Focus Your Reading for Maximum Benefit

Focus Your Reading

“Focus your reading material. Don’t focus simply on your reading.” That’s what my fourth grade reading teacher told us when teaching us how to get the maximum benefit out of our reading time. We all looked at her like, “Huh?” because up to that point, our teachers had drilled the importance of focusing on the reading itself into our heads. “Eliminate distractions. Read word by word, don’t skim. Read it twice, first for the broad overview and then for nuance.” All of that advice centered on teaching us how to read and pay attention.

And it was good, useful advice. But now this teacher was changing the game and teaching a different kind of focus. She wanted us to focus on the material. The actual “what” we were reading. Her plan was for us to read a theme/subject for the year. While we could read other things, if time allowed, the bulk of our reading should center on the chosen theme or subject. “So choose carefully,” she said when she sent us off to pick our subject. “You’re stuck with it all year.”

Why would someone want to teach this way? Shouldn’t reading teachers be teaching students to engage with a breadth of work, rather than a narrow niche? In some cases, sure. But this was an advanced reading class and it was assumed we already knew the basics of how to read. Now she wanted to show us how purposeful and intentional reading would be rewarded.

Predictably, we were a bunch of jerks about it. We rebelled against the idea of being stuck with something for a whole year! But eventually we dealt with it, chose our topics, and settled in for year of reading about one thing. (IIRC, in a preview of things to come, I chose Greek mythology.)

Now, I don’t know about my classmates, but the things I learned that year stuck with me and I still practice “theme” reading every year. This does not mean that I don’t still read widely. I do. I still walk into the library empty-handed and emerge with a stack of books on an assortment of topics. But when I set out to make my New Year’s resolutions, I always include my reading subject of choice in there and I spend the year deeply engaged in that subject/genre/theme.

(Note that you can set up your deep dive to include whatever you want. It’s your thing, so shape it the way you want. If you want to focus on a broad genre, you can say, “I’m reading fantasy this year.” Want to focus on an author? You can do that, too, and make sure you find their really obscure work. Or you can focus on a subject and be as broad or narrow as you like. “I’m reading about WWII,” or “I’m reading about the role of German women in WWII,” are two very different foci. Pick something you really want to know and learn all about that. There are no rules here, so set it up however you want.)

So what does such focused reading do for you? Why is it something that I still practice today?

It gives you a goal and a focus. Reading anything you can get your hands on is fun. But sometimes we need an extra push to read, and having a goal is a great way to do that. If you have a goal, you’re more likely to do the thing, whether it’s reading, writing, losing weight, etc. Goals and focus put some structure into your life, giving you that extra oomph to do something when you’d really rather not. It’s called discipline, a useful skill to master.

You learn a lot more. If you focus on a subject for a year, you’ll learn much more about it than just dabbling. The material will build on itself and you’ll begin to see connections and contradictions among the work. While you can get there if you read a subject sporadically, you’re more likely to internalize the nuances if you’re immersed in the subject all the time.

It gives you a sense of mastery. There’s nothing more rewarding than feeling like you “own” a subject or genre. Granted, a year isn’t enough time to confer expert status upon you. It’s not equivalent to a Ph.D. But there’s something to be said for deeply engaging with a subject over a long period of time. You’ll come out knowing more and, just as important, knowing that you stuck with it.

The deep dive can get weird. And really interesting. If you’re going to spend a year reading about one subject, you’re going to finish off the “Top 10” books in that subject pretty quickly. The popular, everyday resources that everyone uses aren’t likely to sustain a full year’s effort. That means you’ll soon be digging into some obscure resources that many people have never heard of. And that can be both weird and awesome. You’ll encounter ideas and views you might never have considered before. (And some you need to take with a grain of salt.) You might run across things that are hotly debated, or which are only theoretical at this point. Different writing styles and approaches to genres/subjects will blow your mind. All of this can be fascinating food for thought and the deeper you go, the weirder and more awesome it’s likely to get.

It narrows your choices. Maybe I’m alone in this, but sometimes I find myself not reading because I’m overwhelmed with choices. Am I in the mood for fiction or non-fiction? Genre or literary? Which subject do I want to read next? Do I start that new series or finish this one? I get indecisive and just go work a puzzle or something. Yet when I remember my focus, all of that noise falls away and it’s easier to pick the next book in my deep dive. It becomes a matter of simply moving up the ladder rather than a wrestling match with my moods and desires.

Reading is awesome no matter how you do it. But if you want to add some structure and interest to your reading life, try reading a theme/subject a year. (If you hate it, you can always quit, unlike me when I was in the fourth grade and had to power through regardless. You’re an adult. You get to quit if you want to!)

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Use Your Words

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