A couple years ago, I attended a lecture by Zadie Smith at Trinity University. She read excerpts from her book of essays, “Changing My Mind” and answered a couple questions from the audience.
One young man asked her something along the lines of, “What is your advice to those who want to become better readers?”
Her response not only shaped how I read books, it has shaped my entire approach to living.
She said, (quoting from memory), “Put effort to really understand what a writer is saying. Look up the words you are not familiar with. If you don’t know the definition of the word the writer is using you could easily misunderstand the entire argument.” (More thoughts about how to become a better reader here.)
This advice is VERY difficult to follow on a practical basis.
I find myself reading late at night, easily exhausted by the constant stop-start motion of looking up a definition and continuing to read the book. By the third word, I usually get lazy, and continue reading even though my comprehension is dropping below 50%.
But when I do listen to her advice, the results are addicting.
It’s like going to the optometrist for a yearly check-up and discovering that your eyesight has drastically changed. The world suddenly snaps into clear focus, and you can’t believe you’ve walked in haze all the time.
I applied this advice to studying Science as well. While reading my Anatomy and Physiology textbook, if I come across a word I somewhat know, I look it up. This small effort manifests tenfold in my understanding of the bigger picture.
It also applies in social scenarios as well. A lot of idioms, sayings or expressions are lost on me. They go right over my head. But I am classically known to ask, “what does that mean?”
Things like, “waiting for the other shoe to drop” or “don’t give me those crocodile tears.”
Even if I kind of have a sense of what it means, I always shoot for 100% understanding. Which makes me kind of annoying, I realize 🙂 But it’s worth it for me, because, my assumptions could be wrong. A foundation based on a wrong assumption could lead to a host of problems. Misunderstanding a friend’s story could lead in a lack of empathy or understanding for their emotional state.
I also apply this advice to my informal geography studies. (ha!) So if I come across a country that I’ve either never heard of, or know of, but don’t know the exact location, I look it up.
For example, Zambia. It came up naturally in conversation the other day, and I knew this country was in Africa, but I didn’t know the exact region. So I looked it up.
Sure, I’ll probably forget where it is in a couple weeks, but the more often I do this, the more likely this information will be stored in my long-term memory bank. (This is essentially the Kaizen approach in action.)
Anyways, follow this advice at your own risk. It’s time consuming, and it could be construed as annoying to constantly ask your friends to explain idioms, but in my experience, the benefits outweigh the cost. 🙂
Cheers to learning,