to that page number in your notes. At the end of the paragraph, ask yourself if there is anything important to note. Sometimes a paragraph can result in a one-word note like, “war” and the next paragraph might be “famine” and the next, “farming.” If the author is simply describing an area during a certain time, you will still have noted the broad ideas discussed on that particular page. Not all paragraphs warrant a note.
Look for themes that seem to run throughout the piece. Themes can be many things, but a few examples are man vs. nature, the search for immortality, the downfalls of hubris, gender roles, naming and identity, rituals, social mores, the family, ritual, the domestic sphere, etc. Is there a unifying idea that each part seems to reflect? What is it and how does each part reflect that theme? Is there a recurring symbol such as decay or death? Why do you think this symbol continues to appear? Does something happen more than once like dreams or missed opportunities? Does society place rules and restrictions upon the people? What role does gender play in the story? Is religion playing a role?

Depending on your reading experience, you will encounter words you don’t know. Depending on why you are reading, it may be best to pause, click over to dictionary.com, plug in the word, and note the definition. This technique is needed if you are analyzing or writing about a specific idea or if you are required to know certain vocabulary. Pausing to look up words does not mean you are dumb; it means you are becoming smarter. If, time and again, you simply skip over words you don’t know then you will continue not to know them. How is this learning? An expansion of vocabulary is a byproduct of active reading. Note the definition in the margin of the text or in your notes. You could also set up a vocabulary page that you revisit from time to time just to learn new words. Many words have more than one meaning. You will have to study the context of the word to understand how it is being used. Use clues from the rest of the sentence to choose the best definition. The meanings of words also shift over time and can be used in different ways in different countries.
Slowly sound out unfamiliar words; don’t simply skip them. I like attempting unusual names out loud just to see how close I can get to actually saying it. I may be incorrect, but I’m trying (and no one else is around, so who cares). I became slightly irritated one semester in class while observing students who mumbled their way through the name Dostoyevsky. Not only did it hurt my feelings for one of my favorite authors, but they didn’t take the time to look at the name more closely. The name Dostoyevsky may look intimidating at first glance, but sound it out: Dos-toy-ev-sky. You can say all of those syllables and the name is spelled like it sounds. It is only difficult if you skip over or mumble through it because you didn’t take the time to try.

From time to time, read out loud. It doesn’t matter how slow your progress. Sometimes reading slowly is better if it means you are taking in more of the information. Reading quickly doesn’t make you smarter; comprehending what you read makes you smarter. You may be surprised how difficult it is to smoothly read text out loud. While your mouth is verbalizing the current words, your brain is listening to the information while simultaneously your eyes are scanning ahead for the next bit of information. I often see students attempt to skip ahead of the wording in order to read faster; that is not reading what is on the page. You are “reading” what you imagine is on the page. Take the time to complete each word and try to incorporate inflection and emotion. The more you practice reading out loud the smoother you will become. Sometimes hearing the words out loud helps you make sense of a piece. Sometimes you want to share a particular thought or image with someone else. Sometimes you just want to hear your own beautiful voice. Sometimes you want a challenge. You can’t read all material out loud all day; it tires the voice. You may switch between reading out loud for one page and reading in silence the next just to keep yourself in active reading mode.

As you take notes you are also asking questions of the text. Active reading is like a conversation between the text and the reader. Your mind is doing multiple things at once. You are performing all the tasks mentioned above, yet in addition, you are using the back of your mind (I call it the back burner) to roll around ideas such as: This has happened to me! Can this be true? The same storyline happened in my favorite show this year! I like this writer’s tone or style. I wonder if the author combined events to give us a representation of reality at that time. This female character is taking on the role normally given to men. There is a leap in logic here that I don’t think holds up. This part is ridiculous. This reflects in direct parallel to what is happening today. These behaviors seem to indicate mental illness. Ect. Some of those “back burner” ideas and sparks could later lead to an essay or class discussion. You are reading what is on the page, but you are also connecting what is there to other things in reality.

Along with these critical questions, sometimes you just have flat-out questions. I don’t understand what is going on, or how did the author get from here to there? Not understanding while reading will cause discomfort. That is okay. When we are in a state of not knowing, we feel unmoored, somehow intellectually (and slightly emotionally) out of control. Becoming a reader means accepting a level of discomfort that varies with the material. Sometimes we see the big picture but may get lost in the finer details. Sometimes a piece is just beyond our grasp…above our heads. This is why you have a professor. Write down your questions. Go to office hours. Use email. Google it! Good professors and teaching assistants love to answer questions of students who have read the material, taken notes, and really tried to understand. They see you putting in the effort so they are willing to explain further. Don’t be upset if they tell you that you are concentrating on the wrong stuff. Ask to be re-directed so you don’t waste further time. You can’t get your questions answered if you don’t ask the questions! I remember in one of my grad classes I came upon a piece of philosophy that, for the life of me, I couldn’t understand. It was difficult to even take notes because the ideas were so muddled in my brain. When it came to writing a response paper that week I asked the professor if, instead of writing the regular short response, I could draw what I thought was happening in the form of a diagram or map. He loved the idea and accepted the work. What I found most interesting was that the diagram formed a circle! The point is that I was engaging with the text and trying (albeit in an alternate form) to make sense of it.

Another way of attempting to comprehend the material is pretending that you will have to teach the material. (Sometimes professors actually assign this project.) Pretending that you have to teach the material really shines a bright light on close reading, note taking and comprehension. If you have thirty minutes to teach a short story, would you first give the class a handout? What would be printed there? How much time would you spend on the plot versus various themes or ideas within the text? What issues would lead to relevant class discussion? If you were to give a quiz or test, what questions would you include and how would you answer them? If you were to generate a reading guide what would it include? The teacher’s point of view is a simple yet effective brain trick to hyper-focus your attention.

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tattooedprofessor

I'm a doctor of philosophy in Literary and Cultural Studies which makes me interested in everything! I possess special training in text analysis, African American literature, Women and Gender Studies, American lit, World Lit and writing. I work as an assistant professor of English in Memphis.

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