How to read. Some basics (part one)

It’s a commonplace among lecturers that students don’t know how to read anymore. The culprit is often found quickly: Social media and mobile phones are responsible for almost everything. I’m not sure about this, but I think that it might be a good thing to devote more attention to reading techniques. When I was a student, I was often told to read or even to read carefully. However, what no one really told me was how careful reading is actually done. The situation reminds me of a conversation with my colleague Andrea Sangiacomo, who remarked that we are often told to “concentrate”, but no one tells you how it’s actually done. Just sitting and staring at what you’re supposed to focus on probably isn’t concentration. It’s something one needs to learn and cultivate. The same goes for reading. Ask a fellow philosopher or philosophy student what they do. “I read much of the time”, they might reply. Ask them then how they do it. At this point I often merely get a “well, I just, well, read.” In what follows, I want to say a bit more about the basics of reading. Philosophers shouldn’t shy away from stating or thinking through the obvious. So I’m sure it’s going to be worth your time.

Getting comfy and preparing yourself. – It might seem obvious, but when you begin to read a text, say a primary text in philosophy or a paper, you should get comfy first. Pick a nice place where nothing disturbs or distracts you (too much) and get your text out. Experience teaches many of us that reading real printed texts rather than virtually on a computer file yields better results. But no matter which way you are going to read, make sure that you have some device to underline or highlight phrases and to take notes. I stress this because I see many students coming to class without their texts, let alone notes. While some people have an admirable memory of what they read, the point of highlighting phrases and taking notes is not just to memorise text chunks. Highlighting words or phrases makes you see connections that arguably remain obscure to you otherwise. In reading, we often focus on “the meaning”, but it is important to also see some material aspects of the text: the words and phrases, the way paragraphs are set etc. It gives you a sense of how terms reappear in the following sentence or section, how phrases are picked up again or rephrased in different words, how one sentence is (or isn’t) connected to the previous one and so on. (Frege, for instance, devised his formal notation system, the Begriffsschrift, to visualise logical relations that are salient but often unnoticed in common forms of writing.) After all, one simple way to grasp the topic or strategy of a text is to see which words come up most. Moreover, highlighting phrases or taking notes will draw you into a dialogue with the text. How’s that? Well, if you underline, for instance, you might underline words and then come back to wonder why you underlined those and not others. You notice and also begin to question what you find important in a text. So get out your pencil or the comment mode in your pdf! It’s of course also a way to make the text your own. Coming back after a couple of years and seeing what you highlighted back in the day will make you see your old copy and sometimes make you chuckle or wonder why you worried about that. Now if you forget to bring your annotated text with you in class, you cannot turn to these material connections when the text is discussed.

What are you reading anyway? – Now that you’re all set, it’s time to look at what you’re going to read. Isn’t that clear? The author and title of the text are on the jacket, no? So no worries there. – Far from it! If you pick up Nietzsche’s famous The Will to Power and think that it’s a book by Nietzsche you’re quite mistaken. The Will to Power was compiled from Nietzsche’s notebooks, put into order and attributed to Nietzsche by his sister Elisabeth Förster Nietzsche. Yes, Nietzsche had thought about this idea at length, but the book is fake. This is why it is crucial to consult not just any old version but the critical edition that has been carefully researched from the actual manuscripts. (Here is a brief account of critical editions of ancient texts, but such issues apply across the board.) If you don’t read German and thus cannot study the original, you should be aware that you are reading a translation. The enormously great work of translators often goes unacknowledged, but it should be seen, and seen for what it often is. A translation is not just “the same text” in a different language. It is a new text, developed on the basis of the original version. To get a feeling for this, you should try and paraphrase a bit of text. You’ll soon run into ambiguities or issues that require opinionated choices. Such choices silently come back to you when you read a translation, and there is often more than one translation. There can be whole different traditions of translations. Ideally, you compare different translations and pick central terms from the original to see how they are rendered in the various versions. In any case, you should pick a translation that is based on a reliable critical edition. – You might think that such issues apply mainly to historical texts, but that would be a mistake: Papers in modern or contemporary philosophy can also come in different versions and translations of course. What is more, the question of what you’re actually reading affords you a critical distance to the tendency of identifying a text with the author who purportedly wrote it. And note at least that even correctly attributed authors don’t always believe what they have published under their name …

