September 27, 2020
“Raise your hand if you know how to read.” A hand or two went up and a couple more followed more reluctantly, as if I asked a trick question. “Readers? Who knows how to read?” I surveyed the room as a couple of people chuckled like you might at a silly question from a child. A few more hands went up. “Readers? Where are my readers?”
This is a game I often play in my World Literature orientations. My attempt is to emphasize care and deliberation in reading for the class. When most of the students have their hands raised—“Shouldn’t you all have your hands up?” I chide—I ask my follow-up question: “OK, how do you read? Ma’am?” I point to one of the earlier raisers, usually a woman. “Eliminate distractions,” she suggests. “Yes! What else do we need to do?” I go on like this until they begin to see my point.
I understand this questions is akin to one like “how do you ride a bike?” It’s not one we’re used to contemplating, since we’ve been doing it for years. It’s second-nature, now, so we just read. I know this is true, but I want to call attention to the process in order to emphasize retention, comprehension, and interpretation. I know we all read, but how do we read? I want to suggest strategies for reading in college—or reading when it matters.
Take notes as you read. The act of writing something down helps to solidify it in your memory. Keep a notebook for reading: use paper or a digital notepad. I take copious notes as I read, like character names, expressions of themes, ideas I have, troublesome passages, and the like. I annotate these notes with page numbers, so I can find them again easily. I add to these notes as I discover new examples of them: like significant character development; a repetition of a symbol; or a new occurrence of a similar theme. I write notes on the text so I can remember what I was thinking or what struck me as I read. I highlight or underline significant passages so they stand out when I refer to them again. This is called active reading and is crucial for better comprehension and to begin a more nuanced reading. For example, see my notes on The Faith of Graffiti or The Cherry Orchard.
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- This essay will cover literal reading, not aesthetic reading. The former is about comprehension, or the understanding of the literal elements of the text. The latter is about delving deeper into appreciation of form, allusion, metaphor, etc. A strong literal reading is a necessary foundation to more subtle readings.