Welcome to the ‘Cheat Sheet’ section of my blog, an area where I compile entirely random snippets of information that I have found to be useful in the past. Today on the cheat sheet, I talk about my experience reading philosophy and anthropology–some of the most impenetrable reading on the planet–and try to explain how I do the thing.
To clarify: When I say I “do the thing,” I mean I read all the time. I read things that are really quite incomprehensible. I slam dense readings into my brain repeatedly until they start to make sense.
This makes sense to me.
Today we’re going to talk about how to read literally anything, in any field of study, in such a way that you understand its ins and outs and all its little complexities.
NOTE that this is NOT always the same thing as reading QUICKLY; a large part of why I read stupidly fast is because I’ve been reading college-level for a vast majority of my life. I read anthropological texts before I even knew what anthropology was, and I retained a lot of that–because I read them in the way I’m about to describe.
Before I go further, I should credit one of my professors with the inspiration for this post. Turns out, he recommends much the same method of literary assimilation that my father does, and the same one I’ve been using for years to devour anything with words on it.
Okay, so remember what I said about me reading a lot when I was a kid? Let’s take a trip back in time to when we were seven. Imagine we’re reading something that isn’t so complicated. Something like this excerpt from To Kill A Mockingbird:
Now, first of all, we’re seven, so we might not know every single word in this sentence. For example, we might not know what stock-market quotations are. The Mobile Register might also be a mystery, as well as the words literate and interfere. But we know what Miss Caroline is saying, we’ve got that shit on lock, and we can figure out the general sense of what’s going on from the words that we know.
Later on, we might come back after having learned what The Mobile Register is, and looking up the meaning of interfere, and then the paragraph would make more sense. We might even be able to puzzle out the significance of the word literate, and decide that we really don’t need to know what stock-market quotations are in order to understand this segment.
“Okay,” you might say, “But I came here to learn how to read graduate-level texts! Why the hell are we reading To Kill A Mockingbird?” Well, first of all, because it’s an awesome book, so shut up, and second, that’s it. That’s how you do it.
Let’s break it down.
So now let’s go back to Bourdieu. Take this passage:
Don’t panic. Deep breaths. Remain calm. Just let your eyes drift over it. Read the words you recognize and string them together to get a sense of the general point.
“The privilege in which all activity arises never more governs that activity than when, unrecognized as privilege, it leads to a theory of practice which is the neglect of the social conditions in which science is possible. The anthropologist’s relation to the object of his study contains the makings of a distortion as his situation as an observer, excluded from the real play by the fact that he has no place (except by choice or way of a game) in the system observed and has no need to make a place for himself there, inclines him to reduce all social relations to communicative relations and to decoding operations.”
OKAY. So we don’t know quite what that means. We can sense that there are key words missing. But find the parts you understand. There’s something in there about the anthropologist’s relation to the object of his study, and how that causes a theoretical distortion. And we know that distortion reduces all social relations to…something. Good. See those bolded points? Those are the parts we know. We’re sure of those. My professor calls them ANCHORS. That’s good.
Now we can read it again, from the beginning, and try to figure out more. Maybe we can look up some of the words, and then we realize that hermeneutics means ‘the discipline surrounding interpretation of texts.’ So that’s another anchor. Using the parts we know, we then try to figure out the parts that are confusing. It might take a few passes, but eventually we will be able to read the entire paragraph and understand what Bourdieu (and it is Bourdieu) is saying.
Now blow that up to a whole new level.
We have a book to read, not a paragraph but an entire book, and this is the DENSEST SHIT YOU’VE EVER READ. You understand MAYBE 40% of what you’ve read so far, and it’s daunting.
Step 1: Scan. Read a few chapters. Not the whole thing, unless it’s super short. Maybe read a fourth of it.
Step 2: As you read, find your anchors. Find the things you understand. Try to get a general sense of what the book is saying.
Step 3: Put down the book and wrestle with the ideas. Try to connect the ideas (the ones you understand) to other things. [I strongly advise that you] write down the ideas that really leap out at you. These are reading notes. By the end of this step, you should have a pretty basic idea of what the first fourth of the book is about, and you will be (almost) certain about the meaning of specific portions. There will still be huge parts you won’t understand. This is okay.
Step 4: Return to the book. Read again, from the beginning. It’ll be easier this time; you will recognize your anchor points as you pass them, and you’ll read what you know more quickly. Try to keep it slow and really read it, really digest it. You should be able to start to figure out exactly what the text is saying. Some new anchors will jump out at you. Excellent. Write them down, underline them, whatever, and keep moving. You might be able to finish it this time, but if not, no problem.
Step 5: After this point, you should have a confident idea of certain parts of the book. Not all of it. You should be able to talk pretty definitively about most of the first half of the book. Take a break again. What I like to do now is to find a summary of the piece. For philosophy, try The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Ask someone who’s read the book. Look it up online. You already know the first half–if you pay attention to the summary, you can try to start figuring out how the first half leads to the second half, even before you actually read it.
Step 6: You already know a lot about this book! Getting to step 6 can take anywhere between half an hour and six hours…or more. Some books are SUPER DENSE, even for people with a doctorate. A Ph.D doesn’t give you magical powers. But now that you KNOW the first half, and now that you have a very basic idea of the second half, stop and think about the book. Try to think about how its ideas are similar to other things you’ve read. We learn by making connections. Think of knowledge as a spiderweb: THE MORE CONNECTIONS YOU DRAW, THE STRONGER IT IS.
Not to mention, the more you do this seven-step process, the faster it goes. You will learn to read faster, because your brain will learn to start picking out key points and wrestling with what you don’t understand.
Congratulations; you can now talk about this book fairly confidently! You know the majority of the first half (and you have pretty good notes, if you took my advice), and you know roughly the arc of the second. But we’re not done yet–we don’t just want to skim, we want mastery.
So now for the final step. You’re going to re-read the first half, and then go from there to the second half–reading from the first page to the last. As you venture into unknown territory, remember to plant anchors. Find something that is beginning to make sense, and slow down and make it make sense. When you do, WRITE IT DOWN IN YOUR NOTES.
But now you should have an idea of what it feels like to read a text and digest the softer parts. It should go faster than before, smoother. That doesn’t mean it won’t be unbelievably painful. This could easily be the longest part of the process, time-wise.
But it does mean that by the time you make it to the last page of the book, you will know your shit. You might not know it backward and forward–you might not be able to cite pages from scratch–but you will be able to write an essay on the book now. You can have a real, intelligent discussion, and you’re on your way to mastery.
So it’s not really a final step. But it is for now. If you started this book and made it to the final step in the same day, then stop. Take a break. Relax. Go do something that doesn’t involve thinking about this. The most important rule of reading academic texts is this:
It is impossible to master a book in one day.*
*it’s not, but you really don’t want to do that if you don’t have to.**
**but if you decide to try, just do this, but without taking breaks.
CONGRATULATIONS. You now know how to master a book–and in the process of mastering it, you will also produce a killer set of reading notes. Those will be INVALUABLE. When you write a paper, or a blog post, or anything really, you can just go back to your reading notes and drop them straight in. And you will seem UNBELIEVABLY smart. You will know. your. shit.
This has been the Cheat Sheet. Thanks for reading this 1776-word monster. Next time, I will try and set down some other snippet of cutthroat academic trickery from my arsenal of mind games. Until then, good luck, happy reading, and make sure to use adequate light sources!*
*if you’re reading on a computer screen, make sure the brightness is set so that you can clearly see the text, but not too much brighter than the surrounding environment. That will reduce eye strain, which means you can read longer.