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How not to read

You take sixteen books & what do you get?

The student in my office was close to tears. She was three weeks into a four-week deadline for a 2000 word essay and hadn’t started writing yet. What’s the problem? I asked. Reading, she said. You mean the books you want are all out of the library? I asked. No, she said, I’ve been doing lots of reading but it turned out not to be relevant. And opening her backpack, she took out book after book until there were more than a dozen piled on and around my desk.

Reading as wild goose chase

She’d made the classic mistake: got her essay title, gone to the library and got out as many relevant-looking books as she could and then just started reading from the beginning of the first book. Perhaps she’d glimpsed something useful for her essay in the distance once or twice; but even when she didn’t she’d just kept reading in the increasingly vain hope that something would turn up. No wonder she had used up nearly all her essay writing time.

Why the classic mistake?

My student had made the classic mistake but in many ways it was perfectly understandable.

First, a regular and justified undergraduate complaint is that there are never enough books. A tutor recommends a book and it seems as if even before she’s finished speaking all the library copies have been borrowed. Other students even take books that are in high demand but short supply and hide them in obscure parts of the library so that only they can use them. The pressure’s on to grab as many books as you can as quickly as possible.

Second, reading is a way to avoid starting writing. Can’t think of the opening sentence? Go and read another book – something’s bound to come to you.

Third, the amount of reading you are required and expected to do at university can seem mind-boggling. Huge reading lists are handed out by tutors – six closely typed pages in the case of one ten-week English course I encountered – but often with little guidance. Students often assume they have to read all the books. There’s also an understandable anxiety that you have to read a lot of books to get a good mark. This isn’t true: you have to read the relevant bits of the right ones.

This part of the guide will give you some pointers on how to strike a balance between good reading and researching and getting swamped.

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