Why are you reading? – Again, this question seems obvious. You’re reading because you’ve been assigned a text in one way or another. Perhaps you’re even reading for fun. But that’s not what I mean. Well before you begin to read, you will have expectations about what you’re going to encounter. These expectations can be fairly concrete and detailed if you know the author or have heard about the work in question. In any case, it helps to do two things now. (1) you should make your expectations clear to yourself, so that you notice when the text deviates from what you expect it to say. This tells you at once how the author might differ from what you assumed them to say and how you think about the matter. This is interesting because it is a real meeting of minds, a confrontation of your expectations and what the author says. You might then wonder what is responsible for this difference. (2) In any case, you should also make clear to yourself what you are looking for. Are you just exploring what the author has to say? Fine. But more often than not you’ll read with a (tacit) question in mind, like: What does the author say about X? Where X is (related to) the topic of the course you’re following. The more clear it is what you’re looking for, the easier it is to watch out for pertinent key terms or arguments, but also to differentiate what is currently important for you from digressions or sections that simply speak to other issues. Ideally, then, you watch out for your own expectations as well as for items that are unclear to you. What is important to note is that both (1) your expectations and (2) what you are looking for do not as such yield an interpretation of the text. But they will inform, often tacitly, what you highlight in your interpretation or understanding. So it’s good to get clear about these issues. However, don’t worry about this too much at the beginning. Reading, careful reading in particular, is a very slow process, not linear, but involving going back and forth many times, of trying and failing and trying again.

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Click here for part two of this series.

10 thoughts on “How to read. Some basics (part one)

  1. This is a patient and lovely piece.

    “Reading, careful reading in particular, is a very slow process, not linear, but involving going back and forth many times, of trying and failing and trying again.”

    Further along the interpretive process, after we’ve done the things you highlight here, we readers and aspiring understanders do go back and forth many times, trying and failing and trying again.

    I am reminded of a passage from Kuhn — it appears somewhere in his essay collection, The Essential Tension — a passage whose message I occasionally have to recall with deliberateness, because in my frustrated moments I forget it and in my cool moments it strikes me as eminently reasonable: “When reading the works of an important thinker, look first for the apparent absurdities in the text and ask yourself how a sensible person could have written them. When you find an answer, then you may find that more central passages, ones you previously thought you understood, have changed their meaning.”

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  2. Excellent topic — I hope to follow and that you will go on to discuss teaching close reading. I’ve found it’s not enough to give students exemplars of close reading in class, but that I need to find ways to give them the repeated practice they need to develop the skill and establish a reading practice. I was mystified several years back at how difficult students found even a reduced form of explication de texte (despite a full and detailed handout). Everyone skims now, often flicking on their mobiles, looking to pick up the “gist,” but without sufficient attention to how a text conveys this and peculiarities in its formulation and construction. The only thing that seems to have (partially) worked in my classes is to assign a low threshold “workbook” (graded only for effort, with minimal comments) which they are to have open as they read and to stop and write down any questions, thoughts, reflections, objections as they occur while they are reading. In addition to giving them more practice articulating their own thoughts, it has the advantage of slowing down the reading process and attending to their reactions to specific pieces of text. The students have been overwhelmingly positive about the assignments, since obviously more engaged reading helps them to find greater understanding (at least about their questions). But it doesn’t directly address the need practice techniques of breaking down a text and seeing how it works (or doesn’t).

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  3. This is a refreshing piece. Thanks for posting it, Marin! I’m on board with the general sentiment, and I like a lot of the concrete advice. In higher ed, in the U.S. at least, I suspect there’s too much emphasis on writing and not enough on reading. They’re not mutually exclusive, of course. On the contrary, But I’d favor experimenting with prioritizing the latter over the former. It’s hard to write well if you never read and do not like to do it. It’s like trying to generate output from a machine without any input.

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  4. I agree that students need help and encouragement in learning how to read philosophy, though I’m not sure they’re any worse today (“kids these days…”). In Perry and Bratman’s introductory anthology, they have a section on “how to read aggressively” – which they illustrate with Descartes’ first Meditation. It is just two pages long but is a nice example of one thing we (often) want our students to do. (It was first published to 1985, so long before the internet was a thing…)

    Of course there is also Jim Pryor: http://www.jimpryor.net/teaching/guidelines/reading.html

    and Dave Conception’s piece:

    Click to access CONRPW.pdf

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