how to read

With a few techniques, you can become a more mindful reader.

In this last stretch of August, when sand-filled paperbacks go back on the bookshelf, it’s a good time to consider not only what we should read next but how. The ever-increasing speed of information makes it hard to absorb every word that comes our way. Especially when it’s so easy to fall down that glorious rabbit hole of the internet. How often do you find yourself searching for a quick reference only to, 30 minutes later, catch yourself reading about the life expectancy of a sea horse – all the while being bombarded with text messages, emails, social media likes and the odd Yo!. Whether perusing a phone screen or printed page, here’s a primer on how to read more consciously and, in turn, more efficiently.

Always start by skimming your reading material. This helps in distinguishing key phrases during a full read-through. Skimming an article properly includes reading headlines, bullet points, bolded words and the first sentence of each paragraph. This should take mere seconds, depending on the length of the text. Often, especially with internet browsing, the skim can help you find simple answers before delving into an entire article. Imagine reading the whole Thin Lizzy Wikipedia page just to find the origin of the name. That could take hours. Seriously, that band has some history.

For practice, skim the rest of this article.

Block reading concerns the mechanics of reading. It demands your concentration, which in turn helps you absorb the material. Rather than reading word to word, block reading allows you to see several words at a time. Your brain will construct each sentence as you move forward.

“I tell them dance begins when a moment of hurt combines with a moment of boredom. I tell them it’s the body reaching, bringing air to itself. I tell them the refinement of animal lunge and flight, the purest form of tribe and self. It’s life flipping death the bird.”

Notice how you can see each block without the need to address every word. It may be hard at first, and beginners should start with smaller blocks (three or four per line) and build up to bigger blocks (two per line).

One could argue that in the age of imagery overload, from interactive graphics to gifs competing for column space with texts, reading has become a less stimulating activity. The cure: take time to visualize your material with some old fashioned imagination, employing all the senses and breathing new life into a text. Is visualization a lost art and no longer relevant? Not according to Peter Mendelsund, author of the excellent new book, What We See When We Read. “This moment is an opportunity to re-evaluate the special nature of the written word: its propensity to galvanize the imagination; its mysterious instigation of the co-creative act between creator (author) and consumer (reader). No other medium provides less sensory data for the participant while simultaneously encouraging so much fantasy. It is the very fact that reading doesn’t provide us with (optical) imagery that makes it such an effective catalyst for the imagination. It is clear, now more than ever, that reading provides a rich experience, by virtue of what it doesn’t show, that no other medium can match.”

With that in mind, set aside your reading and review the scenes of a story. What do the characters look like? How does the place smell? Did you sense an emotion from the narrator or speaker? Then, consider the intention of the book itself. How does the book want to be read? Often clues are within the design. How is the text laid out, or how often are images used as a resource? Even the cover art (go ahead, judge) can give clues to what an author wishes to convey.

While highlighting is essential for understanding a work, the point is not to cover every second passage on your page, but to find those key ideas that help trigger your brain into remembering larger concepts. Highlighter minimalism is a great practice to maintain (also an awesome name for an art movement).

Similarly, note taking and the act of writing something down helps to trigger muscle memory, especially with denser material. A good pen and notebook make the experience that much more enjoyable (and, hopefully, memorable). Bonus: important ideas and phrases are neatly organized in one place. What should be noted? Here are a few suggestions:

-Unknown Words and Definitions

-Items to Research: People, places or dates an author mentions are essential to understanding a text.

-Summaries of Chapters: After large sections of important material, try to write out the main ideas in your own words.

Reviewing and re-reading helps to keep the material fresh in your mind, especially before you start a new chapter of a book. Flip through past chapters and skim. This will put you in the mindset and mood of the story or article. You may need several weeks to review denser material. Just because you read a book doesn’t mean you will remember it. Reviewing helps implant the information to memory.

Of course, when it comes to simple Wikipedia articles and short pieces online, it’s hard to review or take notes, which is why it’s especially important to skim, block read and visualize… As Mendelsund writes, “When we read we take in whole eyefuls of words. We gulp them like water.” Because everyone needs a refresher – even for something as fundamental as reading.

Are you a highlighter, block reader or visualizer? How do you remember your favorite passages? Let us know in the comments below.

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One Comment

  1. Courtney King
    Posted November 29, 2014 at 10:30 PM | Permalink

    Definitely a visualizer. I get so caught up in the details of the images that I lose myself, and my focus! I can't help myself.

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