How to Read a Book: What I Didn’t Learn Until College

There are a lot of amazing books out there that will deceive you and make you think that you know how to read a book. What you, my friends, know how to do is experience a book. One of the greatest lessons I learned in college was how to actually read a book.

I am not trying to insult your intelligence whatsoever. I know dozens of honors students who don’t know the tips I am about to hand out. But, I will tell you that this will be what helps you most in college if you do not already know how to break down, chop up, chew, digest, and regurgitate a book (sorry for the imagery).

  1. Look it up before you read it. A lot of teachers tell you not to do this because they want you to come to your own conclusion, but you can learn and come to a more informed conclusion by knowing what others think. Always look up the plot synopsis, look up the major motifs and symbols, and look up reviews to see what scholars in the field think about a book. If you’re reading nonfiction, read the bad reviews and think about counterarguments to prompt your reading. 
  2. Put it down and google what confuses you. I talked to a friend in the library the other day (irony, huh?) and he was struggling to comprehend a lot of tough literature that he decided to read for fun and self improvement. As he was starting to get down about how he wished he were smart enough to really understand it, I dropped a truth bomb on him: read what the experts have to say first, and then see how much more sense it makes. When you are reading classic literature, you will stumble over the phrasing and tough language. There is no shame in not understanding something at first glance, but there is shame in giving up because it looks hard.
  3. Read it inside out. There is absolutely no reason to start reading at the beginning of a book. For textbooks, I always start with the chapter summary and then review the end of chapter questions. Once I have that covered, I move on to the sections I need to review and I skip the information that is unnecessary (provided I am moderately familiar with the subject). Another important thing to remember is that there are dozens of ways to approach a text and you do not need to highlight and underline if you are simply reviewing. Go quickly and take a brief survey of what you’re dealing with before you dive in.pexels-photo-46274
  4. Don’t take notes but do use stickies. Don’t waste your time underlining and making tedious notes in a journal if you’re just trying to get to the purpose of the book. Toss out sticky notes on important pages, but don’t dwell. The purpose is where the author’s motivation meets the subject material. Sometimes purpose and argument are the same, but there are some books that don’t achieve their goals. If you’re writing a paper, this is the important concept to take away: whether or not the book achieved its purpose, and how well it accomplished the task. 
  5. Always read with a pen in hand. If you don’t read with a pen in hand, you’re not reading with a purpose. I said not to take tedious notes, but some notes are necessary. If you mark important items as you go, you will be able to see a chain of thoughts at the end of your reading that you may not have been aware of while reading. I do this a lot because it helps me make connections I never would have made otherwise. A one page summary of important events or contentions made in the book will tell you more about your thoughts than you could ever imagine. 
  6. Practice reading. Like with anything else, practice makes perfect and it is no different where reading is concerned. Start with easier texts and move on to tougher ones. Once you are confident in your ability to break down a book, digest, and regurgitate it, then you can read anything. Patterns are visible in all writing, and most books follow some form of pattern. Once you have established your preferred method for reading you can conquer even the most difficult works. 
  7. Understand the principles of the book you are reading. Many books are written start to finish, and those are often the most popular books. YA fiction and biographies are popular because the key points/themes/motifs are usually handed to the reader in a way intended to be easily understood. But, other works are tougher, especially when told in a non-linear format or if they are arranged topically rather than chronologically. Study principles of these writing styles to better understand the layout, which will inform your reading
  8. Don’t read to finish. Reading to finish a book is akin to the experience of reading I covered at the beginning of this post. There is no reason to need to finish a book. What you need to do is find the purpose, glean the information you want, and move on to the next challenge. If you want to finish a book, you will need to change your goals. Never set your mind to finishing a book if you are not interested in experiencing the book for enjoyment. 
  9. Create an environment for learning. Listening to music can be helpful to set your pace for reading or researching, but music with vocals can be incredibly distracting. I recommend movie scores (action sequences are amazing) or even video game soundtracks because these high intensity tracks promote a faster pace for your work, and they will help you remain alert. Lighting is also important. Lots of light, preferably more of a yellow light than white or blue, is the best for reading. Keep the light behind you to spare your eyes. If you need to focus, read at a table and stay away from cushioned chairs. Being mildly cold or uncomfortable will also help you read better. Hot, comforting beverages and snacks are great pairings for a reading experience, but not for a reading expedition, so save them for when you take a little break from your work.
  10. Use incentives to help you accomplish reading goals. I keep track of how much I read and I set goals for myself. I tend to set loose and easily modified goals because, when I’m not reading for school, I tend to change my mind a lot. I like to take on reading challenges to push myself, and I like to use small-scale goals and rewards to help myself accomplish my bigger goals. I suggest avoiding overly generous rewards, or food-based rewards for accomplishing goals. I think promising to buy yourself a great movie on your watchlist as a reward for finishing your monthly reading list is a great idea. I love library books the best because it gives me a firm deadline, and I don’t renew them if I can avoid it because then I will be more likely to finish it earlier. Putting back a few bucks for each book you finish from the library frees up cash for other fun treats, like a trip to the zoo or a new pair of shoes. 

There were a lot of things I learned through trial and error, and I have also found that a lot of my friends really like using these strategies for learning because it frees up their time for other pursuits. I also learned quite a few tips by researching what other honor students and high achieving scholars use to approach their research practices. If you talk to any other high achievers in college, a lot of them will probably give you similar tips. 

If you have ever wondered (much like I did) how people manage to read so many books in such a short span of time, this is how they do it. A lot of people also keep track of exactly how much they read, which is incredibly helpful in motivating you to read in greater volume. Reward systems are fantastic for helping you achieve goals and buckle down, whether your goals are for your personal growth or for school assignments. I hope anyone who struggles with reading will find this helpful. 


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