How I Read: A Helpful Guide

How I Read: A Helpful Guide

I was never taught in school how to 'read' properly. English was never my strong point. They would tell us to write notes in the margins of Shakespeare and look up book summaries on SparkNotes. Most of the time, I found myself drifting off five minutes after any teacher started talking about any piece of literature. It was immensely challenging to understand the deeper meaning behind a text. Reading was hard.

Almost ten years after finishing high school and you would never guess that I used to despise English. I always carry a book in my bag with a coffee in hand. I would rather spend time browsing books than going out. I much prefer reading a book first before watching the adapted screen version. This is me. And I love it.

"The reading of all good books is like a conversation with the finest minds of past centuries." – Rene Descartes Photo by Arif Riyanto

Over the years, there have been so many ways that I have tried to read productively. From tabbing pages to scribbling in the margins to keeping book summaries on Notion, each method has had its own pros and cons. Having also done postgraduate studies recently, the amount of research that I come across can be overwhelming. I have seen other academics keep excel spreadsheets or print and file papers, all in an attempt to organise information in a way that makes sense to them. However, I kept feeling as if I was consuming a lot of the knowledge, but quickly forgetting it as I moved on. Would any strategy or system ever work for me?

I was fortunate enough to have someone share their process for reading a while back. When I first heard their approach to processing, distilling and absorbing the information, it made logical sense. Even some of the components were things that I were already doing. However, the critical part that I was not doing was the absence of having guiding questions that direct my reading. They act like bumpers on a bowling alley, making sure you do not fall into the gutter and end up striking none of the pins. So, the past few months has been a chance to implement and tweak this process in a way that is effective for me. Understanding what works for your own interests and research is key to making reading an enjoyable process.

The process I outline below works most effectively as part of my morning routine when I am in my ‘deep work’ phase (thanks Cal Newport). Disclaimer, I also do read for leisure, but this is usually in the late afternoons or before I sleep when my focus is not as sharp. I give an example along with each step. Hopefully, this gives you a concrete idea of what the process looks like.

"Show me a family of readers, and I will show you the people who move the world." – Napoleon Bonaparte Photo by Paul Hanaoka

1.     Choosing a theme for the year

At the start of each year, decide on a particular topic that you would like to know more about. This will act as an overarching focus and keep you grounded to a specific emphasis. Rather than reading aimlessly or scattering yourself amongst many subjects, you will be able to gain a deep understanding about one matter. As each year passes, you can extend yourself in the same direction, or widen your expertise into a different field.

Example: I have come to acknowledge that being an excellent philosopher also means being a great historian. We must have insight into what a particular time in history was like in order to better understand what a philosopher was going through and how they were influenced to question life. This means looking at social and cultural norms, political and economic states, the landscape of education, their family unit, and other historical figures they were in contact with. Thus, my theme for the year is to focus on historical contexts of philosophers.

2.     Research key texts about your theme

Once you have decided on your theme, it is important to research and gather recommendations about quality texts that will help you know more about your focus. Make a list of 3-4 texts and procure them.

Example: Since my recent research interests have extended to Daoism and Michel Foucault’s late work on ethics, I am looking to know more about the history of The Warring States in China (475-221BCE) and 20th Century France respectively. There are many biographies on Michel Foucault out there, with some being better than others. Getting trusted recommendations is important, so that I do not waste my time reading texts that are not high quality. Here is my list. These texts are dense, hence why I only have three picks.

  • Chinese Thought: From Confucius to Cook Ding by Roel Sterckx
  • Lives of Michel Foucault by David Macey
  • At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails by Sarah Bakewell

3.     Create guiding questions to structure your reading

When I approach these texts, my aim is not to remember every historical fact or detail about the philosopher’s life. Rather, I need to come up with my own questions about what I want to get out of this book and how can it relate to what I already know. As I read, I take notes in the margins or make short summaries. After reading each chapter or natural section, I will answer my guiding questions. This brings cohesiveness, clarity and purpose to the process.

Example: When reading Lives of Michel Foucault by David Macey, I wanted to better comprehend exactly what made Foucault such a brilliant philosopher. There are quite a few guiding questions as this comprehensive biography is 613 pages long. These helped me better dissect his lifelong journey of self-transformation.

  • How would you describe Foucault?
  • What values did he embody?
  • What was his life purpose?
  • How was he a change maker?
  • What can we learn from his ideas apropos education?

As I read this text, I was able to unearth Foucault’s complex struggles with depression, his sexuality in more conservative times and numerous fallouts with other continental philosophers. Despite this, he consistently strove for intellectual excellence in an intensely competitive academic landscape (due to institutions such as the École normale supérieure and Collège de France) at a time where other remarkable figures such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Jacques Derrida and Louis Althusser existed. Foucault reflected constantly about his experiences and such brilliance arose from this unique mix of environmental and personal factors. From this, I come to appreciate the fluidity and ever-changing nature of knowledge, and consider how I can apply this to modern day education. Systems of thinking that we currently have will inevitably shift and individuals have the power to transform this if it does not serve society in ethical and moral ways. Having the guiding questions make the reading experience purposeful to me and enhance my worldview, as well as my ability to create meaningful change.

In a world of social media and fast-paced consumption, reading mindfully and with intention has been utterly satisfying. Find what works for you by tweaking the steps above. Perhaps you need to extend your list of texts as you have a broader theme, or only want to have one guiding question. Tailoring the process is key to being successful in your own way. Happy reading!

If you would like to show your support, feel free to buy me a coffee! ☕