Reading individual words is easy for the average university student; after all, it is one of the very first things that we are taught as school children. So why, then, is reading academic texts often so difficult? It can drive a student crazy, having done the assigned reading only to arrive in class and find out that several metaphors and hidden meanings went right over your head during the first read-through.
Before you go bananas trying to figure out what your professor means when they talk about the ‘obvious’ phallic metaphors in Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, here are some easy tips to improve your close reading.
- Read beyond your comfort level. I used to have issues with English literature texts written during the Renaissance because of the unusual length of sentences and all of the oddly spelled words. It became so bad that I almost threw away my Complete Works of William Shakespeare in despair. However, a few summers ago I read almost nothing but older English texts and poetry, from the aforementioned Burton to C.M. Doughty’s Travels in Arabia Deserta. Needless to say, expanding one’s intellectual horizons also expands one’s comprehension.
- Read commentaries. This should go without saying: other people’s thoughts help us solidify and mold our own. In the Middle Ages, commentaries were all the rage. Saint Thomas Aquinas’ commentaries on the works of Aristotle aided those struggling in their quest for truth; Ibn Sina couldn’t understand Aristotle’s Metaphysics without reading Al Farabi’s commentary. In our own day, Auerbach’s Mimesis or The Madwoman in the Attic of Gilbert and Gubar help us understand obscure references in texts which may otherwise elude us.
- Read between the lines. Plain writing, so to speak, has never been fashionable. This means that we cannot take texts at face value; we must dig deeper and pay attention to what the author doesn’t say just as much as what the author does say. Consider how some authors faced persecution from religious or political authorities for their writings… or maybe they just enjoy confusing students. Whatever the reason for an author’s obscurity, it is an intellectually stimulating exercise to search for a text’s deeper meaning
- Read history. The hated subject of many an English and Philosophy student. It should be a truism that the history in which a work is situated in or written during is just as important as the content of the work itself. It would be a hard task to understand Shakespeare’s plays set in Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome without remembering that Shakespeare knew his Plutarch and Homer, or that Proust’s France was the one which remembered fondly to read their Voltaire, Rousseau, Kant, and Schopenhauer. I am not stating you need to read all six volumes of Gibbon or nine volumes of Henry Adams to know fully grasp your Ben-Hur or James Fenimore Cooper; a passing knowledge of history is, however, of inestimable value.
- Read! Read! Read! If the book, room temperature, noise level, weather, and beverage is just right, I can sit back and read 200 pages in a single go. This is what we should all aim to be doing – and not with only one genre. English students should read a lot more history, science, and philosophy books – and the same goes for all of the other disciplines.
Robert Finn is a Lorenzo Review columnist. For more of his advice on improving your reading and essay writing skills, click here.