Our students read thousands of pages per semester—a daunting task threatening to compromise and undermine their health and well being if they are not careful. The key to doing all this reading, I would like to suggest, is setting up patterns and disciplines which will serve them both now and in the years to come. And it all begins with reading ahead.
My recommendation to my students is that they read at least half of their books during the summer and winter breaks. I recommend this not merely as a matter of getting ahead, but as affecting the semester as a whole, balancing out the whole to distribute the workload. There are two main factors at play here: strategy and discipline.
Semester and weeks are not all created equal. Some semesters are harder, and we all know in advance which weeks will be easier or harder during the course of the semester. Being strategic, being aware of which are the hard books, the tough times of the semester, when a boyfriend or family member will be visiting from out of town… the goal is to discern in advance which parts of the semester will be more challenging, so that we make those particular times less stressful, bringing balance to the semester as a whole.
With that in mind, read ahead—but read the hardest books (that might bog you down during the semester) and read those books that will be due during the toughest times of the semester (such as before mid terms and finals, and when final papers are due).
Reading ahead is no simple matter, though, for it is easy to forget what you have read. I recommend taking extensive notes in your text, making marks and comments in the margins and perhaps underlining key terms and passages. This allows you to quickly review a book prior to discussing it in class, by re-reading those passages, which you marked up, and re-familiarizing yourself with the key terms, arguments, plot, or questions of the book. If you do this properly, the net effect is akin to that of reading the book twice before class.
The goal of reading ahead is not merely that of expediency—it lies much deeper, in a set of virtues inherent in reading well.
The goal, borrowing from Paul’s letter to the Galatians, is to read as a free person rather than as a slave, reading out of joy and freedom, rather than under the whip and lash of the impending deadline. Deadlines are at best an arbitrary set of rules in place to make us do that which we ought to do freely. Someone who loves a sport doesn’t need reminders to practice. Someone who loves gardening will do so regardless of whether the neighborhood rules require it. Students require deadlines because they are not yet deep enough lovers of learning to read, write and discuss on their own.
By reading ahead, we are in fact making the choice to become lovers of reading, to make this a matter of our own joy and will, putting behind us the rules and laws necessary for children and those who do good things only grudgingly.
And while this is important for a number of reasons, one of them is that it is hard to get reading done after college, when work and family commitments increase. Remember – reading (and school in general) is your job right now. And when you have a job later, an indication of how much you will read is how much extra reading you do now. The goal is to have an even pace of work, so that you can have the time and energy to be doing some extra reading along the way. If you are the kind of person who reads without deadlines now, you are becoming the kind of person who will read later in life, where there are no such deadlines.
And, as is the case with virtues, there are collateral blessings to this approach. Becoming the kind of person who looks ahead to tough parts of the semester, and works ahead to minimize the difficulty of these times, prepares you to be the kind of person who can be lovingly present to family and friends in the future, by working ahead and having a long view of the work you have ahead of you. As a college student, you can sustain (barely) patterns of binging on study and work, and then sleep. But as you get older, and as you have more people depending on you for their well-being, you become less and less able to afford such binges. Reading ahead for a semester is an important step to becoming such a person.