Reading is Useless: A 10-Week Experiment in Contemplative Reading

Graduate students read a lot. We’re expected to consume hundreds of pages of dense writing every week. We’re taught to skim so that we gain an understanding of texts in less time. But skimming can build the skill of pretending to know something at a greater level than we do. It contributes to imposter syndrome and manifests as groundlessness, two common conditions in #PhDlife. Reading becomes pressurized, like a race to finish or know enough about one text in order to move onto the next. Speaking from my own experience, I plow through moments of confusion and bypass words I don’t know. When I see a citation or criticism that feels particularly opportune, I’ll download it or reserve it at the library, but I rarely make the time to read it. I might skim before needing to return it, but it’s often the case that if I get to it, I’ll have forgotten why I wanted to read it in the first place.

In my second year of PhD coursework, I am beginning to prepare for the general exam — a massive reading and writing effort that will help me discover the conversations, methods, and theories that matter to those I most want to write with, to, and for. I will spend hours, weeks, months reading, digesting, and synthesizing. I will then demonstrate my understanding through writing and an oral defense. I do not want that experience to feel like some unrelenting ultra-marathon. I want it to feel alive and loving, nourishing and compelling. I want to feel hungry and then full and then hungry again.

To build the skills to do that, I spent the last quarter — about ten weeks time — experimenting with contemplative reading. I do not mean I spent the quarter reading texts that were contemplative in nature. While I read a few poems and contemplative texts to experience contemplatively reading contemplative writing, most of my readings were of the typical academic style. By contemplative reading, I mean that I made space for the experience of reading itself. I acknowledged what happened in my heart and body, not just my brain. I explored ways of reading that honored presence, slowness, creativity, and embodiment. I also, at times, tried to read for reading’s sake, rather than to finish or know (that was the hardest of all!).

This post is a reflection on that experience. It is meant to be an offering to anyone who experiences reading as burdensome or joyless. It is not meant to suggest what contemplative reading might be for you or to be an authority on which ways of reading are or are not contemplative. It is also not meant to devalue any way of reading, useful or otherwise.

There are three parts:

  • the experience of reading
  • discovery, annotation, and synthesis
  • what reading is good for

May this post inspire you to play with reading and experiment for yourselves. May it help you find the experience of reading nourishing and joyful. May reading, like all things we do, become an invitation to experience the miracle that we are alive — still, and in the first place. And may we use the very act of reading itself to challenge the idea that life is about collecting the most knowledge or arriving at some finish line or final page.


Part One: The Experience of Reading

For the first part of this reflection, I want to share how I attended to the experience of reading itself through several interventions.

Intervention №1: Having a Reading Discipline

As with many contemplative practices, contemplative reading requires discipline. For me, this meant I sat down with the intention to read contemplatively and I minimized distractions while I read. If I was at home, I told my partner that I preferred to not be interrupted. If I was in public, I put headphones on (without playing music). I silenced my phone and if I became bored or curious about what was happening in my inbox or on social media, I waited until I finished the article or chapter before checking.

Intervention №2: Giving Myself Time

One of Thich Nhat Hanh’s instructions for how to do something mindfully is to give yourself two to three times the amount of time you’d normally need to do the activity. I gave myself more than enough time to read what I intended to read. This slowed my reading down and made it considerably more spacious. I could go at my own pace to absorb the text and be with it.

Intervention №3: Setting a Mindfulness Bell

A mindfulness bell is something that reminds us to be present to our body and breathing. It can be anything — the buzz of your phone alerting you to a new message, the siren of a fire truck going by, the call of a bird. I chose to create a mindfulness bell while I read by using the meditation app, Insight Timer. After trying different settings across reading sessions, I found the “Infinity” mode with a bell every three minutes to be my preference. This instructed the app to ring a soft bell at three minute intervals until I was finished reading and stopped the app. At the ringing of each bell, I would physically and mentally come back to the room. I would notice my breathing, my posture, and check my senses (hearing was often the easiest sense to connect with in these moments). I also began to note where I was in the text by marking a small circle in the margin. This helped me to see how my reading pace was distributed across time.

