Reading for all the Wrong Reasons

January 25, 2008

Main Idea: Reading need not be and should not be a linear process. This method works well with fiction, but falls short with non-fiction and technical pieces. One requires a different, more holistic approach in such cases.

My pet project of the moment revolves around my reading habits. Which, considering 30% of my day involves reading, seems to me a valid area of concern. Add to that the simple truth that most learning in college happens outside the classroom, via reading, and that most important information in day to day life comes to us via the written word, reconsidering reading becomes a central concern.

The main result of my investigation boils down to an aphorism: one size doesn’t fit all. Reading, we are told in grade school, is a linear process. Start at page one, read every word, rinse and repeat until the last page. Simple, yes. And valid for a book like See Spot Run or Goodnight, Moon. Maybe even valid for Charlotte’s Web, The Phantom Tollbooth, and The Giver. In fact, this method is perfectly fine for fiction reading. This process is the point with that genre. You want to soak in every word to immerse yourself in the writer’s world.

The problem arises when you apply this ‘word for word’ model to non-fiction books. The first exposure most people have to non-fiction is the textbook. The history book, the science book, whatever (luckily, the ‘English’ book is just a collection of fictional stories, so the ‘word for word’ method works their). Most elementary textbooks, in any subject, usually still follow a narrative. Learning history involves learning the story behind the history. Learning science involves learning the story behind the clouds, the volcano, the atom.

Eventually, though, you move up to high school, where the books no longer tell a story. Which would be fine, if you hadn’t been trained from a young age to expect a story in order to learn. In the process, you become a slave to the word for word process. The very idea of skimming through a chapter feels like cheating. I can remember in my 9th grade biology class, answering the questions for homework just by looking for those specific answers in the text, and feeling the whole time like I’d somehow cheated. And when you think about it, that’s a rather sick system to have set up. I don’t remember any explicit prohibitions of the ‘look just for the answer’ method, but nonetheless I felt ‘bad’ doing it.

This is a strange fact: that a new, better, more efficient method, should end up feeling like ‘cheating.’ Reading this way has its risks, that’s a certainty: you may miss a key point, especially if it is not pointed out to you. But in the time you save not reading every single word, you have the chance to go for another dip through the information, a chance to look again and see if you’ve missed anything.

In fact, a lot of textbooks now have the ‘questions’ at the beginning of any chapter section. I imagine that if you look solely for the answers to those questions, you will have acquired the vast majority of the information that you’ll need to understand the topic. And yet, speaking for myself, I still feel the need to read every single word, partly out of fear that I might miss something and also partly out of respect for the work the author put into the book.

The ‘respect’ angle requires further thought, however. Do authors really expect a student to read word for word what is placed on the page? As I write this, do I expect you to remember what I’m saying word for word? Or do I on the contrary hope that you get the main idea (namely, that reading need not be and should not be a purely linear process)? I can whole heartedly state the latter. All of these words are for me, not for you. All I want for you is the enjoy the experience, if you choose to, and hopefully take this little nugget of information away with you.

Which brings up another failing of the normal linear reading process: it’s far too passive. The words on the page don’t matter. It is what you do with the words on the page that matters. The book doesn’t change when you’re done reading it, you change. Your relationship to the book changes (that strange feeling of turning back through an old math book and remembering when everything looked like gibberish and realizing that no it all makes sense).

I feel that if I keep going on, I’ll simply belabor my point (quite the opposite of the goal of this post). So I’ll end here. Hopefully you’ll take some pragmatic truth away from this passage.

I know that I should.

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One Response to “Reading for all the Wrong Reasons”

  1. dave in the west said

    Yeah… it always seems like anything we do that seems too easy is cheating. Studying engineering though… they quickly break you out of that mentality. They change it around so that its IMPOSSIBLE until you find the easy way to do it.

    If you can read linearly, hats off to you, lol. I never could. There’s no way I could ever hope to process everything I read the first time, so I try to get the main point. But… you know. Do what works for you, depending on what you’re reading for too. I only read when I feel like I think I’ll learn how to do something. You read for the sake of reading. Find what suits you.

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