In my previous post on productivity systems I discussed the importance of breaking tasks down into their component parts. When assigned a large paper, you can look it as a series of smaller tasks like reading, annotating, and writing a paragraph or two every day. Paul N Edwards has provided an excellent guide for breaking your reading into smaller, more manageable components. “How to Read a Book” is a gem for all academics, but especially for first years who often feel anxious or confused about what exactly they need to get out of the one thousand pages they were assigned their first week. Go ahead and download the pdf and have it open as you read along please.

The guide is well organized, thoughtful, and includes a fantastic visual metaphor that Edwards calls the “Hourglass Information Structure”. Edwards may be giving you advice you have heard before (read actively, take notes, know the context), but the systematic way he explains goals, strategies, and techniques makes the article worth reading again and again. For me, the most crucial piece of advice is deciding how much time you can spend and setting a manageable goal for why you want to read it.

Deciding these things might be easier at certain points of your graduate career than others. Lets say you just got assigned a significant chunk of Marx’s Capital: Vol 1 for a methods seminar. You know you have a week to read and that the reading is paired with Gramsci and E.P. Thompson, so use these clues to decide your time commitment and your goals for the reading. Lets say you’ll give Marx a fifth of your reading time for the week considering its centrality to the other works and that your goal is to understand its relationship to the other texts. This gives you something near four hours and a specific goal to guide your reading. Use the context of the reading and realistic assessments of your time to decide your strategy.

While this example might be clear for seminar reading, things get more complicated when you read for a paper or for comprehensive exams. Here, you should give yourself more time to discover the context and your goal as you read for a still-evolving purpose. This requires active reading, great notes, and frequent breaks to let your brain catch up. Plan an hour to peruse the sections of high information content in each book.  These include the table of contents, index, bibliography, introduction, and the beginning and ends of each chapter.

Print this article out and take a moment to flip through its headings the next time you read a book. Compare it to however you were reading before. Take notes on this experience so that you understand what works for you, what doesn’t, and what you might modify for your own workflow or goals in reading.

Do you have any special techniques for reading? Share your experiences or advice below!

[Image by Flickr user Riebart and used under Creative Commons license]


2 Responses to How to Read a Book

  1. I’m going to put a word in for OmWriter. It is another distraction free writing environment for Mac, PC, and iPad with both free and paid versions. It saves in multiple formats and come complete with white noise or or other Zen sound options if you are working somewhere noisy. I have it for my iPad and it’s my favorite to write on for that device. Also, Scrivener has a distraction-free view (full-page like Word) that is a pleasure to work in. For more on OmWriter:

  2. Jennifer says:

    I block out an hour each morning to read for school work. I can pretend I’m luxuriating in bed while it’s cold and dark out, yet still getting my reading done–like you mention: in short chunks with time to ruminate after.

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