Intervention №4: Marking What I Don’t Understand

As I read, if I came across a word, reference, argument or idea that I didn’t understand, I highlighted it in a different color. This small effort allowed me to check in with myself and ask the question, “Are you understanding?” Most important, it made it okay to answer “No.” At the end of my reading, I would make a list of the those highlights and sometimes I investigated words or concepts or references as a result.

Intervention №5: The Posture of Reading

During these ten weeks, the form factor of my reading ranged from physical printouts and books to digital PDFs and eBooks. I often read sitting in an armchair with a piece of wood as a lap desk. I rested my notebook, where I record my annotations, and my reading material side-by-side. I experimented with various configurations, including intentionally holding my reading material closer to my eyes and vertically higher than I normally would. I even tried using a music stand to place my reading material at gentle angle and distance. On a couple occasions, I read with a pair of magnifying readers that a friend forgot when he last visited. These experiments helped me to acknowledge that the body reads, too, not just the brain.

Results

Over these ten weeks, I cultivated a reading space — figuratively and literally — that was welcome and joyful. At times, I was able to connect to my senses, emotions, and thinking. I experienced reading in a new way and I don’t want to return to the old way of doing it.

That said, reading contemplatively takes time, intention, and environmental consideration. I don’t know if you can squeeze it in here or there. It encourages slowness, which may not seem possible given the demands of life, a particular course, or your advisor.

As I approach the general exam, I hope I am able to value and prioritize the discipline, time, process, and embodied experience of reading. Not because I’ll “read better,” but because it’s my life I’m living while I’m reading. To quote Annie Dillard, “How we spend our days is of course how we spend our lives.”


Part Two: Discovery, Annotation, Synthesis

For this part of my reflection, I explore the ways in which I discovered, annotated, and synthesized what I read. In a way, these activities are also attending to the experience of reading itself, but on a broader, more comprehensive level than my focused interventions.

Discovery

I spent some time this summer in residence at a public library where I introduced contemplative practices and facilitated discussions about mindfulness with library staff and the public. As a result, I was curious to know more about measuring mindfulness and also about the ethics of mindfulness-based interventions. For this quarter’s experiment, I resisted creating a reading list and, instead, selected readings intuitively. I still ended up reading about measures and ethics, but I also read about compassion, religion, oppression, higher education, librarianship, democracy, and whiteness. I felt a greater sense of agency because I got to decide what to read each time I read. Choosing intuitively meant I looked forward to making a choice about what to read.

Annotation

I also tried annotating contemplatively (annotating for the sake of annotating) and often failed (I would annotate for the sake of referencing). I found it challenging to let go of a future orientation while annotating. Future-me wanted key points, a pithy summary, or perfectly distilled insight. But there were a few things I ended up doing that worked. For example, I began underlining for resonance instead of for key points. And I created a fairly complicated system of annotations in my journal. This slowed my notes down and made them more process-oriented. I believe I experienced the text in a different way than if I had annotated in a purely intellectual, instrumental, or future-oriented way. At the same time, I still have the sense that I will regret not having more structured reference notes for the articles I read this quarter.

Synthesis

I used several contemplative practices to synthesize the material I read. I practiced a secular form of reading inspired by lectio divina, where I read very carefully and slowly and sat with passages, acknowledging what words or phrases resonated. I sat in meditation before or after reading. I had thoughtful discussions with my partner and also my advisor. I also used freewriting and drawing to respond to readings or to understand points. These practices became like tools in a toolbox. When my mind needed to settle on something, I could afford to give it space and time. When my hands needed to think for me, I could give them a sketchbook and a drawing pen. When I needed the words to write themselves, I could freewrite. I would have never made time for these activities without this experiment. Now that I see their value, I hope I’ll be able to prioritize time and space for them.

