On Reading

Imaging New Reading and Thinking Habits, a Few Ideas

(Or, How to Read, a strategy for people trying to stop skimming over ideas and start engaging with them)

  • Avoid reading the entire book, from cover to cover. Instead, pick a chapter or essay for focusing your thinking.
  • Read through once without taking notes, preferably in a comfortable chair.
  • Ask yourself: what troubles me, moves me, angers me, frustrates me about this reading? Why?
  • Underline those passages that bother or move you. Talk back to the text by writing your questions in the margins.
  • Pick one passage or idea that especially moves you (in anger, joy, confusion).
  • This could be a word, a sentence, a passage, a main theme. Spend a lot of time thinking about it. Ruminate.
  • Write about it. I like to write about it in a blog post. I find that the public nature of a blog encourages me to organize my thought more effectively and coherently. And, the less formal nature of the blog encourages me to work through and process my ideas. There’s an added bonus: it’s easier to access those thoughts later. I have to admit that my handwriting is so bad that sometimes I can’t read thoughts that I’ve written just minutes before.
  • Start by writing out what the author is claiming. Before troubling these claims, take them seriously by summarizing them. This summary should not include your judgment/assessment of the reading.
  • Connect your summary of your chosen passage or idea with the main argument of the text. I often do this by explaining the title of the reading.
  • Now write your reactions. Again, these are not judgments, but reactions.
  • Avoid overly objective, removed descriptions. Instead, use lots of “I” statements and spend considerable time thinking about how these ideas make you feel and why you are having resistance to them.
  • In your reactions, always draw upon specific examples from the text to support and contextualize your feelings and claims.
  • In your reactions, do not rush to judge (or convict, condemn) the reading or the author’s claims. Be generous and patient.
  • Develop some tentative conclusions, but keep working at it periodically until you can figure out why you are troubled or moved by the essay. This might take a long time; I’ve spent 16 years trying to figure out why one passage from Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble moves me.
Why Read? Some reasons, other than acquiring facts and becoming a Success.
  • To Enter New Worlds
  • To Dream
  • To Recognize that Other Ways of Being are Possible (and already exist)
  • To Exercise Curiosity
  • To be Recognized
  • To Resist
  • To Escape
  • To Increase Understanding
  • Adventure!
  • To Retreat and Be Restored
  • To Witness Humanity
  • To Listen and Learn
  • To Be Challenged
  • To Light a Fire
  • To Encounter Mystery
  • To Solve a Mystery
  • To Relax
  • To Join in Ongoing Conversations
  • To Feel, To Laugh, To Cry
How to Read with Cone Dystrophy
  • Very slowly. It took almost 6 months to read Love in the Time of Cholera.
  • Take naps between words.
  • Stop looking, start listening to more audio books and podcasts. Learn how to study ideas with your ears instead of your eyes.
  • Choose wisely. Your brain can only handle so much. When it’s done, it’s done. Don’t waste it on a crappy book or terrible twitter threads.
  • Avoid densely packed prose, including the hundreds of scholarly books on your shelves from your academic career. Pick poetry instead, which is often dense but leaves space to breathe and offers an opening and a reprieve for overworked eyes.
  • Also avoid large print. You need print that can fit inside the small spot of central vision that remains.
  • Mostly read on a tablet. Reserve physical books for when it’s warm and sunny so you can sit outside and read in the sunlight.
  • Purchase a low vision light and always have it on the brightest setting.