Reading

How to Get the Reading Done (Enough): The UBER Method

Here is a tried and true outside-the-box method for doing course reading that works for people who feel weighed down by reading assignments.

Riddle yourself this: How often do you complete enough of your assigned reading to be able to go to class feeling confident that if called on you’ll be able to look the teacher in the eye and respond directly from your knowledge of the text? Restrict your answer to one of these two:

  1. Often enough to do as well as I want to
  2. Not often enough to do as well as I want to

If your answer is “a,” don’t mess with a winning streak. No need to spend time on this post; go do your reading.

If your answer is “b,” however, then the UBER method can change your academic life.

If you’re actively choosing not to read for class, then at least you’re exercising free will. But many of us don’t read (or not much), yet wish we could magically absorb books. We want to have done the reading, but somehow can’t manage to do it. When I played the “super-power” game for the first time in my life—“If you could have one super-power, what would it be?”—my answer was, “The ability to read a 500-page book in an hour with perfect comprehension.” All these years later, my answer is still the same.

My super-power wish betrays a common preconception: that reading needs to be done from beginning to end without skipping anything. Reading every word from start to finish is ideal, at least in the respect that most literature, fiction and nonfiction, is written to be read this way. If I’m reading for pleasure, I read from beginning to end (though not everyone does this; it’s a matter of personal preference). But reading for course work involves an important utilitarian consideration: if I understand the substance of the reading, who cares if I didn’t read every word? And what difference does it make if I read the pages out of order?

The essence of the UBER method is simple and practical. Be goal-directed. Read what you need to read.

Reading every word and following every thought in a text step by step is a beautiful thing. But when we’re having trouble getting reading done, we have to be willing to sacrifice beauty. We’re going to read in an ugly but efficient way. That’s the UBER method: Ugly But Efficient Reading.1

The first thing to do when using the UBER method is—don’t read the text!—at least not yet. Walk around it for a few minutes; survey it. You’re not going to dive into the reading, you’re going to figure out what you need to get out of it, and then go fishing in the best spots. You’re not going to wade slowly but dutifully through all the pages; you’re going to look things up.

The UBER (Ugly But Efficient Reading) Method

  1. Consider the context. What do you already know? How does this reading relate to the course material? (This latter question you can ask your professor outright, if it’s not clear to you.)
  2. Gather clues. Also known as “pre-reading,” this is when you read all the easy stuff and learn as much as possible as fast as possible. The first things you should read are:
    • the book cover
    • the summary on the back cover (or the abstract of the article)
    • the table of contents
    • pictures and captions
    • charts, graphs, tables, notes
    • questions at the end of the chapter; and then…
  3. STOP. What do you know now? More importantly, given what you’ve learned from the clues you’ve gathered, what do you now want to know about this reading? Ask questions.
  4. Find out where the text is going to end up. Read the last paragraph (or two). Then read the first paragraph to see where and how the text begins, and ask more questions: What is important in this reading? What is the last paragraph saying? What don’t you understand yet? What do you need to find out more about?
  5. Finally, read whatever parts of the text you need to in order to answer your questions. In other words, read to learn what you need to know.2

The key to the UBER method is making sure you have accomplishable goals in front of you at all times. Finding answers to questions you have, especially when you have the text that the answers are in, is an accomplishable goal. For some of us, the prospect of a dense 40-page article on a subject we don’t find interesting feels daunting enough that we avoid even starting it. Now compare having to read that article straight through to having an untimed open-book exam on it. Passing an open-book exam is an accomplishable goal.

So, open your books and get out of them what you need. Ugly But Efficient Reading is much more enlightening than perfect reading that doesn’t get done at all.


P.S. Try the UBER method out on this post. Read the title and the footnotes, the lists, and the phrases in bold type. Then read the final paragraphs, then the first couple of paragraphs. See how much you can learn just from these?


  1. The reading strategies in this post are not original on my part; in fact they’re well known among reading teachers. However, the acronym “UBER” for “Ugly But Efficient Reading” is my own invention. 

  2. Now, don’t be a dope: what you need to know is not defined by what you learn until you get bored; it’s what you need to know to participate intelligently and confidently in a class discussion. 

No Freedom Without Representation. No Representation Without Reading.

A learner is one who walks the paths to knowledge. Knowledge leads to freedom. Take, for example, Frederick Douglass.1

While still a slave Douglass learned to read and write, which he accomplished by cajoling some white boys to tutor him without knowing that’s what they were doing. Now, Douglass had suffered the horrors and indignities of slavery before becoming literate, but it was only after he began reading that he became fully conscious of just how intolerable his condition was, and why it was intolerable. In other words, he knew, before learning to read, that he was a slave, but he only knew it as a matter of fact. When as a child, cowering in a closet, he inadvertently witnessed the whipping of his aunt, he experienced shock and terror, anticipating that the leather would be turned against him in due course. This and multiple other devastating events, left unreflected upon in illiteracy, might very well have made of Douglass’s whole life one long, unending trauma. His autobiographical Narrative, however, transformed these horrors into history, into a perspective on human behavior and relations, that continues to serve as a moral touchstone in our civilization.

