How to Read

Of course, you already know how to read, or you wouldn’t be reading this post. But if you’ve come to this page, you probably want to become a better reader.

The best way to become a better reader is to interact with the text. Underline passages, circle key words, and take notes in the margins, asking questions and recording your responses. Talk back to the text. Books are like the Velveteen Rabbit: they don’t come to life until they are well loved and well worn. To make your books come to life:

  • Circle any words you don’t know, look up the definition in a dictionary, and write that definition in the margin.
  • Underline any passages you find confusing, knotty, or thrilling.
  • With the passage in front of you, write for 15 minutes in response, examining both what the passage says (content) and how it says it (form, style).
  • If you get stuck, don’t keep reading the same sentence or paragraph over and over; instead back up or move forward, trying to get a sense of the larger context. Then go back to the sticky sentence and see if you can unstick it. If you can’t, put a question mark in the margin and move on. You might make sense of it the next time you read the passage, or after you’ve had a class discussion about the material.
  • Use post-it notes to mark important pages, so that you can find and go back to them again and again. When I read a beloved book and come across a favorite sentence, I feel like I am visiting an old friend: “Ah yes, there you are! How good to see you again! You’re still the same, and yet how we’ve both changed.”

How to Read Poetry

A lot of people are afraid of poetry, and I used to be, too. In college, I thought I might declare an English major, but worried that I couldn’t because I didn’t “get poetry.” Fortunately, I enrolled in a freshman writing course recommended for potential English majors. It was taught by Professor Robert Hill, and all we did was read, talk, and write about poetry. One lesson I learned in that class is that reading poetry isn’t any harder than reading  novels. In fact, most poems are shorter and more concentrated. So you just concentrate your attention and trust your reactions. If something isn’t making sense, chances are it’s not because you’re not smart enough to understand the poem, but because the poet is trying to deliver meaning in an unusual way. So when you get confused, pause and ask: why am I confused? what’s “wrong” with this line? how might that wrongness be a deliberate move—an attempt by the poet to estrange language from ordinary usage in order to communicate ideas in a new, fresh way?

One of the biggest myths about poetry is that it’s full of hidden meanings. The meaning of a poem isn’t hidden. It’s all there on the page, right before your eyes. Read it, and instead of looking for hidden meanings, join the process of making meanings.

Here’s a handout to help you make sense of a poem: ReadingPoetry

If you’re willing to commit a bit more time, read Edward Hirsch’s How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry. The first chapter is online and free.

How to Read Secondary Sources

One of my favorite assignments is the “Secondary Source Report” (SSR), which teaches you to understand your sources holistically. It helps you become a more efficient and effective critical reader. The “forest/tree” analogy is helpful here. If you approach a large forest from the edge and try to wend your way through all the trees, it will likely take you a long time, and you may come out with little sense of the overall lay of the land. But if someone gives you a map of the whole forest first, you’re likely to find your way through it more efficiently, and you might even have a better grasp of the landmarks you’ve passed on the way. An SSR is like a map of the forest. It helps you navigate a dense argument or theory. Once you’ve written a few SSRs, this approach to reading may become second nature to you.

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