I had no teachers in high school, college, or grad school who spoke in any detail about how to read and study effectively. Those were things you did at home to prepare for class; they were so obvious, apparently, that no one felt the need to explain how to go about it. Nor were my peers any help. The rhetoric among the smart set in high school was basically to deny that we did any real reading, much less studying, at all. Why? Because being smart was cool if you could make academic success look effortlessly easy. So there was no question of comparing notes on how we read or studied.
When I started teaching, I discovered that my students were in much the same situation. I remember asking the students in my first intro to philosophy course about the time of day, place, and circumstances in which they did their reading. (The answers were mostly shocking.) We spent half the class time that day talking about how to read a book. Afterwards, several students came up to thank me for the pep talk and the advice. Since then, at the beginning of the year I often devote part of a class to encouraging students to approach their reading and study more thoughtfully. (Notice that this isn’t the same as asking them to spend more time at it.) So here I offer some basics of reading that I think are worth telling my students—things I wish someone had told me!
First, set and setting matter. Find a quiet place and a comfortable chair or standing desk. No music, TV, computer, smartphone, or other distractions from the matter at hand. (Anyone who says they can read well while listening to music or checking their email has an impoverished sense of what reading well requires. It’s not just about recalling what you’ve read, for example.)
Second, give yourself enough time. Serious reading requires undivided time as well as undivided attention. Often it takes 10 to 15 minutes before you’re even fully engaged in reading. When you’ve given yourself at least an hour, you’re more likely to settle down and get into the flow—and that’s when reading becomes more efficient and more pleasurable.
Third, preview a book before you begin reading it. For non-fiction books, I recommend that when students first pick up a book, they take 10 to 15 minutes max to browse or “preview” the entire book. Doing this well both requires and sharpens your powers of concentration. Consider the title. Study the table of contents, alert to organization and keywords. Briefly survey the bibliography, notes, and index, looking for further clues about the the kind of book it is and how it is organized. Finally, page through the entire book quickly, noting chapter titles, headings, illustrations, graphs, etc as well as keywords and phrases—just get a feel for the book’s landscape. Do all this quickly, resisting the temptations to slow down, to start reading, or to try to understand any particular item that catches your attention. The point of the preview is not to grasp the book’s views and arguments, but to give you a general sense of the book as a whole.
At this point I also like to talk a little about the value of speed reading.* I encourage students to do some research on speed reading and on how to study. (Knowing how likely this is to happen, I then give an overview of the basics—which I won’t rehearse here.)
Now, with all the preliminaries out of the way, you’re ready to read seriously. Well, almost. I still remember the impression Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book made on me in high school, when I found it on my parents’ shelf. I found its take-away lesson incredible: a great book requires three readings before you can be said to have read it. (The three readings are structural”, “interpretative”, and “critical”, in that order. You can read more about them here.) This feat that can be accomplished in a single reading by someone practiced in the art of reading, which, as Adler’s book made clear, was not me. Not yet, anyway. The upshot is I encourage students to consider reading assigned material more than once, and to read it in different ways.
Finally, if it’s a good book and you plan to spend your precious time reading it, I suggest owning your own copy so that you can mark it up and write in it as you go along. When I’m in the flow of reading a good book, it often feels like a conversation between the author and me, and the margins are where much of the conversation is recorded. I underline key sentences, bracket key passages. If the author says something striking, I’ll put an exclamation point in the margin, or a question mark if it’s something questionable. When I disagree, I note the point at issue as concisely as possible. When a passage calls to mind an idea, example, image, another book, etc, I’ll often note these, either in the text, or on the 3×5 card that I use as my bookmark. Feeling free to write in a book increases your engagement with it. It’s also an effective way to pursue the interpretive and critical aspects of reading.
*My favorite speed-reading joke comes from Woody Allen: ‘So I took this speed-reading course, and afterwards I was able to read War and Peace in an hour. It’s about Russia.’