It was only after learning to read that Douglass was able, while in the midst of experiencing, to represent his experiences to himself, because the very acts of both writing and reading are acts of representation. Writing and reading externalize words from human speech. Words on a page are objective containers of sentences that were originally thought by a subjective author. Printed words stand outside and apart from the subject-writer and the subject-reader. When Douglass learned his letters, then his alphabet, then the sentences of his appropriated composition book, he developed his brain in such a way as to be able to symbolize inner experiences outside of himself. Always before, when illiterate, he’d felt the freezing cold through a whole winter with only a single coarse, knee-length shirt and no pants, shoes, or jacket; his bones felt that. But those winters were not part of any narrative, in the most fundamental sense, until he was able to step outside of his experiences and see himself in them by representing the events of his life to himself in language.

Douglass describes, upon learning to read, how he came to understand the implications of what being a slave meant. Before reading, slavery was the epitome of misery. But it wasn’t until after reading that slavery became, in Douglass’s mind and heart, repugnant to moral conscience and loathsome in all human feeling. The realization of this exacted a heavy toll. Douglass was now burdened not only by his condition but also by an acute consciousness of his condition. He fell into a depression. After a climactic, revolutionary fistfight with an especially vicious master, Douglass might have continued as a slave, sullen and belligerent as he had become at that point in his life, but he had gained something from reading that would change the course of his reality: concepts.

Slavery was no longer the de facto necessary condition of Frederick Douglass’s existence, as it had been when the main thing he knew about himself was that he was owned by someone else. But now he had developed the understanding, reading the Columbian Orator, that slavery was unnecessary, that it was imposed, and that it must be stopped, beginning with his own emancipation. For Douglass, freedom began as a fresh concept. His knowledge of the ideas of slavery and freedom enabled him, first of all, to imagine a different life for himself and for others suffering the same fate. He was then able to judge what was right. And he was empowered thus to act in accordance with his convictions.

Frederick Douglass escaped and became a free citizen. He went on to become an advisor to President Abraham Lincoln, a U.S. marshall, a diplomat, an influential public speaker, a newspaper publisher, and author of three autobiographical accounts of his life. These are all very impressive lines on a resume, but what impresses me most about Douglass’s work—apart from his writings, which are of incalculable value to successive generations—were his active support of abolition and of women’s rights. The concepts he learned did not—do not—only apply within a single cause. His knowledge transcended the boundaries of his original political affiliations. What was right and worth doing were realms larger than himself, larger than his personal experiences. Learning and knowledge connected Douglass with, and called him to act in, the world beyond the self.


  1. Douglass’s birthday anniversary is February 17th, the occasion of this post. 

The Sevenfold Structure of All But the Most Outrageously Experimental Plots

The Sevenfold Structure of All But the Most Outrageously Experimental Plots

Beginning

  1. Exposition / Setting: what is the status quo? Introduce characters, establish relationships and set the scene in which will occur a totally unexpected . . .

  2. Complication: some new element — an event, new information, new problem, often the appearance of the antagonist, — which in turn sparks a . . .

  3. Purpose: something set off in the protagonist (and possibly the same or an opposing purpose set off in one or a few others) by the introduction of the new element (i.e. the complication) that both points to an as-yet unrevealed motive, and generates a super-objective for the character(s).

Middle

  1. Conflict & Rising Action: a function of opposing objectives between characters, or between the character(s) and some other force. This is the classic man vs . . . theme: man vs. man (Connell, The Most Dangerous Game; W.C. Williams, The Use of Force; Crane, The Blue Hotel; Shaw, The Girls in Their Summer Dresses); man vs. himself (Charles Jackson, The Lost Weekend; Joyce, Eveline; Barth, Night-Sea Journey; Poe, The Tell-Tale Heart); man vs. environment (including man vs. society, man vs. nature, man vs. fate, man vs. machine, &c . . . : Orwell, 1984; Vonnegut, Harrison Bergeron; London, To Build a Fire; Salinger, A Perfect Day for Bananafish; Sophocles, Oedipus Rex & Oedipus at Colonus; traditional, John Henry).

The meat of the plot occurs through the Rising Action, which is an escalating dialectic between the protagonist as driven by his purpose, and the forces working against that purpose. In effect, the protagonist tries something, is frustrated by the forces of the antagonist’s counter-purpose (or the story’s obstacle), and there is a result from this, which, in turn, sparks the protagonist to try something else, to which the forces of the counter-purpose or obstacle respond . . . &c. At each stage of the rising action the stakes increase, as does the drama & pathos (& absurdity, if a comedy). This continues until the protagonist reaches a . . .

