January 26, 2007

How do you read?

I’m about to leave for work, but first I wanted to ask all my Flockie Friends, how do you read? The nature of the question stems from trying to manage the reading load for my French classes (3) this semester, as well as a seminar course on “The Experience of Culture Difference” (i.e. culture shock), and another on Buddhist art and architecture in Asia. In general, I follow Adler’s advice:

You know you have to read “between the lines” to get the most out of anything. I want to persuade you to do something equally important in the course of your reading. I want to persuade you to write between the lines. Unless you do, you are not likely to do the most efficient kind of reading. (Link.)

Still, I wonder if there’s another good method for active reading, especially when one has an overwhelming amount of material to get through. Discuss; I’ll be back later tonight.


  1. Sheila Ryan on January 26th, 2007 at 4:38 pm

    Daniel, I was able to do what you’re doing for no more than a month at a time when I was an undergraudate. Well, okay, for that month (the Christmas season), I was generally working forty (not thirty-five) hours a week. Still . . .

    I remember driving Dallas expressways with a Henry James novel propped on the steering wheel. I recall taping to the inside of the windshield flash cards on which I’d written declensions of Greek verbs. It was awful. And it only lasted for one month each calendar year.

    I resorted to drugs, an option that may or may not appeal to you or be practical.

  2. Deron Bauman on January 26th, 2007 at 4:46 pm

    Yeah, I’m not sure that deep reading and voluminous reading are compatible…. I have recently realized that if I allow myself to read without a huge amount of self-consciousness the main bits tend to articulate themselves without as much effort as I thought that they required. The (subconscious?) mind does a pretty good job of figuring things out.

  3. knotano on January 26th, 2007 at 4:54 pm

    It depends on the material. In general, ask questions as you read, such as, “‘Great Expectations’? Great expectations of what?”

  4. Sheila Ryan on January 26th, 2007 at 4:59 pm

    Postscript: Actually, I don’t especially recommend drugs (unless, like myself, you are specially trained in their use).

    Your own native intelligence affords you an excellent guide.

  5. Daryl Scroggins on January 26th, 2007 at 8:12 pm

    Seems like the high points have been hit already: the problem of staying awake and the problem of comprehension and retention, as well as the nature of the questions you ask while reading. The only thing I might add is that reading means nothing until you can put the material in your own terms–as if you desparately hoped to communicate the importance of what you have encountered in a brief conversation or a blog comment. I think Adler is right about “writing between the lines”: there is a kind of writing and speaking that is a tool for finding out exactly what you think (and know). This runs contrary to the thought that we should only write and speak after we know exactly what we want to say. But have you ever noticed how sometimes, when you are put on the spot in front of people and fear that you will make a fool of yourself, you find a sentence taking shape that is making more sense than you knew you had in you? It’s the risk involved that pushes something in you to switch gears. And this is why one’s intelligence is never a static thing–it is a process that may lead you to be surprised about your own abilities. So my advice is: don’t just read, Engage with what you read–take it to the people who have similar interests and test your knowledge of it. You will be surprised to find, after a while, that the bits and parts of the knowledge you need at that instant will leap to mind when others are looking at you, waiting for words.

  6. Christopher on January 26th, 2007 at 8:57 pm

    Having plowed through plenty of academic books and articles while in grad school, I relied heavily on advice my advisor gave me. In order, read the table of contents, skim the index, read the introduction, read the conclusion, and then read the first and last meaningfully discrete sections in each chapter (or other unit). Pay special attention to graphics (tables, charts, photos). When you’re done doing that, go back to any sections that seemed especially important, for whatever reason.

    This technique worked well to familiarize myself with a work, at least well enough to know the argument and why I might have to go back to it and at best well enough to grasp the author’s argument quite well. (Thankfully, most academic books [and many articles] are horribly overwritten and can easily be handled in this way.)

    On the other hand, doing this with pleasure reading (novels, magazines, essays, excellent blogs with naughty-pun titles) is a crime against nature.

  7. Deron Bauman on January 26th, 2007 at 9:37 pm

    beautifully said, Daryl.

  8. alek on January 27th, 2007 at 12:49 am

    definately go with Adler and Daryl
    and in a non-linear way,
    best thing about scrawling in books is coming back to them 10 yrs or so down the line and decifering the scrawling + the book

  9. Daniel Lestarjette on January 27th, 2007 at 1:30 am

    Excellent feedback, everyone; thank you.

