Reading is on my mind as I prepare to teach a new group of undergraduates – in only a month! – including writing lecture slides of tips for succeeding at university. One of the things I remember being told when I began to study philosophy was that there was a lot to be gained from reading a text more than once – reading the whole way through to get the shape of the argument, and then again for bits I didn’t get the first time, and perhaps again for details after that. This goes against all my instincts, which are to read things once and then assume that – absent a long gap or a particular new slant – I don’t need to read anything again. That’s good enough for novels (although there are a handful which I have read more than once, or intend to read again one day). It works well enough for some philosophical texts – especially if I took good notes on the first pass, or if it turns out not to be as useful for the current project as I hoped it would be – but the advice to read again is sometimes sound. In particular, denser texts often benefit from two passes – one for shape and one for detail. It can be easy to get distracted by the detail and miss the shape if you don’t read this way.
Have you ever been to a big museum, or somewhere like a Sealife centre, where there are loads of fascinating things to look at but the overall pattern is hidden by the wealth of detail? I have a cousin who, especially in childhood, liked to hurry through such places on a first pass, getting the overall picture, and would then request to be taken back to specific exhibits which had been deemed worthy of further attention. This approach gives you a view which many people never get – I’ve been to the London Aquarium, but I looked at fish; I couldn’t draw you a map of the place, even though I gradually became aware that sometimes I was looking at the same fish again from a different angle.
This advice – read carefully, read twice – is coupled with another co-intuitive piece of advice which makes good sense in some contexts: don’t read too much. It’s tempting to try and read everything you can find on a subject when you’ve been asked to write an essay about it, but this doesn’t actually make good essays. Exactly how much you need to read does vary between topics – are you looking at facts, or opinions, or arguments, or theory, or a mixture? – but in general, something you’ve skim-read and referenced doesn’t add as much to an essay as something which you’ve read and thought about carefully. Going back to the aquarium metaphor, the more carefully you’ve looked at the fish in a particular tank and the longer you’ve spent with them, the more you’ll be able to tell me about them. You need to look at enough other tanks to be able to compare the fish and point out what is special about them, but after a certain point, looking at more tanks of sharks won’t improve your essay on seahorses.
tl;dr: reading is an important skill, and quality can be more important than quantity.