My son wanted to read The Communist Manifesto, and I told him, “Just read a summary.”

He scowled.

“I majored in political history and I read very few books. You don’t have to read books.”

He didn’t believe me. He heard about Lawrence Lessig’s book, They Don’t Represent Us. I bought it on Amazon but I knew he couldn’t read it.

I reminded him about psychological evaluation. He has dyslexia. When he reads he gets a headache, and soon after he falls asleep. “Do you remember? I am not making this up. It’s real.”

“I remember,” he says, “I just don’t want it to be true.”

“I know. But I have a surprise for you.”

I show him an article.

“What? You’re giving me a surprise to cheer me up about reading and it’s reading?”

“Okay. Okay. I’m giving you the highlights.”

A college professor discusses how reading for college is not like reading for pleasure. This makes sense to me because many college courses have 20 books in a semester plus four or five eight-page papers. There’s no time to read every page. But no one ever teaches kids how to get through that course load.

I learned by having a breakdown in the middle of college. I just stopped reading. I decided I wasn’t worthy of my courses and I basically started failing all my classes. I didn’t know I had dyslexia and that’s why I fell asleep every time I tried to read something difficult. But I’m not sure knowing would have helped. Because even neurotypical kids can’t read that many books a semester.

It turns out the best students don’t read the books. This professor explains the secret as the secret was explained to him, by his professor: “You absorb the essential contents so that you can discuss the author’s ideas and evidence intelligently in that week’s seminar…you read the book’s introduction and conclusion, and the introduction and conclusion of individual chapters…If desperate, you can get by with only a scholarly book review.”

My son is shocked. Then fascinated. He tries the tactic and can’t believe it works.

“Wait,” I tell him. “There’s more.”

The professor says that when he became a professor he did the same thing his professors did. He had several hundred books on his course lists and he had not read any of them. He wrote his books in a way that people who don’t read books could read his books. His bibliography ran to 37 manuscript pages. He said, “I can only name a handful of titles that I ever read enjoyably, cover to cover. There was no time to do so, and for seven years, first as a doctoral candidate and then as a postdoctoral fellow, I read almost nothing outside my studies for pleasure. The process of becoming an academic very nearly killed my love of reading.”

My son says, “It’s okay. I never loved to read. I just liked the ideas. So this will work fine for me.”

There are very few times I wish I had pushed my son to do college-level work earlier. But this is one of those times because we have wasted so much of his adolescence worrying about how to deal with dyslexia when the people who can read just fine weren’t really reading anyway.

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10 replies
  1. Elizabeth
    Elizabeth says:

    I love the way that you have arranged your plates on the wall so that they look like dinner service settings from above. It’s very beautiful.

    Aside from that, I read all my study guides and course books (mostly readers that give a sample of the academic’s work) from cover to cover. There were three or four of these for each subject. I didn’t understand them. At the beginning of each subject I would despair that I would ever learn enough to pass the course, but I knew that my process relied on reading everything I was set in the timescales set and when the time came I could answer what I was asked.

    When it came to reading around the subject rather than the core texts, I read a lot of abstracts and executive summaries. I graduated first in my class.

    I was fortunate because I can speed-read and I chose the exact right course for me, even though I didn’t know it at the time.

    To this day I read long reports by reading the executive summaries, skimming some other sections, and closely reading the sections that interest me – mostly on a laptop. Somehow I can recall enough that I am deemed an expert in my field.

    I used to read novels for pleasure as physical books, but now that the world is on screens and moves so fast, I listen to them as audiobooks. I miss physically reading actual books, but sadly I no longer have the concentration to do it.

    What I have learned is that you need to work out the process that allows you to absorb knowledge in the best way for you, and then stick to it – though this may change in time. Your son has learned how to learn in the best way for himself. It’s one of the best things you have taught him.

    Reply
  2. INTJ Professor
    INTJ Professor says:

    With the exception of poetry, ideas are always more important than the original language that conveyed them.