    I have been an avid fan of writing between the lines ever since I was introduced to Adler’s essay by an English professor several years ago. In fact, my preferred bookmark is a pencil, and to try not writing as I read now seems strange and unnatural.

    I like Daryl’s advice to “engage what you read,” while at the same time, I’m finding Christopher’s approach quite alluring. I certainly think that a happy medium can be reached between the two.

    A graduate student friend of my offered this piece of advice: in grad school, she says, it’s impossible to read everything that is assigned. The solution is to read a few things well and discuss them in detail during class meetings. I can see her point, but I would always wonder if I’d be missing something really important or interesting or both.

    I also think I need to start having “computer-free” days two or three times a week, but Internet/information addiction is a whole other topic of discussion.

    Sheila: All I can say, is I’m glad you’re still with us, LOL! (Re: drugs, the “Just Say No” campaigns in the 80s got me good. People find it amazing that I’ve never even smoked pot, though I hear it can stir the creative juices. I’d give it a try, but I don’t know how to obtain such a substance. I’m naïve like that.)

    Deron: That’s true about the subconscious mind. Perhaps I should just relax a little and see what happens. Admittedly, I can be a little uptight at times.

    knotano: Try saying that while reading La Chanson de Roland. My copy is written in both modern and Old French!

    Daryl: One thing I do (more with articles than books) is try to summarize what I have just read. Another technique I learned from an anthropologist here at UIC is the “reflexive essay,” a kind of free-flowing, chain of thought writing exercise that serves to highlight what ideas in a reading that are still unclear. It works well, even if it’s time consuming. I think that what you said about engaging the material is sage, though I wonder if there can be different levels of engagement.

    Christopher: Thank you for sharing this. I’m going to give it a try.

    Alek: No need to wait 10 years—I often have trouble with my own handwriting after 10 minutes!

    And having said all that, I’m hitting the sack.

  10. India on January 27th, 2007 at 10:05 am

    I don’t read actively at all now–it was with great delight that I realized, about two years out of college, that I never had to remember the dates mentioned in a history book again, and that, in fact, I never had to remember anything that didn’t just happen to stick in my mind again: there would be no quiz, no midterm, no final. This realization coincided with the first occasion of my throwing down a book of fiction that was annoying me, picking up a history book I found more enjoyable, and reading it until the wee hours. I’d never had any interest in history before.

    You can get a lot more reading done, more enjoyably, if you’re not actively trying to learn anything from it.


    When I was reading actively, the method I’d worked out by my senior year of college was to keep notes, keyed to page numbers, of whatever I thought it might be useful to be able to find later on–scenes, snips of dialogue, odd details that might later turn out to be full-blown motifs, anything that stuck me as part of a pattern. To kind of make my own index.

    And then, if I had time, I would read the book again. Didn’t happen often.

    But the notes were always far more useful than I thought they’d be, including in class.

    I don’t ever write in books–not only because my mama told me not to, but also because every time you read the same text, different things stand out. If you’ve written in the margin, or especially if you’ve underlined, the same things stand out, and then part of the experience of the book is trying to figure out why the hell you thought that sentence was so damn interesting the first time around. You can no longer read the sentence for what it is; there’s your less-informed earlier mind always intruding with its own interpretation. I hate that. So I never mark; I only write notes on a separate sheet, or, in the modern age, use Post-Its. (Remember when there were no Post-Its, guys? Wow.)

    You only get to read a book for the first time once, and if it’s a good book, that’s an experience to be savored. But if it was worth reading at all, there’s a good chance that the second reading will be even better. And totally different. I try not to flatten that difference.

    (The exception is cookbooks. Do write in your cookbooks.)

  11. Cooper on January 27th, 2007 at 10:25 am

    Taking notes, whether inside or outside the book, is great. [Though I love India’s point about how marking in the book limits your later rereading.] Even making a rough outline. I’m not a good one to talk, though, because I find it virtually impossible to read something that doesn’t engage me: i.e. literary theory. My eyes ice up and skate right off the page.

  12. Sheila Ryan on January 27th, 2007 at 10:33 am

    My eyes ice up and skate right off the page.

    May I quote you, friend?

    That’s the best. Just the best.