On Reading

Specializing in the humanities is both a blessing and a curse, and never is that more apparent than in the case of how much reading I do. Sometimes, I feel like all I ever do in my life is read, and that is fine, good really, but can be quite exhausting. Normally I read fast, not because I want to speed-read everything, but because I almost can’t help how fast my eyes slip and slide across a page when I read in English. I suppose that is why, at least sometimes, I prefer to read things in Spanish. As far as mastering a second language goes, I think that I have done well in my study of Spanish. I’m not always entirely certain about my spoken Spanish — I struggle in speaking with confidence sometimes, particularly as it pertains to the subjunctive — but irrespective of my spoken Spanish getting better over time, my confidence in written Spanish has always been much higher.

When I read in Spanish I read at about a quarter to a half of my usual speed, since I have to slow my mind down enough to really focus on comprehension of the text. This is something I rarely do in English, since my native language provides me with all sorts of shortcuts when reading something that has themes I am used to. I suppose that I should clarify that when I am speaking of reading quickly in English, I am talking about when I am reading a narrative. Critical reading that I do for class and professional work I tend to read slower — about the same pace as my Spanish, actually — since I know that comprehension is most important when trying to internalize and engage with new concepts. I fully believe that my critical reading comprehension improved when I started reading in Spanish, primarily due to the fact that it has taught me how to slow my mind down enough to read a text with more depth.

That is not to say that I don’t read fast when it comes to critical reading in English. Often times if I am working on a research topic and I need to know whether or not a particular source is relevant, I will skim over the text and only later, when I have verified that the article or book chapter is relevant to my research interests, will I read over the text again with more detail. When doing research, I always make sure that rather than simply scanning for relevant facts and material, I actually give each source a proper read-through. Scanning works well sometimes, but if one does not pay attention to the overall argument of an article or chapter, one might end up citing something that is the exact opposite of what a theorist is arguing toward — and trust me, I know from experience how incredibly embarrassing that is.

When it comes to critical reading, I always read something twice, because my goal is to grasp the full idea of the text that I am consuming. Similarly, when it comes to a good narrative book, I also like to re-read a text. I know that many people, even friends of mine, disagree on this point. I have heard dozens of arguments against re-reading, notably that with so many books in the world and so little time to read them, re-reading does not leave room for consuming new media. This argument is the one I find most compelling, and yet I also disagree with it. When I review books for this blog, I tend to have only read the book I’m reviewing once, primarily because with my busy schedule I simply don’t have the time to read them again, cover to cover. That said, if I had my way I would re-read all of them before writing anything, because I am of the belief that to get the true measure of a book, it needs to be read twice. For the most part, what I review here are hot takes, supplemented by my reading what I consider to be key scenes in the book that I have marked (with sticky notes) as something relevant to the review that I know I will write later.

There is an added difficulty in a type of critical reading hitherto unmentioned — that is, primary source readings, particularly those from the ancient world. Now, when I say primary source reading, what I really mean is translations of the primary source; after all, I am no expert in reading cuneiform tablets, nor do I have access to any. These translations are often annotated, and while I could ostensibly just read the translations and ignore the footnotes/endnotes, if I desire to fully engage with the text that may very well be incredibly foolish. Any Greek or Latin that I know is pitiful when compared to those who have made it their life to pursue classical studies. The fact of the matter, though, is that taking the time to read the footnotes and endnotes screws with my inherent speed reading, and so I struggle, particularly in the case where an older text is unaccompanied by footnotes, either because the translator didn’t include any, or because the text was originally written in English and the particular edition that I am reading comes with no annotations.

To conclude, sometimes reading can be boring, or difficult, or what have you, but over time I’ve cultivated within myself a mentality that if I stick to my methods and what I feel to be true, reading is always worthwhile.

Happy reading!



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