Required readings in English classes are most often literary readings—that is, readings that you are not preparing in order to retain data, but rather that you are preparing in order to appreciate, analyze, and deeply understand a work of art.

For such readings, it is more important that you read with your full attention, mind, heart, body, and soul… …than that you simply complete the reading or “get” the basics. If you can’t see the difference between a hurried skim-through and a calm relishing/reveling in a text, then you should reconsider just why you’re taking an English class. If you’re not reading a literary class text with your emotions and attention engaged, you’re not really taking the literature class: your time and money would be better spent on a class that deals more directly with data and facts (or the currently passable illusions that stand in for those).

Ours is a culture that often equates real work with completion—but in the study of literature, we more highly value the reader who understands a work deeply than one who can rattle off the basic facts.

For those reasons, never ever ever ever consult online summaries. If you do, you’re missing the point of the class in a serious way; if you are confused about why, talk to your prof right away.  You might also want to read a useful bit from “The Heresy of Paraphrase.”

Some tips:

1. Try setting a time limit, rather than a page limit, for your assignments. For the usual 300-level class, you should be reading for about 5-6 hours per week outside class (= 2hrs reading per 1 hr of class meeting). You must, of course, modify that estimate based on what you can realistically give—but when you do, give that time, with full attention and dedication. Set a timer for, say, ninety (90) minutes, three or four days per week: that time is just between you and your book. Read it. What gets done gets done; perhaps you won’t make it to the end, but you’ll have read what you did read with love and attention—so, in the end, your classwork will improve.

2. Seek out whatever physical environment will allow you to actually appreciate and connect with the artistic values of the text. For some of us, this necessitates “a room of one’s own”; for others, all we need is a well-lit corner and our headphones playing dubstep at full blast. Whatever it is, go get it. Make it a priority to create the right environment in which you can do the all-important work of reading deeply. (Side note: eat well, sleep well, and live fully—otherwise, you’ll dull your aesthetic senses.)

3. Read for the forest and the trees. It’s a very good thing to push yourself to complete the whole reading assignment you have been given, mainly because the overall structure of a passage is one important way that literary form bears meaning and beauty. But during that reading, it is equally important for you to pause and dwell on two or three short passages, digging more deeply into them, marking them up, thinking about what provokes or intrigues or tickles or bothers you about those passages in particular. Follow your nose: as you read, if you’re reading right, you’ll know which parts are most powerful, interesting, moving, frustrating, provocative to you.

4. Mark up your text. There’s a word for a book or handout that is covered with underlining, notations, diagrams, or quiet rants: well-loved. Bring to class a text that bears the marks of your reading process; this artifact will be the most useful possible tool for you as you participate in discussion. If you can’t mark up your text (for whatever reason), use a proxy: a sheet of paper, a tablet. Anything you can bring to class and refer back to.

5. Come to every class armed with THREE QUESTIONS per reading assignment. Good literature sparks further thought: if you’re not generating urgent or befuddled or suspicious or devoted questions as you read, then you’re not reading deeply enough. Slow down and let the questions come. Important: don’t think of the questions as attempts to please your professor; think of them as if I were in a bar, chatting about this text, what would I chat about? The questions can range from the infuriated to the awe-struck—the only requirement is that you figure out how to care in some way about what you’re reading. You may never get to share those questions with anyone—they’ll still act as sense-memory reminders not only of the bare data in the text, but also of your experience of reading it. But if you get to class, and the professor opens up the floor for questions or comments, this is when we expect you to share one of the questions you have prepared! So prepare—and, when you can, share.

6. STRESS IS THE WORST ENEMY OF LITERARY STUDY. Many students put themselves (ourselves!) in a continual fight-or-flight state whenever there’s reading to be done. Ask any hunter-gatherer: stress is built for quick decisions, so it tends to bypass those parts of your brain that store long-term ideas. The upshot is that you “read” through immense lengths of lifechangingly great literature… and associate it not with wisdom but with caffeinated stress… and then quickly forget all of it at the end of the semester.  If you panic, don’t ever check online for a summary of the reading, just so you can at least “get it” in time for class. This commits the heresy of paraphrase in the worst way and will dehumanize you at a fundamental level, which will worsen your stress.