How You Are Reading All Wrong

Apparently I have been reading all wrong my entire life.

How You Are Reading All Wrong and What To Do About It

The past three weeks have been a whirlwind of learning for me. A life-changing whirlwind. I went from a someone who barely had enough attention span to read a regency romance in the bathtub to this reading list:

I KNOW! Crazy, right? But I am reading and enjoying all of these –feeling like I am getting tons of meaning out of them. Let me tell you how.

Sarah Mackenzie held a webinar with Andrew Kern a couple of weeks ago about commonplace books and how to deep read a book. It was fascinating, except I didn’t have a commonplace and as much as I wanted to, I didn’t feel like I could read deeply anymore.

My brain always seemed to be too tired. I was distracted. Even for my beloved book club there just didn’t seem to be enough time to get through a book in a month and be prepared to discuss it.

I read voraciously in my youth. I was an English Lit major for goodness sake — magna cum laude and all that. I should be able to do this commonplace thing. I should be able to read and to understand.

So I did what any modern day girl would do — I conducted a little virtual Q & A with my girlfriends, the Scholé Sisters. (Actually this wasn’t all my idea. The girls wanted to do the hangout and share their commonplace books. I started whining that I had no commonplace book and therefore couldn’t attend this little club meeting, when we got the brilliant idea for ME to ask all the questions that YOU would want to ask if you could be there.) And boy did I learn.

Which was all good information, but led me to an even deeper journey of reading and how to be a better reader.  I started asking even more questions and doing a bit of research. Here are some things that I learned that are helping me immensely with reading now:

Read s-l-o-w-l-y.

Like a chapter a month. Or even slower. Brandy Vencel talks here about slow reading and why it is important for us and for our kids. I love the lack of pressure to finish a more difficult book and the opportunity to slow down, live with the ideas, and read and re-read them.

Susan Wise Bauer says in Stop Cleaning the Kitchen and Read a Book:

But speed is not a moral imperative. You can be informed quickly, and you can collect facts quickly, but to be enlightened is to understand an idea (like justice or charity or freedom) and use it to make sense of the facts that you’ve gathered. That is a slow process. No matter how quickly you read, enlightenment takes time, and you have to make peace with this idea.

I know that my main crime against reading in the past was trying to go too quickly.

How You Are Reading All Wrong - Deep Reading

Read purposefully.

So my first question when I heard of this slow reading was, “What does this actually LOOK like?” I knew that it didn’t mean to read one chapter as quickly as I used to, throw the book down, and then pick it up again a month later. That would certainly do me no good.

Jennifer Dow from Expanding Wisdom gave me a few suggestions, and from those I formulated a current plan for reading.

  1. Using Andrew Kern’s methods outlined in A Beginner’s Guide to the Commonplace I scan the chapter a couple of times looking for specific information on names and metadata (organizational words).
  2. Next I read the pages slowly with a couple of different highlighters in hand. During this close reading I highlight things I want to write in my commonplace book (blue) and main action in yellow (for fiction — for non-fiction I use yellow for supporting arguments).
  3. Finally I transfer blue comments to my commonplace book. I also use my commonplace for making charts to organize the arguments or information within a chapter. That really helps my brain to grasp what the book is saying. Note: I was reluctant to use the highlighting method to begin with. “I don’t have time for all that,” I whined. It helps SO much. And if the sight of highlighting bothers you, then try this method using just pencil.
  4. Next I write a couple of book club questions for the section. This also helps me understand the main points of the chapter. Even if you aren’t reading the book with a book club, I still encourage you to think of a question or two.
  5. Finally I sleep on it. Kern says the most important reading happens when you are sleeping. By spending a few days thinking about the small section I have read, pondering on it, and even rereading small parts I grow to understand it better.

How You Are Reading All Wrong Commonplace

Read more than one book at a time.

Brandy told me she typically has at least three books going at once: something she is pre-reading to discuss with her Ambleside Online student, a harder book on a worthy topic, and then a easier to read but still worthy book. When she finishes one book she replaces it with a book of a similar kind.

I am really excited about reading at the moment, so probably have too many going at this time, but what I have in my booklist up there is a wide range of difficulty from very light and easy (Up, Back, and Away) to something I am rereading (Abolition of Man and The Inferno – but in honesty I read the second one quickly for college a good number of years ago) to a pretty difficult read I am taking a few pages at a time (Norms and Nobility).

For all of those books except for the last two, I am shooting for about a chapter (or canto, or essay) a month.

How You Are Reading All Wrong and What To Do About It - Read with a Friend

Read with a friend.

I can’t stress this one enough. Find a group to read and discuss with. This can be a local group (go ahead, start your own), an online group, or even a phone group (mine uses an app called Voxer to leave each other voice messages throughout the day).

