There is no denying it. In the age of the attention economy, bright stimulating screens, and exhausting schedules it is very hard to sit down and read with focus. Whether we are talking about a novel for English class, a source for AP U.S. History, or that dense SAT Reading passage from the Federalist Papers, it is hard to truly dig in and read like a scholar. I say that from first-hand experience, as someone who loves to read. However, these are a few things we can do to make this process easier. (In fact, humans have been doing most of these things for thousands of years).
Break it down!
Just like you would do with essays or math problems, the first step should be to get a sense of what you need to accomplish, how much you need to accomplish, and how much you can accomplish in ten minutes, an hour, a day, a month, etc. Breaking a task down into digestible parts is how the task goes from an anxiety-causing monster to a manageable part of your workflow. Maybe you can’t read twenty-five pages of a novel in one sitting, but how about five, or even three? Figure out whatever you are comfortable doing in terms of minutes or pages, and stick to that.
Put it in the comments!
In the Middle Ages, there was an accomplished philosopher by the name of Averroes, and his nickname among other scholars was ‘‘The Commentator.’’ Averroes’ main achievement was not necessarily writing super original books of his own (although he did that too). He was most famous for the comments he wrote on Aristotle and other Greek philosophers that made those works accessible to people in his own time, since they had trouble understanding their ideas. Become a ‘‘commentator,’’ someone who comments on what they read! These can be summaries, reactions, explanations, or even comparisons with other things you have read. They don’t have to be complete sentences either. The point is that you consume the ideas of someone else, react to them, and eventually use what you have read to build your own ideas.
It’s okay to mess up your books!
Okay, take this one with a grain of salt, especially if you are borrowing a textbook from school and have to pay if it gets damaged. The point is that you don’t need to treat the text in front of you like a pristine object that cannot be disturbed. Let’s say we’re talking about an SAT Reading passage. Get in there and mark it up - draw lines or other shapes to indicate different sections. Introduce your own topic headings for paragraphs that deal with different subjects. Draw diagrams that reflect the plot of a story or the family tree of the characters. Engage physically with your readings.
Read like a hunter
Another philosopher, Michel de Certeau, compared the act of reading with poaching (illegal hunting). You are sort of traveling through someone else’s territory (the author), looking for stuff that you want or need. This is how you should approach the articles, books, and passages that you are assigned, whether for class, a test, or just because you want to expand your intellectual horizons and learn more. Your job is not to passively move through line after line and say you are done. Hunt and gather great quotes, new insights, necessary information, or anything else that you want to take with you on your journey.
Good luck, and remember, these are skills that you can take with you for life.