Strategic Reading for Clearer Thinking
By: Nicholas Murray
This blog has been reviewed by Jennifer Lee and Elijah Nimijean, edited by Rémi Thériault, and formatted and published by Nicholas Murray.
“The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them.” –– Mark Twain¹
In the summer of 2018, I read many of the great classics in psychology to prepare to study psychology at Dalhousie in the fall. I read pieces like Friedrich Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil and Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents. Within these great books, I found long reference lists of other insightful works the authors sought inspiration from, so I thought if I read the great books of psychology, then I’d be able to write exceptional essays about psychology. I took Twain’s words to heart, hoping it would give me a head start on my studies.
Upon starting at Dalhousie in the fall, I was shocked to realize that I still couldn’t write good essays about psychology. After a few weeks of writer’s block and bad papers, I was consumed with self-doubt. I believed I was a lousy writer and that reading the great books had been a waste of time. It wasn’t until I met with a bookworm friend of mine for coffee that I realized I wasn’t a bad writer; my approach to reading was just incorrect. After meeting with this friend, I knew that Twain’s quote only held true for people who actively and critically engage with books; those who don’t may as well not have read them at all. To become a better writer, I had to become a better reader.
During our chat over coffee, my friend asked me what I thought of Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents. To my surprise, I couldn’t remember anything about the book other than that I’d enjoyed reading it. The best answer I could muster was “It was really interesting.” I realized that I couldn’t write because I didn’t really know what I was trying to write about. It’s easy to think that you suck at writing when you sit in front of a computer, and nothing comes out. But the latency between thought and word is a lot shorter in conversation than it is in typing. If you can’t talk about something, it’s probably because you don’t know what you’re talking about. I certainly didn’t know what I was talking about, so I began thinking about how I could remember what I was reading. I enrolled in an Introduction to Philosophy class to learn how to read critically — I’d always liked philosophy, so at least it would be an interesting elective, even if I didn’t get much out of it.
In Introduction to Philosophy, I read a ton of great texts, from René Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy to Angela Davis’ Women, Race, and Class. Every weekend, we were assigned a new reading. On Mondays, the professor lectured us intensely about the material. On Wednesdays, he opened the class for questions and asked questions of the students at random. On Fridays, he split the class into three rooms to have debates moderated by the teaching assistants. Along the way I developed a reading strategy that cemented the content into my long-term memory forever. Once I knew the texts inside-out, I could write lengthy term papers on them relatively easily. I’ve since adapted the method to reading books and articles in psychology with great success. Last year I taught this method to dozens of second year psychology students in a writing workshop and the feedback was awesome.
At this point, are you dying to know what the reading method in question is? Well, dear reader, I’m going to share it with you below! I hope it will help you as much as it has helped me.
I’ll break down the method into two main stages: (1) the reading stage; and (2) the post-reading stage, which further breaks down into three steps: recollect, reflect, and respond. Allow me to explain.
The Reading Stage
The Merriam-Webster dictionary says that to read is “to receive or take in the sense of (letters, symbols, etc.) especially by sight or touch.” Had you asked me to define ‘reading’ a few years ago, I probably would’ve given you such a straightforward definition. The problem with this definition, however, is that it makes reading seem like a passive and receptive process rather than an active and dynamic one. When reading technical books, skimming your eyes across the pages will not make the meanings of the sentences jump into your mind and stay there forever. You have to converse with the author as you read along — not aloud, of course, but silently. Allow me to elaborate on this idea through two specific tips.
You have to converse with the author as you read along — not aloud, of course, but silently.
Tip #1: Always have a pencil at hand
This is the first piece of advice my philosophy professor gave my class. A pencil allows you to underline key passages and write notes in the margins. If you have any questions while you’re reading, write them down; if you find an answer to the question(s) later, go back and write in the answer. If you liked a certain quote, underline it and dog ear the page. Think of a pencil like a camera; just like you can use a camera to capture a beautiful scene, you can use a pencil to underline the most striking passages in the book at hand.
When you first start underlining, you’ll underline far too much. This is evident in a picture below from my copy of Desmond Morton’s A Short History of Canada.
Underlining everything is kind of like forgetting to turn off your camera after pressing record. Just know that in the beginning, it’s okay to underline too much — it takes time to learn to orient yourself towards the passages that pique your interest. Below you can also see a picture from my copy of Plato’s Symposium. I underlined a lot less because I got better at seeking the good bits.
