books

How To Read Your Set Texts, Even When You Don’t Want To

Read Set Texts, Even When You Don't Want To

This has probably happened to you. It’s certainly happened to me.

You love your course. But there’s a book you’re meant to read.

Most books are fine. But this one…Oh, this one is a stinker.

You try, you fail, you try again, you fail again, you fear the book, you eventually stop trying.

Because not all books are fun to read.

And the more you put off reading the text, the less time you have to consume it.

Then you’ve only got a day left to read it.

Lifehacker has an article to help you read a book in a single day. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to wait until the day before a seminar to read the book you’re meant to be working on. Especially if you’re not engaging with the way it’s written.

So you’re worried about it, or bored by it. And as soon as you feel like that, you break out in a rash of procrastination. It happens to all of us!

What you need are new tactics. Methods that you don’t normally use when reading. But now it’s time to bring out the big guns. If you don’t, you’ll just panic and end up not reading the book at all.

That’s no good for your class and it’s definitely no good for you.

No matter how long you’ve got left, it’s time to tackle the reading.

Here’s what to do:

  • Work out how much time you’ve got left and in your schedule;
  • Break the text down into sections, so you don’t have to read in one go. This could be divided into something like equal numbers of pages per day, or chapters per session;
  • Put those chunks into your schedule, spaced out between now and when you need to have finished.

You can vary your methods, depending on how long you’ve got to do the reading. Hopefully you’ve still got several days, if not weeks, to do the reading. Even if you don’t have that luxury, there’s some advice below.

When you have several days/weeks to do the reading…

The earlier you start, the more time you have to space out the reading. You can casually read a small amount each day without much hassle.

Imagine you have two 50-page documents to read for a seminar in a week. That’s 7 days and 100 pages.

Maybe you don’t want to read on each of those seven days. We can make it five days instead. 100 pages spread equally over five days is…drum roll…20 pages a day. Much better than 100 pages in a single session.

A focus on fewer pages will also keep you in the mood to make notes and comments as you go through the writing. You may also get so involved that you’ll want to carry on reading.

Better than anything, though, is that you’ll find the challenge of 100 pages less scary when you space it out in smaller chunks.

You may be tempted to do the reading in a single session, but that’s where most people fall. Five pages in, you realise how huge the task in front of you really is. Without a backup plan, you add further stress to the mix. One hundred pages only works in a single session if you’re truly engaged in the reading.

I understand why it’s so tempting to get the reading done in one go. Your brain convinces you that one session of work is better than five sessions.

But as soon as you set yourself smaller doses, the task feels easier. You’ll be more open to spacing the work out as opposed to slogging through an exhausting marathon. Little and often trumps the overwhelm every time.

When you only have a day or two to do the reading…

You’ll never do yourself justice, but there are ways of cushioning the blow. Once in a while, you can probably get away with it. All the time, however…That’s a different story.

When time has got the better of you, here’s the drill:

  • First off, read the Lifehacker article. It covers most of what you need.
    In short, it’s about location, the right kind of noise (or silence), intervals with short breaks in between, making notes, the right food and drink, and using physical books where possible.
  • Know what you’re reading for. Is this for general seminar discussion, a major set text for a module, due to be part of a future exam or piece of coursework, for an overview or to discuss a specific point in the text? The reasons make a difference.
  • If the text is for discussion now, but is most important for an exam or an essay further down the line, you’ve already bought yourself more time. You won’t be able to work so well in a seminar session, but at least you can properly schedule reading time before it’s time to complete the marked coursework.
    Get a good overview (consult a cheat-sheet summary or synopsis first if you must…just don’t rely on it ongoing!), find answers/discussions for any set questions you’ve already been given, and concentrate on the major points expected.
  • If the text forms part of a module that’s about to start, you may have a little more time than you think.
    Sure, the first lecture is up tomorrow, but that doesn’t mean you’ve only got one day to get through the entire text. Instead, get that overview, at least start reading the text, and schedule more realistic reading sessions as discussed in the section above when you have several days to get the reading done.

The more time you have, the more you can space out the reading. It’s less daunting. You just need to develop the habit of committing to a bit every day. Yes, it feels strange at first, but you get used to it. Spacing out the work is preferable to doing all the reading in one go.

