advice · reading

How to Read a Book (or Anything, Really)

Right now I’m at the bottom of page two of a peer review I just started. I was seized, at the bottom of page two, with a burning urge to flip right to the back to see how many pages the article actually is. (It’s 17 pages, then another five pages of references, if you’re wondering.)

Now, this is precisely the kind of thing I used to beat myself up over: what, you’re 800 words in and already you’re dropping your red pen and trying to figure out exactly how much is left? I am a constant page flipper, self-interrupter, a messy and inattentive reader. Except I’m learning that page-checking, table-counting, section-flipping, and self-interrupting are not the marks of a messy and inattentive reader, but an active one.

I’m not doing it wrong; I’m doing it right.

I used to think that careful, attentive, smart, good readers started at page one, and, with a uniform level of complete entranced focus, worked methodically through the page the nth. This is pretty much  the opposite of how I read (flipping, in and out of concentration, stopping and starting) so obviously I figured I was doing it wrong. Do you ever feel that way too?

As is often the case, it took teaching to help me figure things out. I noticed (as you do) that my undergrads often missed the point of what they were reading. And I noticed that my grads were having real trouble getting the readings done at all. So I tried to figure out how to help them, and I came across Paul N. Edwards’ wonderful short guide, How to Read A Book. Imagine my surprise that what he proposes as an ideal academic reading strategy is what I was already doing! What I called scattered flipping he called way-finding. My tendency to look first for tables and images he called focus on the most information-dense materials. My stopping and starting reflects an unyielding fact of the limited nature of human focus.

I kept beating myself up, that is, for doing it right, because I somehow got the idea that I should be doing it differently. (I find academic life is full of these head games we play on ourselves.) If I’m honest, I will admit that I’m a pretty fast reader who’s really efficient at getting the gist. When I come back from my skim, then my fast read, and do my notes on the third (fast) pass, that’s where it all really sinks in, details-wise. And reading it three times this way is faster than trying to Read Harder in one intense sweep from start to finish.

Two things strike me as interesting in my own little anecdote here. First, while it turns out that I’m actually an effective and efficient, highly-skilled reader, for a long time I was really insecure about my practices. Second, academic reading is a non-intuitive skill that needs to be taught, and we should make sure to teach it.

Where did I get the idea that Reading Harder was the right way? Did I just conjure up a mental image of Good Reading and it looked like binging on Twilight books, only in academese and holding a highlighter? Or did I just assume, with my deeply-rooted imposter syndrome, that whatever way seemed easiest or most natural to me was obviously the wrong way?

And how many years did it take me to just sort of feel my way through to my current process? How much trial and trial and error and error it took for me to figure it out? Hint: a lot (and I still wasn’t sure I was doing it right).

Could I have been taught? I think so. The scuttlebutt in grad school when we were all crushed under the weight, in one case, of a triple-decker novel and two critical articles every week, or, in another, a book of queer theory every week was this: skim, then bullshit. Perhaps this is why we all felt like fakers: we were faking. On the one hand, the reading expectations were … out of line with reality. But on the other hand, I’ve been finding my own grad students really receptive to our using some class time to talk about the pragmatics of how to actually shift their strategies in the move from undergrad to grad, or, How to Read a Book.

So I’m posting this now for two reasons–to ask you to share whatever reading or other professional strategies you figured out for yourself the hard way, so we don’t have to; also, to get you all to read Edwards’ great how-to, and assign it to or share it with everyone you know. (See also, How to Give a Talk.)

Leave a comment with your reading strategies below, especially if you learned it the hard way 😉

2 thoughts on “How to Read a Book (or Anything, Really)

  1. Such an excellent post!

    I don't understand why we harbour so much guilt over our reading practices, or why on earth don't we teach our students, especially graduate students, how to read this way. (Sometimes I think we still have an absurd and frankly disturbing commitment to the grad-school-as-hazing-ritual model)

    We do come to learn it naturally, I think, because of the nature of the requirements of the grad course, but I don't know why on earth we feel the need to make students feel terrible for the way they must learn to read.


  2. Terrific post. And not just for grad students. I sent the link to my daughter, who is in her first year at university and so dealing with big, big piles of reading for the first time.

    As for things learned the hard way … Perhaps this isn't the hard way, except in the sense of having to help people through difficult situations. The lesson would have to do with the very strange role words like “I was wrong, I am sorry” play in academia. It actually costs you almost nothing to say them when they are true. Try them, you'll feel better, your Mom was right. And they can stop a relatively minor error from becoming a big, ugly deal.

    But people don't. So the real lesson I've learned is that often people *will not say them*, and sometimes the result is that another person will end up tied in knots by rage and resentment, even though the person who perhaps ought to have apologized has done everything but—publicly changed a course of action, in some way given reparations, changed rules or procedures so that the problem never happens again, whatever. Not enough! People will hold out for a public shaming that is never going to come, and that probably wouldn't make you feel as good as you thought it would if you ever did receive it. Sometimes people let this stuff eat away at them for decades. So the lesson, I think, is say it when you should, but don't actually expect it if it should be said to you … when there is a problem, think “what's the end game … what resolution is both realistic and adequate?” And don't build “and I want them to say they're sorry” into it, because, for reasons that are hard to fathom, that's not usually realistic.


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