Tip #2: Read twice
If you’re reading books on a topic you’re familiar with, you’ll be better at finding the information that interests you with your pencil. If you’re reading about something you’ve never approached before, you’ll need to read the text twice. For the first time through, read without the pencil to get a vague understanding of the book. Once you have a vague understanding, you should have a better idea of what in the book is relevant or interesting. For the second reading, pick that pencil back up and begin underlining. Reading twice takes longer, but it’s worth the time to go back and correct any misunderstandings you may have from the first reading.
That’s all I’ve got for the reading stage. Now, on to the post-reading stage.
The Post-Reading Stage: RRR (Recollect, Reflect, and Respond)
Once you’re done reading a book, it’s important that you engage critically with the material before you forget it so that you can consolidate it into your long-term memory for later use. I’ve come up with three steps for the post-reading stage, each one based on how my philosophy professor organized classes differently on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.
Step 1: Recollection
Recollection is simply the act of recalling what you read and summarizing it. This is basically what my philosophy professor did on Mondays; he’d lecture us about the material to help us summarize it.
You don’t have to wait until the end of a book or article to recollect. I like to write summaries at the end of each chapter of a book, or in a virtual notebook like Evernote.
‘Recollect’ is a synonym for ‘retrieve’ (I just use ‘recollect’ because it sounds better in a title). By retrieving newly acquired information, you’re consolidating it into your long-term memory where it can be nicely stored for later use, whether it be on an exam or an essay.²
Step 2: Reflection
After summarizing what I read, I like to paraphrase the arguments in simple terms. Paraphrasing in simple terms makes it easier for me to understand what the text is about.
Once I’ve paraphrased the arguments, I write down anything that comes to mind that is related to the topic. Last year, I re-read the English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes’ book Leviathan. I’d heard the book mentioned in the news a few times by political commentators discussing the Black Lives Matter protests that erupted after the murder of George Floyd by (now sentenced) Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. So, I wrote that down. I polished up my reflection a bit then posted it on my personal blog, which I then shared on Twitter. To my surprise, a beacon school in Ireland reached out to use the blog post in a political science course on politics and society. All I’d done was recollect and reflect on the book, and already I’d gotten much better results from my reading than I’d ever gotten before!
Step 3: Responding
Writing a university-level essay requires original thought developed in response to an assigned text. The Friday debates in my Introduction to Philosophy class were a great opportunity to critically respond to the readings, so now I try to write brief responses to everything I read as if I’m debating the text with myself. Practicing how you will respond to what you read will prepare you to write stronger essays. Unfortunately, I, like many others, used to just passively skim through a text and then jump to responding without recollecting and reflecting — that’s a recipe for writer’s block.
The best advice I can give you for responding is this: If you’re convinced by the author’s argument, write a counterargument. If you’re not convinced, write an argument in support of the author. Either way, you’re going to find holes in your own thinking. Filling in those holes will make your own arguments stronger, which in turn will help you write more convincing essays.
(Bonus): Join a book club
Not everyone has a philosophy class with weekly debates and discussions about a good book. Thankfully, you don’t need one — you can join a book club and discuss the book with friends instead. I’ve been a part of two at Dalhousie: in 2019, I joined the Faculty of Science book club, and one of the first books we read was Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens. Our discussion on “Part One: The Cognitive Revolution” began with the possibility that neanderthals had primitive languages, and ended with club members proposing Jungian archetypes as a kind of grammar for moral language! In 2020, I co-founded an online psychoanalysis book club with the Dalhousie Association of Psychology students. When we discussed Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents, I knew what to say because I had re-read the book, but I was also corrected by other members on some important details that I still misunderstood.
Book clubs are a great way to meet friends and learn new things. Of course, it can be difficult to form a book club during a global pandemic, so I’ve put this tip in as a bonus option.
Learning to read critically has been the most useful skill I’ve ever developed. It has helped me think and communicate clearer, both in speaking and in writing. I’ve taught this method to dozens of self-doubting students who have been relieved to discover the writer within by learning to read strategically.
I hope my advice will be useful to you, and if you have any questions, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also engage further with this post by liking, sharing, and commenting below!
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Until next time,
- Goodreads. (n.d.). Quotes: Mark Twain. https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/919-the-man-who-does-not-read-has-no-advantage-over
- Karpicke, J.D., & Roediger, H.L. (2008). The Critical Importance of Retrieval for Learning. Science, 319(5865), 966–968. 10.1126/science.1152408