Finally, don’t make things too complicated. It’s just reading. Some stuff is a slog to get through. I know, I’ve been there. Despite all the Shakespeare I did for GCSEs and A-levels, I still found the process of reading it tough at university.

What type of reading bothers you the most?

Books, emotions, and paying attention

Stories about the future have long portrayed the things we know today in emotional terms. Books get used a lot of the time. Imagine a world with hardly any physical books. When a movie presents you with a world in which books are off-limits or scarce, you’re prompted to stop and think about what you take for granted.

Could you do without books?

So how important are books? Over 5 years’ ago, I wrote a piece that challenged the idea that ebooks will become a dominant force. We have seen an explosion in reading via tablets and eReaders, but books are still hanging around.

And not in a ‘bad smell’ way. Books are not unpopular, despite sales of ebooks catching up. In fact, ebook sales are slowing down. Is that because books are still a draw, or are all lengthy texts suffering?

After all, the sheer amount of information being pumped out on a daily basis is phenomenal. Reading a book from cover to cover can be a challenge for some. That challenge gets even harder as we’re primed for more snippets of information more of the time. More more more.

The emotional pull of lost books is no longer quite as disorientating. In part, because it’s a cliché. But not only that. We’re also used to the idea of reading in other ways. Desktops, tablets, eReaders, phones, you name it. Screens are everywhere. Words are everywhere.

The book may look impressive on a shelf, but we own other things. Collections of stuff vary so much that we’re hardly limited to books.

The luxury tag has waned. So has the desire to keep every book you have ever read. Yes, there will always be some people who are drawn to owning a massive library of books. But is that feeling becoming more rare as the years go by?

Could you live without books?

How to study a book before you have it

The wait for a crucial book to become available in the library is frustrating.  Even worse when the library doesn’t have the book at all.

Aside from inter-library loans, buying the book yourself, and other costly or time-heavy options, what other options do you have in the meantime?

photo by Newton Free Library

photo by Newton Free Library

To Do: Dissertation has some great tips on what to do while you wait for that book to become available.

But it got me thinking about others ways to the book that may work in your favour.  Here are a few ideas that might land you more access to a book than you think you have:

  • Check publisher’s website for excerpts and sample chapters – Some publishers are great at making PDF samples available to download.  You may get instant access to the Introduction, first chapter, possibly more.  Even a simple table of contents or index is a helpful head start on your research.
  • Check library online databases for books in electronic format – Don’t just check the library shelves.  An increasing number of books are now available online.  Services such as Cambridge Books Online provide a huge range of books at your fingertips.  Find out if your library has access.  If not, ask if they can get a trial.
  • Use Google Books – It’s not just Google Scholar that can help your research.  With Google Books, you can look through the pages of many books as a preview.  And the previews can be extensive.  Combine that with the ability to search for specific terms within each book and you may not even need to track down the physical copy of the book at all!
  • Use Amazon “Look Inside” – An alternative to Google Books, Amazon have their own preview function for a large number of books.  Again, you can search within the book and get busy with the research straight away.  However, it looks like Amazon may start charging for this feature soon.
  • Play Google and Amazon off with each other – Online previews are limited and don’t display all pages.  Rightly so.  You’re not meant to read entire books with the services.  However, when researching, you may find a specific page is excluded.  If both Google and Amazon have a preview available, that missing page on one resource may be there to view on the other.
  • YouTube talks – Why wait to read what the author wants to say when they may have said a lot of it in a talk or lecture?  By searching for the author (and maybe even book title) in YouTube, you may stumble upon directly relevant content for your research.  It’s another worthwhile reference to add to your bibliography too!
  • Read reviews – All sorts of texts get reviewed, not just bestsellers.  Reviews can give a breakdown of a book’s main ideas, flaws and coverage.  A Google search for book title and author and the word ‘review‘ should bring up newspaper reviews.  You can also check Times Higher Education.  It’s worth checking Google Scholar or journal databases for the title and author too, which should point you toward scholarly reviews and even related papers by the same authors.
  • Search for author details – Personal websites, university web pages, Google Scholar, JSTOR, etc…  All these can give further detail on the individual and their background, as well as other literature they have produced.  You may not have the book, but you may uncover key opinions and similar texts to chew on.

Don’t let the wait for a book stop you from getting on with your reading and research.  In the unlikely event that you find absolutely nothing after these searches, you can still go back to those helpful tips from To Do: Dissertation.