Rogier van der Weyden, 1399 -1464. Altarpiece fragment, Mary Magdalene reading. National Gallery (Great Britain). Available through ArtSTOR
Workshop of Rogier van der Weyden. St. Ivo reading, ca.1450. National Gallery (Great Britain). Available through ArtSTOR
Max Beckmann (1884-1950). Reclining Woman Reading, with Irises (1923). Oil on canvas. Private collection. Image available in HOLLIS+
Honore Daumier (1808-1879). Reader (1863). Oil on wood. University of California, San Diego. Image available in ARTStor
Young Man Reading a Book (c.1570-1574). Attributed to Mirza 'Ali (c.1510-1576). Ink, opaque watercolor and gold on paper. Aga Khan Museum, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Image available in HOLLIS+
Suzuki Harunobo (1725-1770). Girl Reading a Letter While being Massaged by Maid. Color woodcut. Available through ArtSTOR
Critical reading--active engagement and interaction with texts--is essential to your academic success at Harvard, and to your intellectual growth. Research has shown that students who read deliberately retain more information and retain it longer. Your college reading assignments will probably be more substantial and more sophisticated than those you are used to from high school. The amount of reading will almost certainly be greater. College students rarely have the luxury of successive re-readings of material, either, given the pace of life in and out of the classroom.
While the strategies described below are (for the sake of clarity) listed sequentially, you typically do most of them simultaneously. They may feel awkward at first, and you may have to deploy them very consciously the first few times, especially if you are not used to doing anything more than moving your eyes across the page. But they will quickly become habits, and you will notice the difference—in what you “see” in a reading, and in the confidence with which you approach your texts.
You’ve probably engaged in one version of previewing in the past, when you’ve tried to determine how long an assigned reading is (and how much time and energy, as a result, it will demand from you). But you can learn a great deal more about the organization and purpose of a text by taking note of features other than its length.
Previewing enables you to develop a set of expectations about the scope and aim of the text. These very preliminary impressions offer you a way to focus your reading. For instance:
It's also a way to have an ongoing conversation with yourself as you move through the text and to record what that encounter was like for you. Here's how to make your reading thinking-intensive from start to finish:
Outlining the argument of a text is a version of annotating, and can be done quite informally in the margins of the text, unless you prefer the more formal Roman numeral model you may have learned in high school. Outlining enables you to see the skeleton of an argument: the thesis, the first point and evidence (and so on), through the conclusion. With weighty or difficult readings, that skeleton may not be obvious until you go looking for it.
Summarizing accomplishes something similar, but in sentence and paragraph form, and with the connections between ideas made explicit.
Analyzing adds an evaluative component to the summarizing process—it requires you not just to restate main ideas, but also to test the logic, credibility, and emotional impact of an argument. In analyzing a text, you reflect upon and decide how effectively (or poorly) its argument has been made. Questions to ask:
It can also alert you to ideological positions, hidden agendas or biases. Be watching for:
When you contextualize, you essentially "re-view" a text you've encountered, acknowledging how it is framed by its historical, cultural, material, or intellectual circumstances. Do these factors change, complicate, explain, deepen or otherwise influence how you view a piece?
Also view the reading through the lens of your own experience. Your understanding of the words on the page and their significance is always shaped by what you have come to know and value from living in a particular time and place.
Susan Gilroy, Librarian for Undergraduate Writing Programs, Lamont Library