Somewhere in the annals of my brain there exists a 1980s movie archive. And in that archive there is a relatively well-kept record of a movie about a boy who reads a magical library book. This is not to be confused with my 1990s movie archive record about a boy who befriends three library books. In the 80s movie, Bastian reads a story that he eventually realizes he must fully participate in. In other words, unless he admits the power he holds as a reader of the NeverEnding Story, the world within that story will be destroyed. Like a good Hollywood storyline, it takes almost the whole movie for Bastian to figure it out. Once he fully participates in the story, he is able to transform from the passive reader to the active participant. He then helps to rebuild the world of the story just as he imagined it.
As a writer, I sometimes (often) struggle to participate in the reading that I know I will have to write about later. Like Bastian, I find myself moving through the novel/article/essay/memoir a bit passively. Maybe I am expecting the text to tell me what to think.
As we advance through our higher education, the onus becomes more and more on the student to interact with, and react to, a text in more complex ways. During my undergraduate studies, I was forced (against my best efforts) to find ways to participate in my reading more actively in order to facilitate my writing. I’ll start by telling you about the (several) bad reading habits I developed, and what that meant for my writing:
- Reading something only once
- Waiting until I was done reading before writing anything down
- NOT making notes in the text (marginalia, highlighting key quotes/passages, dog-earing, sticky notes, etc.)
- Being too comfortable while reading
- Reading without breaks
All of these reading habits (or lack thereof) often amounted to writing that was impressionistic. Don’t get me wrong. I wrote a great impression, but it is difficult (and also oxymoronic) to create impressions that have depth, precision, and specificity. I also found that I struggled getting through longer texts without falling asleep or losing focus (interest). This made it difficult to retain what I had read and to get the reading done in time to write a thoughtful response. In order to improve my writing, I knew I needed to participate in my reading in more productive ways.
Essentially, I started by self-diagnosing. Some of it was easy. For instance, I never really developed any serious note-taking skills in undergraduate studies, so it was easy to take note (pun!) of how that might help me. I didn’t like the idea of interrupting my engagement with a new text by making a note every few sentences, so I started reading things at least twice. I’d give it that initial read-through so that I could just wrap my head around it, and then I’d go through again with my fine-tooth comb. I would type up any interesting or difficult passages in a Word document and write mini-responses or just some basic instructions to myself about how a specific passage or idea might help me construct a response. The second read-through helped me respond more immediately, and also allowed the text to sink in a little deeper.
Once I was comfortable typing notes, I eventually expanded my strategy and started marking up the text itself.
[The disclaimer here is if you don’t own the text or it’s not your photocopy, marking it up is essentially destruction of property.]
Of course, marking up a text can include digital markup. I’ve taken advantage of Adobe’s highlight/comment tools if I have a PDF version, and there are dozens and dozens of apps that will allow you to annotate digital documents. Of course, if you’re stuck with a print version you don’t own, you can always go for sticky notes. I’ve even gone as far as color coding my sticky notes based on specific characters in a novel. So by engaging with the text more actively, I was able to locate and discuss specific areas of the text. Taking good notes can also help to jumpstart that first paragraph because you already have some material to work with.
The last two bad habits may just be my own personal issues, but just in case you too suffer from nodding off and zoning out while reading complex/longer texts…
When I suddenly couldn’t get through a 10-page article without falling asleep, I figured it was time to change things. I also had some lengthy novels (Dickens…) to get through in the span of a week. It’s hard to settle in for a good long read without making yourself overly comfortable. Maybe you start by sitting up with your feet on the ground, but then you lean back and find something to prop your feet on. The next thing you know, the couch pillows have all huddled around you and a blanket has crept up your lap all the way to your chin. The couch monster has consumed you. You eventually come to with a book dangling from your hand, and you may or may not have lost your page. But you’ve certainly lost your motivation.
In other cases you may just find your mind wandering at every little turn of events. You have to reread the same paragraph for the tenth time, and you can’t really remember what happened the chapter before. In both cases, you need to get in motion and get a little less comfortable.
If I find myself getting cozy the moment I sit down, I make sure to escort the pillows and blankets from the premises. Sometimes I’ll situate myself at the kitchen table, or somewhere where it’s more difficult to lounge. If I find that my mind is wandering or I am just robotically reading the words on the page, I’ll take a walk or do light exercise to give my eyes and mind a little rest. There’s nothing productive or particularly useful about plowing through a text just so you can say you read it. It’s not likely to help you in a class discussion, and passive reading will likely give rise to poor writing.
I don’t really remember the sequel to “The NeverEnding Story” because, let’s be honest, it was probably terrible. But the point of using this old movie reference was to let you know that as a writer, it is an ongoing battle to bring your active reading skills to the text each and every time. We are not always able to read longer texts twice, and sometimes we over-notate texts on a first read. As a general rule, giving yourself the best opportunity to read well and read actively can not only improve the precision and depth of your content but facilitate the process of getting started.
If you do it right, reading will feel kind of like flying through the city streets on your luck dragon, chasing down bullies.