How College Has Made Me a Better Reader

So, I’m 100% back now since I’ve finished my first year of college and have three and a half months of summer stretching before me. I’ve got posts I’ve been meaning to finish for a while now, but it seemed silly to ignore how college life has changed me and my reading. So here I am.

A quick note: I don’t mean this post to be about how college makes everyone/most people better readers, or how you should go to college to be a better reader. This is very particular to my own habits and studies.

I’ve always needed a “currently reading” book to take around with me to waiting rooms and school since I can remember. There were times when I was very much into reading, and other times (like some of middle school) where I struggled to find stories that interested me. This meant that when I grew tired of a story, I would often skim or perhaps daydream while turning pages until it was over and I could move onto the next thing–very much a bad habit that means I’ve “read” many books I don’t remember much about. (Admittedly, there are books I’ve read properly that I don’t remember much about either, but that happens when you read a lot of different stories.)

My first semester of college, I didn’t read too much, honestly. It wasn’t that I had a lot of homework to do, but the homework I did have rarely involed reading–at least, not books. I read quite a few poems, short stories,a couple plays, and I did read a wriiting advice book for class. The main culprit was that I was suddenly surrounded by people all the time (I was fortunate to have a great floor), and reading is quite an alone activity. And after my rigid high school devotion to school work and getting through a book a week (even if that meant I skimmed some I wasn’t that in to, as I mentioned earlier), I did not want to be alone in my room very much.

Second semester was quite a different story. In my first semester, my classes were kind of all over the place–a creative writing class, a literary analysis skills class, a cognitive science class (the most traditional one), a speech class, and a technology in education class. I really only had to write one paper and take 2 tests that were multiple-choice, knowledge-based (both for cognitive science), not counting short stories I wrote and the literature tests that were basically just “answer basic questions and analyze this.” Everything else was a project or speech. Second semester, though? I had two literature classes, two education classes, a fun class about cultural industries, and creative writing, (well, and also yoga) and I read 17 books (plus many poems, short stories, journal articles, chapters scanned to PDFs…etc) and wrote probably around 15 papers. It’s hard to keep count on that last one.

You get the idea. I was either reading a book, reading something I’d printed, reading a PDF, or typing in a Word document. In one of my classes (20th and 21st century literature with a literary history focus…it was my favorite), we read 9 books, which turned out to be a book a week during most of the course.

But when you fit in my other classes, “a book a week” usually means reading a book in a weekend, or 100 pages in an afternoon, etc. That might not seem unusual to some of you, but for me, I struggle with “marathoning” books (or TV shows sometimes, for that matter). Part of it might be my troubles focusing on one thing at a time, but a larger part is that “reading a book over a week” has just been a part of my life since elementary school. Sure, there were some exceptions, but in those times sometimes I’d run into my old enemy, skimming, because I was more concerned about how fast I was reading than anything. With school, I can’t do that, of course. I wouldn’t say I annotated elaborately, but I kept a pencil in hand and underlined frequently. (Plus, it helped that the aforementioned class was a survey course, so we didn’t do close readings of everything.) Nevertheless, I learned how to read a large amount in a relatively short period of time without (thanks to the flexibility of college schedules) thinking more about the time than the words.

Another thing I learned was variety. I was a varied reader–at least in fiction–before college, but I was always aware of the difference I was making. I avoided nonfiction because I’d always thought of it as textbooks, gradually warming to essays and memoirs. I’d tried my hand at a few comics and graphic novels, mostly Doctor Who and Buffy spinoffs, but found I didn’t appreciate the art and got the characters confused because I was so used to reading words. So I mostly stuck with novels, and even then, when I was starting something that was “literary” or “a classic” in my leisure time, I approached it with the mindset that it was going to be somehow harder. This meant I spent less time on it, which led to–you guessed it–some skimming. Or at least, seeing the words and turning the pages while my mind is on something else because I’ve lost the thread of the story.

(The one exception to this was Donald Bartheleme’s “See the Moon?” which I got a whopping one question right on the quiz we had. This meant meant it was dropped from my final grade, and admittedly I thought we didn’t have a quiz that day and I have trouble remembering the names of characters in short stories and they made up most of the answers. Still, as much as I say I love postmodernism–and at this point I very much believe I do–it does require a different sort of reading technique, one that takes format and historical context and so on into account. I came to an epiphany in my discussion section that made it make sense to me and later wrote a paper on it I’m quite proud of.)

But this past semester I read 2 graphic novels and 2 nonfiction books. The rest were modern classics, more or less…and I approached them all the same. There wasn’t a switch that said, “Okay, I’m choosing to read something more difficult now.” It also probably helped that I began the semester with The Great Gatsby and Willa Cather’s My Antonia (as well as Native Son, which is one ofthe most straightforwardly-written novels I’ve read), two books I read back in 9th grade that made me love modern classics and literary fiction because of their complexities of relationships. (Weirdly, I had to read these two back-to-back in my two literature classes, though naturally I only read them once because I didn’t see the point in rereading just a month later on stories I know so well.

So while I struggled to fit in Nimona, The Name of the Wind, The Underground Railroad, and The Hate U Give around my class readings (and out of those, Nimona  and Underground Railroad were the only ones I finished completely while in school, not over a break, and Nimona‘s a graphic novel…), I very much think I’ve gained valuable reading skills. I mean, I came home and in a little over 24 hours finished off The Hate U Give (I’d say 30-40%?) and read the reamining 80% of Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda. And I didn’t feel like I was missing out by being absorbed in one thing or not allowing myself to “live in” the story for an entire week (only to want to just be over, probably). Then I casually picked up a nonfiction book about language on my Kindle and have no trouble (hopefully) reading that at about the same time I read the YA book I just picked up for the library (where I also picked up 2 graphic novels). I don’t feel like I need to stop because of my own superimposed rules about reading speeds.

My TBR list might actually shrink this year? Well, I don’t want to get my hopes up. And if it does, it’s probably because I’m going to be reaching for more graphic novels, plays, and poetry collections.

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