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.
Develop a reading habit. Strong readers enjoy reading and do so frequently. Face it, you will never be good at something that you don’t like, and as Patrick Sullivan argues, reading is an essential aspect of college that should be embraced well before you you enter. Reading, Willard Dix emphasizes, helps to expand our imaginative capacities, and prepares us to add to the world’s conversations. Hopefully, you will have read some important texts in high school, and you are ready to take advantage of the opportunity to expand your cultural understanding and with it, you involvement in a larger community. It’s never too late to start.
Do the reading. This one might seem obvious, but often students try to rely on plot summaries or study guides as surrogates for the actual text. This strategy will be frustrating, as you will miss everything that makes literature worth your time. Art is much more than just narrative,
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.
. . .
- 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.
- Sullivan, Patrick (2009). "An Open Letter to Ninth Graders". American Association of University Professors. Retrieved 2020-09-25.
- Dix, Willard (November 30, 2016). "A Plea For Reading In College". Forbes. Retrieved 2020-09-20.