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January 9, 2012

Lingering on the same page

Reading for efficiency shouldn’t take precedence over reading for enjoyment.

I was ecstatic by the time I finished reading pp. 1–31 and 44–56 in Anna Grimshaw’s The Ethnographer’s Eye: Ways of Seeing in Modern Anthropology. It was a little over three hours since I’d begun taking notes, and my little bullet-pointed summaries marched through 10 single-spaced pages, concise and carefully manicured like bonsai trees. I was proud of myself for grasping in totality the history of early cinema, from Edison’s cabinet-like kinematoscope to the Lumière brothers’ short, perfect scenes. I understood why the paths of film and anthropology had diverged, and I was well-versed in Grimshaw’s critique of the different anthropological schools, from modern to romantic to enlightened. I was filled with a feeling of accomplishment that made me realize why I chose this school in the first place.

The knowledge high lasted until I realized that in three hours I’d only done one-sixth of the required reading for one-fourth of my classes. If I were to do all of my assigned reading at that rate, factoring in time for sleeping, eating, class, and transit, I would have negative three hours per week of free time. I felt like a first-year as I feverishly Googled “how to read in college,” finding the following quotation on a Swarthmore College web page:

“The first thing you should know about reading in college is that it bears little or no resemblance to the sort of reading you do for pleasure, or for your own edification.”

I pictured a series of miserable faces bent low over books, their eyebrows scrunched into angry inchworms. This wasn’t particularly difficult to imagine, as all I needed to do was lift up my own head to see grim expressions all around the Reg. The person who was closest to looking happy was asleep in a chair.

After thinking about the sentence’s message some more, I realized I didn’t understand it. I was, perhaps mistakenly, under the impression that the University of Chicago prides itself on helping students edify themselves, that we as students came here because we enjoyed learning. Why would I read something that gave me no pleasure and wasn’t truly necessary to learn?

For the first time I can remember, I enjoy all the classes I’m taking. And yet here someone is telling me that I’m not supposed to enjoy them. I’m not supposed to do all the reading and absorb every detail about how Nanook of the North launched an entire genre of documentary film, even though there’s nothing I’d like more.

It’s undeniable that I don’t read efficiently. I’ve struggled with this since middle school. My mom bought and forced me to watch a series of tapes called “Where There’s a Will, There’s an A,” which I mostly ignored; a year later I was enrolled in a speed-reading class, which appears to have been as useful as a water balloon thrown at a tank. But it occurs to me now for the first time that perhaps I don’t want to read efficiently. I’d like to linger on issues that interest me, and think about them—not register some point like a machine and then move systematically on to the next. I’d like to get something out of everything I choose to read, at the moment I read it, whether I perfectly retain the knowledge or not. I do not anticipate changing the way I do things—I’m already a third-year in college—but this is the first time in my lifelong school career that I’ve suspected I may have been reading the right way the entire time.

Chris Stavitsky is a third-year in the College majoring in English.

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