  1. Crisis: figuratively, a dark night of the soul. This is when all seems lost, hopeless (that is, for the accomplishment of the protagonist’s objective), because the protagonist has run out his standard repertoire of ideas & actions to take: the status quo will no longer work; the conflict can escalate no further.

End

  1. Climax: In response to the crisis, the protagonist takes some action outside the realm of normal behavior (normal for him, that is — i.e. outside the boundaries of the established status quo), in a final confrontation between the conflicting characters/forces. Out of this final confrontation comes the . . .

  2. Resolution / Denouement: the settling of the conflict; the bringing to light of dark motives; the learning of lessons. The status quo, as a result, is forever changed by the occurrence (or knowledge of) the preceding conflict & climax; thus the plot ends with a fundamental change of condition: marriage (Philip Barry, The Philadelphia Story); death (Shakespeare, Hamlet); rebirth (Homer, Odyssey); sadder & wiser (Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner); freedom (E.J. Gaines, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman); &c.

Notes

Obviously the particular expressions of this sevenfold structure will differ from plot to plot. For example, in Stephan Crane’s story The Blue Hotel, between the crisis and the climax comes a second exposition. In John Updike’s A & P, the complication is introduced in the very first sentence (“In walks three girls in nothing but bathing suits”). Both of these stories, however, make full use of all seven plot elements, as do all but the most outrageously experimental works of fiction and drama.

If you’re writing a story, a plot can germinate from any one of the above stages.

How to Take Notes While Reading an Essay (Annotation)

In the margin of your text, write at least one note next to every single paragraph. Each note can be just a few words, or a short sentence. In your entire set of notes, include at least one (preferably more than one) of each of the following kinds:

  1. Main idea in this paragraph (a good way to find the main idea is to start by writing: In this paragraph I hear the author saying… and seeing what comes next)

  2. Purpose (what is the author trying to achieve in this paragraph?)

  3. Intended audience: to whom is the author directing (all or one particular part of) this paragraph?

  4. Rhetorical strategy (rhetorical strategies include asking questions, giving examples, creating an image, making a metaphor, defining a term or phrase, comparing/contrasting, threatening with something worse, offering something better, praise, satire, personal report/confession, laying the groundwork for an argument…&c.)

  5. Logical device (logical devices include syllogism (if A is true and B is true, then C must be true), appeals to authority (e.g. if a Nobel prize-winner says it, it must be true), guilt, etc.)

  6. Any interesting comparison you notice to statements in other things you’ve read (e.g. Compare this to what Orwell says on page…)

  7. Anything else that feels important to note.

Short Story Elements

You can use this form to take notes while reading (or planning to write) a short story:

 

Story:

Author:

 

Protagonist:

 

Other characters:

 

Narrator:

 

Setting:

 

Plot structure, including important events:

Status quo:

Complication:

Protagonist’s purpose, & counter-purpose of antagonist(s):

Conflict, & summary of events in rising action:

Crisis:

Climax:

Resolution & dénouement:

 

Tone:

 

Style:

 

Irony:

 

Theme(s):

 

Symbols:

 

Evaluation:

Go Fish in
Streams of Consciousness:

absenceacceptanceaccomplishmentADHDaimsanalysisannotationanxietyAPAappearanceappleappreciationargumentartistaskingattachmentattentionawarenessBatmanbeingblank mindblissboatboring!brainstormingbraverycandlescenter of gravitychoicechoosing collegecognitioncommunicationcompassionconclusionconfidenceconsciousnessconversationcreative writingcreativitydawdlingdiagnosisdoorsdramadreamdrinkingecologyemotionenergyessaysessentialevidenceexamexcitementexecutive functionexerciseexperienceexpositionfailurefearfeelingfightfigurationflowfootballfrederick douglassfreewritinggamegedankenexperimentgesturegetting startedgoalgrammarhappinesshealinghearthonorhopehumanideasimaginationimagination_exerciseimplexinnovationinspirationinstinctinterestjubileekinestheticknifeknowledgelogicloudlovemagicmanagemasterymeaningmechanicsmedicationmeditationmetacognitionmilitarymindmistakesMLAmothermotivationmountainnontraditional collegenote-takingnotesorganizeout-of-the-boxparticipationpartspassionpatiencepeak-experiencepedagogyperseverancepersistencephysicalizeplanplayingplaywrightingplotpoetrypositive pointingpre-writingpreferenceprepositionpresenceprioritiesprocessprocrastinationprofessorsproofreadingputteringquestionsreadingrealityreflectionrelationshiprelaxationrepresentationreservesresourcesresponseresponsibilityrevisingsanctuaryself-actualizationself-assessmentself-relianceseptembershort storysocratic methodsoulspacestorystrengthsstressstudyingsuccesssummariessynthesistalkingtasksteachingtechniquetest anxietytest-takingThanksgivingthemethesisthinkingtimetolerancetomorrowtreetrusttruthunderstandingveteransvisualizationvoicewaldorfwelcomewholewillwillpowerwomenwordsworkingwriter's blockwritingyearningyesterday

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