    Reply
  3. Katarina
    Katarina says:

    Funny observation:. One blog post about writing effectively and another about the fact that it is unnecessary to read things fully. Can’t say I disagree, but I just see this juxtaposition as a bit ironic in a funny way. Blogs are probably worth reading all the way through, but the Communist Manifesto, not so much! Lol!

    Reply
    • Katarina
      Katarina says:

      He can learn German and read it in its original form!

      Or he can read analysis of it. Or he can read about people who tried to implement its theory without even being in an industrialized country (Russia). And then you discover that Russians made up their own version of communism, and then you wonder what was different in their form versus the theory of Marx and Engels. And then you have to go back to the original and read it to know what the Russians did and what they didn’t, and why, and then you might look around and see if any country has ever had the revolution that was predicted by their theory, or you can read other people’s opinions about that and decide based on those other people’s opinions.

      The motivation behind reading the book determines whether you read cover to cover. Proust wrote literary fiction. Marx wrote his socio-political-economic ideas. If you are interested in socialism, maybe you can skim Proust, but the Communist Manifesto is probably a little more relevant to a person who wants to understand the development of socialist ideas and policies.

      Reply
  4. Minami
    Minami says:

    How can you tell if you have dyslexia? Is there a test? I’ve sometimes wondered if I have it, because I also do that thing where I fall asleep when I try to read difficult texts. I don’t understand what I’m reading unless I start writing out responses to what’s on the page. Plus I struggle a lot with number sequences and directions. I always did well in reading comprehension in school, though. But I don’t know if that’s just because I have high pattern recognition. Or if all of the above is Asperger’s/ADHD and not dyslexia.

    Reply
  5. Bostonian
    Bostonian says:

    I don’t think it’s universally true that students, grad students, and professors don’t actually read the books. I know I did. I read hundreds of books, in four languages, just for my PhD exams. And, yes, in the orals I had to answer questions in the language they were asked.

    But yeah, the vast majority of the books on my reading lists were not “scholarly” books, or academic writing, of the sort the linked article discusses. They were mostly real books, which people who aren’t academics read. I guess I would have hated getting my PhD in history.

    Reply
  6. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I’ve had enough time to think about the book breaking-book mending exercise outlined by the very good article by the blogger linked to in this post. He does a good job of describing the differences between the writings of the academics and those journalists who publish for the trades and the accompanying editors and publishers. Here’s the thing, though, that I’m still thinking about – roughly 100 books a semester to read. Really? What ever happened to the idea of brevity is the soul of wit? How many ways and to what depth is it necessary to convey an idea or concept? My point is that education does not end with college or university regardless of how much time is spent or number of degrees attained there. There’s a radio show to which I listen where the host reminds the audience that no one graduates and no degrees are given out. That resonates with me for a number of reasons including knowing I’m listening and learning of my own free will and it’s not for a certification of completion of a program defined by and approved by other people. What is learned (and the same can be said of other people) is what has been decided by the individual to be in their own best interests and desires. It is no wonder that a force feeding of about 100 books/semester not chosen by the student would cultivate a disdain of reading on a particular subject or reading in general. The thought of 100 books/semester being assigned to a student brings me to a conclusion of a lazy and incompetent professor that hasn’t prioritized what he/she wants the student to learn and deems most important. Obviously the knowledge in those 100 books can be condensed and organized properly with some effort. I had some science professors in my senior year at the university where I went that wrote their own syllabus and curriculum with additional handouts. They didn’t send their students all over Hell’s half acre scrounging up various texts and reading until their eyes were bulging out. The bottom line is 100 books/semester is ludicrous and not a badge of honor.

    Reply
  7. Todd
    Todd says:

    As an English major in college, I read a lot of books. I enjoyed many of them, but overall it was mostly a waste. If I had to do it all over again, I would have started with just one book – “How to Read a Book” by Mortimer J. Adler. After spending a semester on just that book, I would have spent the next 3 years practicing it. That would have been a real education. It still would be, which is why I am working on it now at age 37. Would be nice to have a couple of decades under my belt already though.

    Reply

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