As a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature, I’ve probably had to do more reading than the average student. When there’s so much to read and so little time, certain reading and studying habits make my life easier and help me retain important details about each text I read. Here are a few of them:
- Read actively! That means you have to keep your brain awake as you read. The best way to do this is to ask yourself certain questions as you go (pausing after every a page or two to check your understanding of the text): What is going on? What is probably going to happen next? Who is speaking, and what do I know about the speaker? How do I know it? What motivates the characters, narrator, and author (especially if it is non-fiction text)?
- Take notes. Jot down notes in the margin (only if you own the book) or in a notebook while you read to keep track of the plot, the characters, and any other elements you find interesting or confusing. Also, record your feelings and reactions to these elements.
- Pay attention to problem spots. These are points at which you don’t understand the narrative, something surprising happened, or the language confuses you. These are often good sections to analyze in papers, so note down what specifically confuses you (and page numbers).
- Review your notes periodically and transfer them to Word, Google Docs, Evernote, or OneNote. Create an ongoing outline for each text, organizing your notes as you enter them. Putting these on your computer makes them searchable, and that’s going to be key for when you need to study, write a response paper, or clear up some later confusion in the text.
- In your notes document, list other texts—even music or art—that somehow remind you of this particular text. Consider how they are similar and how they are different.
- In your notes document, write a description of the text’s structure. Does it weave between interconnected stories? Does it flow chronologically, or are there multiple flashbacks or flash-forwards?
- Discuss what you’re reading with classmates and friends, especially those problem spots! Try reading aloud to someone (even to yourself), too, as this can really help clarify what’s going on in a story.
- When you really run into trouble understanding part of a text, don’t be afraid to ask your teacher for help.
At first, this may seem like a lot to do just for one text. If you’re not a career literature student, you may not initially realize how much time, effort, energy, and emotion goes into actually reading a text well. However, if you practice reading in this way, it will become second nature over time and you’ll become a lot more adept at responding to questions and writing papers on your texts.