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Reading Is Fundamental

I’m trying to teach myself to read all over again. I can already handle all the big words, thank you, but I’m trying to improve my ability to retain facts instead of just overall tone and general concepts. Although I read far more history and essay-type stuff than fiction, I tend to let the details wash over me as I put together the bigger picture, or extrapolate other ideas. that’s fine for some one who reads for recreation, but the degree I’m going to be working on has a pretty huge research component to it, and I don't think my typical habits will help me much.

The problem is that although I’m an excellent worker, I’m actually a very poor student. Give me a chance to tinker and investigate and solve problems and ruminate and I'll do great, but I actually have no rigorous study skills whatsoever. In elementary and high school, I got good grades without much effort at all. I was diligent about finishing all my assignments, but I was rarely challenged enough to put much effort into them. Studying for me meant an occasional extra glance at the textbook or perhaps memorizing a few dates before a test. I drew incessantly in my notebooks, rarely taking notes of any substance. Every book report or paper I ever turned in was the first draft, and until college that was always hand-written. I know for a fact that I didn't finish half of the books assigned for my junior-year English class.

My grades were very good, though, so it was never a big deal that I had no idea how to buckle down. The only times I ever had a real challenge — Algebra II, a trimester or two of Spanish in high school, and a world history class in college that I rarely attended — I lost interest in class and then had no idea how to pick up the slack in an effective way. College might have been harder if I had more than just studio and art history classes, but that stuff was all either great fun or perfectly sensible to me. I put a ridiculous amount of hours into the studio work, but otherwise I was still able to get by with my wits instead actual study skills.

Next year I'll be geeking out with stuff that interests me a lot, but I'll also need to absorb more information in a more systematic way than I have before. Designing type and learning new software and scripting languages will be the easy part. Hitting the books to work on a dissertation is a little more daunting.

Luckily, years of blogging and memo-writing have improved my writing skills and habits considerably. I actually go back and revise things now, fine-tuning what I need to say and trimming the fat. Still, anything I write for the blog or at work is either stuff I’m making up as I go along, or stuff I already know better than whoever is reading it. Academic writing intimidates me.

Now, as I work my way through the preliminary reading list for next Fall, I’m trying to go slower, take lucid notes, and properly digest the material as I go along. I’m discovering, among other things, that I can't do that very well just by plowing through a book on the subway, where I do most of my reading. It turns out it's very hard to write notes during rush hour. Who knew? It may be a blessing in disguise, though: I can make a first pass on the train, and go back for a review later on, when I can concentrate on facts once the general ideas are already digested. Maybe writing as I go along is actually the key, the verbal version of sketching or comping or tinkering with code.

What's worked best for you brainiacs out there?

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