I am actually part of all of these with my various books. One is a local group, one an online group, one my phone group, and one book I am just reading and discussing with a single friend.

Having someone to discuss with, ask questions of, or bounce ideas off of is so helpful to my understanding of a book.

Read today, not tomorrow.

The biggest thing for me was just to start. I knew if I did not, then I would likely spin my wheels until I moved on to something else.

I decided to adopt Mystie Winkler’s method of commonplace keeping from the webinar — a cheap spiral notebook and no worries about how pretty the thing turns out. I am likely going to scan it all to Evernote when I am done anyway.

So my commonplace/deep reading supplies:

How You Are Reading All Wrong Commonplace Chart

My reading challenge to you

Go grab a book and start reading. Read a few pages. Get the webinar, learn to deep read, watch about keeping a commonplace. Find a friend and rope her in. Be a better reader — I triple dog dare you!

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  • A fabulous post. And your stack of books has my knees knocking. You’re going to want to talk about all of those, aren’t you?! Eeeeeeeek. 🙂

  • Cassie says:

    I struggle with this a little. I forget what I read the previous week and then I stop connecting with the book. Not sure if that makes any sense. Perhaps not doing any writing in a commonplace book is what causes this. My brain is not trained to ponder over books either. Some books this is not a problem though. My kids have these same struggles on weekly reads. They have gotten better with age and perhaps more narration (which I think seals the memory of what they read). And I guess I just answered my own question. ; ) Maybe I just need to do a silent narration after the reading and using a commonplace book and then remember to ponder over it sometime before picking up the book to read again. Any other thoughts?

    • Pam Barnhill says:

      Cassie – The Kern highlighting method and making charts and lists in my commonplace are helping me immensely!! Taking the information from a reading and processing it into a list or chart is helping me to internalize it.

  • Mary says:

    Interesting — thank you for all of the links to get me started. I’m afraid that I’m terrible about all of this, but I really need to get better – especially since we are tackling big and scary (ha) books in high school!

    • Pam Barnhill says:

      Mary it is helping so much. And I WANT to read (and get annoyed when I can’t). I think having some tools to make reading understandable is making all the difference.

  • Jennifer says:

    What a great article!! Thank you for posting it. I love how you integrated all the different ideas that have been recently discussed. It was good to see it that way.

    • Pam Barnhill says:

      High praise indeed coming from you! Thank you! And a birthday party derailed me from the last book discussion. 🙁 Hoping to make the next one.

  • Kristin says:

    Great article, Pam, with very helpful tips!

    After years of taking notes in my margins, filling notebooks with reading analysis, etc. through college and graduate school (in English), I thought I’d try to relax and try to not take reading so seriously.

    HA! I simply cannot sit and read a book without a pen in my hand. I feel naked without a writing utensil! I find myself groping for a commonplace book! It’s terrible. I’ll never be one of those moms who can sit pool-side with a novel, just relaxing and taking it all in.

    I have to devour my books – – – chew on them – – – slowly and deliberately. And, I don’t feel like it’s a complete reading experience unless I’m having a dialogue in the margins of my book with the author or discussing the book later with like-minded bibliophile friends!

    I’m glad you quoted Susan Wise Bauer’s article! I love that article, and it’s important for me to re-visit it often.

    • Pam Barnhill says:

      I just love discussing books. These past couple of weeks have reminded me exactly how much I do! Love your chewing on books! And yes, the SWB article is awesome. She has a plenary talk from a few years ago that used to be on the Society for Classical Learning website that was similar and equally enjoyable.

  • I loved this so much. I have to confess, though, you almost lost me at the mention of highlighting (and using different colors even, egad!) but then I was saved by the article about marking in pencil, which I’ve done for years anyway. We all have our nerdy quirks. 🙂 Thanks for the info!

  • charla says:

    I think I have reading ADD. I love it and I do it almost every day, but I have several books going at all times and I finish very few of them. It’s crazy. I really need a method for sticking it out. Off to listen to that podcast….

  • Jen says:

    I’m new to commonplacing but in just a few short weeks have experienced an explosion in my desire to read whenever time permits, but marking books with the highlighter or pencil method doesn’t work for my situation. Many of the books we own are shared by multiple family members and what one person deems worthy of marking may not be held in similar view by another. We also want to avoid influencing another reader’s opinion or leading him/her toward preconceived notions, denying the opportunity to draw one’s own conclusions about the reading. Aside from this, the majority of the books we read are from the local library. For obvious reasons, we can’t mark in those. So the solution I’ve come up with is to use sticky notes. “Post-It” makes small sticky notes that are pointed at one end like an arrow. I keep a package with me when I read and flag a page when there’s something I want to record in my commonplace book. The arrow tip of the sticky note gives the ability to mark the exact sentence or paragraph I want to return to. They release easily from the page and can be reused multiple times. When unable to write in a book, these serve as a good option.

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