Back to School Reading Tips

Welcome back, Swatties!

After a long, hopefully rejuvenating summer vacation, it is time to answer the call of academia and return to the Swat grind. Though the specific demands of our workloads may vary, we each face long to-do lists that include completing coursework, attending meetings and practices and maintaining the friendships we built at home and at Swat. For avid readers, these busy schedules present a sad question: when will I have time to continue working on that lengthy reading list?

Whether your summer reading consisted of the classics you’ve been meaning to get around to, the best sellers everyone is talking about or trashy beach reads, it is hard to resist the feeling that pleasure reading ends when the school year begins. Of course, this does not need to be the case.

Time is always a tightly stretched commodity. Just like the single box of pencils you assumed would last at least through the semester, it is hard to figure out exactly where your time goes, but there never seems to be enough left when you need it. Managing your time means more than figuring out how to check each task off your to-do list; it means becoming aware of your time distribution. It means knowing that your four hours in the library weren’t productive because you spent them watching “Matilda” and making flowers out of your skittles, and keeping yourself from repeating that mistake.

There are hugely time-consuming, passive activities that we engage in naturally, such as eating, watching TV, perusing Facebook and shopping online. But there are activities that we have to force ourselves to get around to, even if we enjoy them, like exercising, reading and calling home.

One of my favorite high school teachers taught me that the only way to force ourselves to do these activities is to schedule them into our days. Choose a good time to read, and then dedicate that period in your day entirely to reading. Don’t schedule anything during that time unless it’s urgent. Maybe you find time to read a couple chapters before class in the morning. Maybe you head to the amphitheater during your break between classes. Maybe you read for a half hour before bedtime and it becomes your sleep medication. Regardless of the time you choose, having pleasure reading scheduled into a natural break in your day allows you to do it regularly.

Regardless of how you fit personal reading into your life, it is important to recognize that it is possible to keep that piece of summer alive throughout the school year. Besides, you might consider this practice. In the rapidly approaching future, you’ll likely have a year-round job. The two or three weeks you take off each year will fall noticeably short of your luxurious one-month winter and three-month summer vacations. You will have to choose between honing your time management skills and giving up pleasure reading for fifty weeks out of the year.

But there’s another solution. Fitting pleasure reading into your schedule, if it’s something you enjoy, is important. But you can also ease the transition from summer reading to school reading by learning to transform your school reading experience. Reading for school in college is not what it was in high school or middle school. It is full of room for interpretation and personal preference ­— whether to annotate, whether to take notes, whether to write down and explain major quotes. You can read for your college courses the way you would read naturally.

Of course, there are some major and unavoidable differences between your personal reading and your class reading. You are required to read on a certain schedule. If you like to read an entire book in a few days, you may do so, but you run the risk of spoiling the book for everyone else. You also risk being so frustrated that you can’t share your brilliant but far too knowing comment that you combust.

The other major difference is that you don’t choose the books you read, and you have no freedom to put them down, no matter how boring or miserable you may find them. Not choosing the books you read can be a wonderful thing, if you think of your syllabus as a reading list given to you by your older, wiser, scholarly friend whose opinion academics clearly trust.

But on occasion, you may take a class you don’t love, and the result of that can be reading a lot of books you don’t love. To this problem, I can only say that I have a hunch it will be worth it in the end. Reading books you struggle through, either because the writing is impossible for you to understand or because it’s so boring that it makes you wonder whether you developed narcolepsy, is important. It is important in the way it is important for English students to suffer through math courses. This is something liberal arts students should understand. Exploring areas outside your academic comfort zone is vital to your education. It stretches your brain in new directions, and if done correctly, you return to your favorite spot a reinforced, more dynamic student.

Reading plenty in your free time prepares you for the reading you do for class. It trains you to be a faster reader, but it also builds your vocabulary so that you don’t have to constantly consult a dictionary. It gives you the practice you need to let your agile mind meet the author’s agile mind and have a conversation with him or her. Most importantly, it gives you the space you need to really fall in love with literature and reading.

But reading plenty for class is also necessary. Recognizing the worth of course reading is uncommon among young students but mastered by many at Swat. It is course reading that teaches us the boring but helpful mechanics of understanding a novel. Learning to analyze the connections you see or recognize literary techniques enables you to understand the novel via a technical route. Course reading is so vital to my improvement as a reader that I actually worry about the upcoming years in which I won’t have it.

If we are open-minded enough to see it, it is clear that private reading and course reading necessitate each other. Whereas your personal reading allows you to draw nearer to a novel, your course reading teaches you to delve deeper into it. The best readers can integrate these two styles, rendering their course reading and personal reading largely the same. It is at that point that students can ungrudgingly face the course load they signed up for. You should make time for personal reading, but you should also begin the process of transforming your course reading experience into one that more closely resembles the personal reading experience you became familiar with again over the summer.

If you are looking for some personal reading recommendations, you can follow this column throughout the semester. The focus of this column is going to be the Pulitzer. I will go backward in time, reading the finalists for each year’s Pulitzer Prize for Literature, and then I will write about the winning work versus the other finalists. Be on the lookout for the 2012 review in a couple of weeks.

Until then, happy reading, and welcome back to Swat.

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