How to Understand Difficult College Reading (the easy way)

Your teacher assigns a book that once you start reading you realize you have no idea what's going on. You're expected to participate in class discussion, or start an assignment, but you're not even sure if the thoughts you do have about the work are in line with its content.

Some texts are really difficult to understand, often because the authors use specialized language or because the concepts are dense and unfamiliar to you.

Don't let that stop you from kicking ass in discussion and getting a stellar grade on your assignment. There are ways to make life easier for yourself than struggling through re-readings that don't make the information more clear.

I'll show you the easy, 2-step method that will take you from completely clueless to master-of-the-text.

Take this quote for example. This is from Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guatarri's notoriously difficult book, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia.

[The book] forms a rhizome with the world, there is an aparallel evolution of the book and the world; the book assures the deterritorialization of the world, but the world effects a reterritorialization of the book, which in turn deterritorializes itself in the world (if it is capable, if it can).

How would anyone who's not familiar with these terms and concepts ever going to make sense of this?

Plenty of college required reading is difficult and unfamiliar. While your professor is going to help guide you through the texts, you're not doing yourself any favors by simply trying to follow along.

If you're stumbling through Dante's Inferno, or Kant's The Critique of Pure Reason, there is one simple thing you can do to make your life much easier.

Put your book down.

Ok, that's just the first half-step. But you need to stop reading the minute you find the content to be over your head. I'm going to repeat that right now in a quote.

You need to stop reading the minute you find the content to be over your head.

This practice will change the way you approach academic reading and writing forever.

Let's stick with Kant as our example. The Critique of Pure Reason is difficult to understand. It's full of complex ideas, and the language is outdated. You're going to waste A LOT of time if you try to painfully sift through the multiple meanings of each sentence.

In fact, I do this for nearly EVERY book I read, because it makes understanding a text SO MUCH EASIER, and I am able to write informed, nuanced essays about it later.

The trick?


Reading someone else's essay about the book you're expected to discuss or write about will do a few things:

  1. It will put the text in a larger historical context

  2. It will explain key ideas in the text (so you're getting an abridged version that's often simplified and easy to understand)

  3. It will connect the work to the work of others

  4. It will come with an evaluation

  5. It will spark your critical thinking abilities

Once you've read one or two essays about the work, you'll feel ten times MORE CONFIDENT participating in discussion, because not only have you understood the key ideas in the text, you also know more about the conditions surrounding it (its critical reception, problems, and ideas/projects spawned from it, etc). You'll also gain more insight into the intellectual landscape of the time by reading a commentary about the book.  

My preferred site for finding good academic essays is JSTOR. For philosophy in particular, the Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy is helpful.

You're not going to perform a google search and get the information you need.

You want high-level academic work that can illuminate the text for you, while still being academically rigorous. 

You're not looking for a wikipedia entry, you're looking for an essay that gives you INSIGHT into the work, not basic facts about the key ideas.

And the bonus is, you can save the essays to use in your assignment later (you've already read them).

I encourage you to TAKE NOTES while reading the essay. These can be saved to reference during discussion or to use for the assignment.

Now, there are just a few more steps to take you from completely clueless to mastering the text.

After reading one or two essays on the text, you may pick up your book again. It will go much faster now that you know what the general ideas are, why the book was written, and what key ideas look like.

You'll have become more familiar with difficult concepts on a simpler level, so when you encounter them in a difficult text you can pull more nuanced understanding from it. Now take notes on this text too. Pull quotes, note pages of particularly dense and confusing material, make comments in the margin when you have a thought -- no matter how basic or irrelevant it seems. This is called CRITICAL THINKING, and it's the most important part of the learning process.

Now you're going to do just one more thing to master the text.

You've got notes from the essay, you've got notes from the main text. This exercise will help you in class discussion, and it will help you determine possible essay topics if that's an assignment looming over you.

Write down 3 discussion questions. Just 3, and they don't even all have to be questions.

You can ask something as simple as "what is the meaning of..." -- and if you've highlighted or underlined a particularly confusing passage, you're going to be able to do this one quite easily.

Or, try turning a concept that you read about into a claim about the contemporary world. Does it still stick? For example, in A.C. Ewing's review of Kant's Critique, he poses a question: "whether synthetic a priori judgements are possible." You can take that question you've found in the essay, and try and answer it on your own terms while at the same time bringing it into the contemporary sphere. Has technology changed a principle that's been discussed, or not?

Discussion questions/statements are there to enable you to participate in class. If you're simply reading a question off of a piece of paper, the pressure's off. And since you're asking, you most likely don't have to give the answer, though you may want to weigh in.

The double-niftiness of discussion questions/statements is that they're easy fodder for a thesis statement.

If you want an easy go-to form for answering discussion questions, I've got you covered. I created a worksheet that will enable you to ratchet up your reading comprehension and come to class prepared to discuss even the most difficult books.

It's always helpful to get oriented before you launch into reading a book, even something as basic as a Jane Austen novel.

You're not reading for fun, you're reading academically, which means that you're expected to connect the reading to other ideas, be it critical theory, current events, or a cultural moment.

So you need to read with purpose, with intent.

Let another text guide you through your primary reading and you'll see what a difference it makes in your academic life!

And yes, you will still come up with original ideas - creativity flows stronger when it's put into a container.

What tools do you use to better understand difficult texts?