As a history major, people always asked me how I could stand reading a boatload of books every week. While I answered them, they’d usually stare at my bookshelf and faint, much like I do when looking at equations on a whiteboard. What is my secret? It’s more obvious than you think: I never read any of my assigned books front to back. How, you ask, can you absorb information without reading the entirety of a book? Go on to discover some of the tricks people use to fool others into thinking they actually read those thick tomes sitting on their shelves…
1. Read the conclusion first.
A lot of authors like to speak in an arcane manner initially, throwing out long-winded, incomprehensible phrases for the first several pages of their book. It’s at this point that many fall off the wagon and throw whatever they’re reading to the ground in disappointment. The key is to cheat. Go to the end of the book first, and find the conclusion. Any writer worth their salt will provide the reader with a neat little summation of their argument and a quick review of the examples they used there. As they say on the website Spreeder:
You don’t really need to know the biography of the author, do you? So skip it. Then you can also skip the prologue in most cases – it usually contains a mere introduction to the book, and rarely contains information that will be of real use to you.
However, the Epilogue is a completely different matter – make sure you read it, because it is usually used to sum up the book, and can even provide extra information from later editions.
The other benefit of this is that all of that nonsense at the beginning of the book will make a lot more sense when you know exactly where the author is going. If you’re in a bind (read: supposed to have read a book for class tomorrow morning but never got around to it), reading just the conclusion may be sufficient enough to provide the illusion that you know what you’re talking about.
2. Use a highlighter.
One of the mistakes people make early on is that they give up highlighting, either because they end up marking too many things or were told by teachers that it’s a useless endeavor. The truth is that highlighting can be a great tool – if used correctly. You shouldn’t use it on everything, and you shouldn’t use it once every fifty pages. Instead, you’ll want to focus your efforts on highlighting the author’s summary statements. They’ll often ramble on and on about one point for several pages, and provide at the end a neat little bow tie shaped paragraph that definitively states the point they were trying to get across. Highlight this, and when you go back to skim the book, you’ll have everything you need to know ready at a glance. I can’t tell you how many times this helped me when going back to review a book for a test.
3. Use the table of contents and subheadings.
It often surprises people, often college-aged kids, when they hear that most scholars often don’t read books in their entirety. Instead, what they usually do (and I’ve been told this by a professor) is check out the table of contents, and read the chapters that interest them or are relevant to their work. Or, they’ll skim through the book and stop when they see a subheading that interests them. This makes reading less of a chore, since you’re only reading what you want to read. You’ll still get the gist of the author’s overall point as well, since they’ll usually restate it in some way in every section of the book. This is a great technique to prevent “eyes moving down the page but not processing a single world” syndrome.
4. Be proactive instead of reactive.
Clay Johnson, author of The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption, has some interesting thoughts in regard to this point.
The number one piece of advice I have is to consume consciously and deliberately. Transform your relationship with information consumption into something that you do proactively, rather than something that happens to you. Once you do that, you can start applying frameworks.
This sort of goes back to what I was saying earlier. You shouldn’t be reading for the sake of reading, or trying to force your way through something that doesn’t speak to you.
Even in college, where professors assign readings to you, you can take an active role in what you’re reviewing. One of the ways to do this, as I said before, is to skip the parts that are boring to you, instead focusing all of your attention on sections that appeal to you.
Another way to get around this in college is to do your own research. Along with the class readings, find (professor approved) books related to your class that speak to your soul. I once took a class on 19th century Italy, and while I loved it, the readings could get a bit dry. What worked for me was finding a book on that era about a figure I found intriguing (Giuseppe Mazzini), and reading about that time period from the perspective of his life story. That made it easy for me, since all the history we were learning in class was now framed by a story that I could connect to.
Reading isn’t something you’ll automatically have fun doing unless you put in the effort to find things you want to read.
5. Don’t try to read every word.
This was a mistake of mine for a long time. I had this idea in my head that if I read every word, I’d remember more information. Instead, I’d usually glaze over and die of mental boredom.
The truth of the matter is that most non-fiction books are formatted in a way that makes reading every word a redundant practice. The author only has so much to say, the most significant of which can be found in the conclusion. Most books are filled with evidence rather than profound points, which is good for you since, while evidence is interesting, it’s all proving the same thesis. Therefore, don’t be bogged down reading endless streams of evidence that prove the author’s argument, find a few that interest you and move onto the next chapter.
This goes for fictional reading too. Don’t quit because you get to a boring part in the book (e.g. those scenes in Game of Thrones where George R.R. Martin describes every little detail about the roasted duck his fictional characters are eating). Just skim it until you see something important. Sure, you might miss something, but it’s better that you keep moving than put the book down in frustration.
To close this point, I’ll quote Peter Economy (yup that’s his name, pretty cool huh?)
The one thing that helps me get through such material and actually learn something in the process is to skim it instead of trying to read it in detail. As I skim, I write down the major points in a notebook. After I’m done, I can then review the major points I’ve collected and have a pretty good idea of what I need to know.
6. Write reader responses.
Bear with me before you start groaning. While most people hate writing, it really is one of the easiest ways to retain lots of information in a short amount of time. One of the things I used to do to remember the key points of a large book was to condense it into a single paged double-spaced reader response. In roughly two paragraphs, I’d outline the author’s argument, a few of their interesting pieces of evidence, and what I had a problem with/ what I thought they could have done better.
Like highlighting, writing reader responses provides you with a tool to quickly review the more impactful aspects of a book. When reviewing for a test, it’s much easier to pull up your reader responses than to fervently flip through all your books again.
7. Discuss what you read with others.
As much as I dislike working in groups, there’s no question that talking about readings with friends or classmates will help you retain information. Indeed, back in college I had a study buddy, and we’d discuss pretty much everything we read. We often joked about some of the author’s points, or certain pieces of evidence they used. Surprisingly, when it was time to take the final, I often remembered complicated sections from the book by thinking first of the jokes I’d made up with my partner.
Some of us are auditory learners, and, as author Eric Holtzclaw states, they “comprehend best when [hearing] content and new information.” Therefore, talking to a friend about what you’ve read is a great tool in terms of solidifying your knowledge on that subject. It’s even better if you can joke about it, because then you’re condensing that information into something you find extremely relatable, which only makes it easier to recall in the future.
8. Jot down discussion questions while reading.
This is something I picked up when I was a teaching assistant. Even if you aren’t guiding a class in the discussion of a reading, it helps to keep a notepad by your side while going through a difficult text. When you see something puzzling or disagreeable, simply pause and write down a question related to the issue you are having. The key is to never assume that the author is correct; you want to keep your mind engaged in what you’re reading, and staying critical is an effective way to do this.
This works for both fiction and non-fiction books. Basically, you’ll be asking things like this:
- Why does the author phrase things like that?
- Does this piece of evidence make sense?
- Does that paragraph reveal a bias of some kind?
- How does that point tie into the author’s overall argument?
- What audience are they speaking to?
They can become more complicated than these; it all depends on what you’re reading really.
These are all of the tips that I can come up with at the moment! I’m sure there are more out there, so if you find any feel free to comment about them below. To summarize, improving your reading and comprehension skills is all about becoming an active participant. You need to find what you want to read, and make an effort to try and retain some of its more significant points. With luck, you’ll be speeding your way through several-hundred page odysseys in no time!
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