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5 Tips on How to Read Big Books at University

These novels sit proudly on bookcases all around the world

George Elliot’s Middlemarch (904 pages), Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (635 pages), Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1,225 pages), Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (904 pages) and, the big daddy of all of them, James Joyce’s winding stream-of-consciousness modernist epic Ulysses (1000 pages). The question is, how do you actually read big books?

They make their owners look very clever and intellectual, but very few people have actually read them all the way through. When you decided on your English major, you probably underestimated how much reading would come with it. So how are you going to do it in time for your seminar?

1. Do your research

If you’re going to get the most out of your book, you are going to need all the help you can get. The more you know about the book before you start reading, the more sense it will make along the way. Try to find out:

  • Who is the author?
  • What was happening in their life when they wrote it?
  • What was happening in the wider society?
  • How long did it take them to write?
  • What had they written previously and how had it been received?
  • How was the book originally published? Was it serialised?

Also, find out if anyone you know has read it before. That person can become your expert to guide you through the huge world you are about to enter.

2. Divide it up

The bigger the book, the more daunting it will seem. But don’t sit in front of a 1,000-page novel panicking. Divide it up into manageable chunks. If you’re happy to fold down corners of pages, fold the bottom right corner of every 100th page. Then you can use the top right corner to track your progress. That way, you’ll be able to feel your way to the next milestone as you go.

Ulysses looks intimidating, but it’s already divided into 18 shorter episodes. If you attempt one of those a day for 18 days, the whole task suddenly seems less daunting. You can even draw up a reading schedule. Set out how much you want to get done in each sitting and if you manage to fall behind on a day, don’t worry. Fix the schedule and keep ongoing.

3. Find out where you read well

You’re going to have to be comfortable to read big books for your English course. Find a space that suits you and take advantage of it. You could even rearrange some furniture and build yourself a reading nook with cushions and a lamp and somewhere to put a cup of tea.

It’s important that you have as few distractions as possible. Turn off your phone. Ignore the outside world. There’s only you and this great work of literature. Give it your full attention.

4. Take breaks

There’s no point tiring yourself out attempting marathon reading sessions fuelled by constant cups of coffee, leaving your eyes tired and your brain frazzled. You’ve got to take some of it in.

Give yourself regular breaks. You could do some housework or get out of the house and see people. You might find that breaking up a particularly challenging section with a trip to the gym or a bike ride gives your brain the chance to process what you’ve read. Chances are, you’ll come back to it refreshed and ready to engage with it better.

5. Actually read it!

So, we’re stating the obvious here, but it’s true. If you’re going learn how to read big books, you’ve got to actually sit down and read them. The longer you spend tip-toeing around the task and making excuses, the less time you leave yourself to actually read it. With a big task like this, there are no shortcuts. It’s not enough to just watch the BBC dramatisation of Middlemarch – your tutor will definitely know.

The only way you will read a big book is by sitting down and reading it.

Enjoyed this? Why not check out one of our other articles.

Using Music To Learn A New Language

With apps such as Spotify and Apple Music making any song you want to hear immediately accessible, why should we not utilise it to its full extent: as a means of learning a new language. Ever had a song stuck in your head? Our brains latch on to catchy tunes. People will listen to their favourite song on repeat until they know every word off by heart, and so imagine how useful this could be when learning a language?

Song lyrics help you learn vocabulary in context

Rather than simply learning the words, song lyrics typically are talking about a specific topic, and so you better understand which words are used in which context. Quite often, we will have different words used for different situations (ie. you may tell your mother that you are feeling frustrated, but tell your friend that you are %@!&$ off – same meaning, different words)

Or, the same word may mean different things depending on the context (ie. “that is my phone” and “phone me” – in one context it is being used as a noun, the other as a doing word).

Music is portable

The beauty of modern technology is that it can be enjoyed everywhere. On your bus to work, you could be listening to foreign songs, learning languages while just relaxing. Gone are the days of lugging around giant textbooks, you have access to all the songs in the world from your device. Simply go onto Spotify (although, of course, other music streaming apps are available) and you can search for songs by country!

Learn the REAL language

Textbooks will give you super formal language, but it can be hard to understand what natives are saying as they will use colloquial dialect and slang. Music is the best way to learn what language native speakers authentically use, and will make it easier for you to engage in enjoyable conversation.

Imagine this scenario:

Someone comes up to you and says “How do you do, sir. The weather is rather enjoyable today, is it not?” versus someone who says “alright, mate. Bloody hot today, innit?”

Who are you more likely to engage in enjoyable and fluent conversation with?

Singing helps!

Yes, singing can be a little embarrassing, but the University of Edinburgh found that your chances of learning a language double when you sing the phrases you are trying to memorise. Singing can also help with pronunciation! You get more used to the sound of the language and saying the actual words. So whether it is in the shower, while cooking dinner, or at a karaoke bar, get to singing those foreign songs!

How To Be A Better Learner

For international students, going to university or college can sometimes feel like an uphill struggle. Moving to a new country. Experiencing a new culture. Getting to grips with a new way of learning. A lot of people don’t realise that learning how to learn is a big part of getting a college education. All over the world, we’re taught to make arguments and write essays differently.

What a lot of people don’t realise is that committing to an academic education, in a different country or language, involves far more than just regurgitating the answers in a textbook. It’s a brand new way of thinking, speaking, writing and presenting. Developing good study habits is therefore one of the most important things that international students can learn to truly succeed alongside their peers. Luckily, we’ve compiled our top tips on how to be a better learner at university or college.

How to be a better learner

8 ways to study more effectively

  1. Make a plan for studying at a specific time each day.
  2. Don’t put off your scheduled study time unless absolutely necessary.
  3. Create a specific goal for each study session, such as memorising a specific range of information.
  4. Always begin each session by reviewing your notes from class.
  5. Study in groups regularly to help you remember more effectively.
  6. Keep any and all distractions away from you while you study.
  7. Begin each study session with the most difficult subject or topic so you stay focused.
  8. Stay sharp over the weekend with refresher study sessions.

Tips for more effective time management

  1. Create a dedicated study space to avoid having to wander in search of one.
  2. Prioritise your assignments based on due dates and complexity.
  3. Arrange your studying schedule with blocks of 45 minutes to an hour for each study session.
  4. Always schedule personal activities after your schoolwork to avoid conflicts or procrastination.
  5. Get sufficient sleep, eat right, and exercise. Being healthy helps maintain your focus, reducing wasted time.
  6. Work with a study group whenever possible to cover material faster.
  7. Create a support network of peers, faculty and advisers to turn to for instant help when you become frustrated or overwhelmed.
  8. Make sure you can be flexible with your schedule in case you run into trouble with any subject.

Check out our useful infographic

Special thanks to Fahd Albinali for providing us with this infographic. Fahd Albinali is an Arab-American blogger whose writings focus on the Islamic perspective on moral and social issues that face families in the West. A technologist by training, he works closely with IQRA Network to develop advanced online methods to teach Arabic and Quran.