Results

Giving more space, time, and attention to discovery, annotation, and synthesis requires a good bit of trust. You must trust your intuition. You must trust the process. And you must trust that you’ll find a way to make meaning, eventually. For me, trusting those things made the experience of reading something to look forward to. Reading became a generally playful space where I had agency and could be creative. But to give more space, time, and attention to something means you must have space, time, and attention to give. Looking to the future, I’ll not only have to be very intentional about my reading environment, I’ll have to also prioritize my intuition and be patient and trusting with myself.


Part Three: What Reading is Good For

For this final part of my reflection, I explore the usefulness of reading. I chart how I’m holding the ideas I encounter as provisional, how I’m sitting with their paradoxes, and how I’m finding ways to proceed despite the complexity and uncertainty they reveal.

When I titled this post “reading is useless,” I was referring to a Zen saying that goes, “Meditation is useless.” It means that you meditate to meditate, not to use it for something. And like the saying, I’m being provocative. Of course reading is not useless. We read in useful ways all the time and for good reason. Reading expands our horizons, it helps us understand things, it complicates, it validates, it clarifies. There’s nothing wrong with reading (or meditating for that matter) with a goal in mind, but maybe there is something wrong if we feel we can’t read unless it’s good for something.

This quarter’s experiment was an effort to allow myself space to “read to read,” nothing more and certainly nothing less. With more time and fewer expectations, I realized that so much happens while I read, the most important of which are the moments and hours of my life. I am smelling, hearing, seeing, feeling, even tasting. What I read takes up place in my thoughts, yes, and also in my heart and bones. My body, which includes my brain, reads along with me and holds the ideas I encounter.

This suggests to me that reading isn’t just about knowing in an intellectual way, it’s also about holding what I read. The things I read this quarter were held by my body, my dreams, my conversations with others, my drawings and journal entries. I mean holding in an active way, like holding something in your hands in front of you. It takes endurance and patience to actively hold something for very long. As scholars, we need to cultivate patience and endurance for what we read. We need to hold it without doing something with it right away, without having to know.

I realize that what I’m suggesting may feel unrealistic, particularly in a reputation-based field that rewards those who are well-read and know things. But maybe the problem is the system itself. What if being an expert was less about amassing knowledge and more about an abiding and playful curiosity with our chosen domain, an effortful holding of the ideas we encounter? We must read in the useful ways we always have, yes. But also, I have come to feel that we must make time to read just to read and for no other reason than that. This quarter’s experiment has taught me that I must do both to become the scholar I want to be — a person who can hold uncertainty as well as she can hold knowledge, who can be slow and discerning, and insatiably curious and eager at the same time.

Practically speaking, I’m finding the word provisional helps me do this. If I only need to arrive at a provisional understanding, I can be patient with myself. I can welcome paradox and complication, whereas before I might be frustrated at those things because they delay arriving at a conclusion. As the things I read click into place and build momentum—as I begin to feel that I know—I treat that knowing as provisional. I try to hold it at a distance so that I do not cling to it. I communicate this provisional nature to others by using phrases like, “here’s how I’m holding this right now,” instead of “here’s what I know.” Holding ideas as provisional makes it easier for me to accept complexity and paradox. It doesn’t mean I didn’t know what I thought I knew, it just changes how I’m holding that provisional idea.


As I reflect on this quarter’s experiment and what I’ve learned, I find myself remembering the day I cheered on my friend Kate while she ran her first marathon. I stood on the side of the road waving a sign that said, “Where is everybody going?” The sign brought many runners a laugh as they passed by, probably because it touched on a couple of truths: 1) thousands of people running for hours in a big circle is absurd; and 2) there’s hardly a better way to achieve the fitness required to do a marathon than to run one.

Getting a PhD is its own sort of marathon. The mileposts are not numbers, but stages: the general exam, the dissertation proposal, the defense. There’s hardly a better way to achieve the level of mental fitness and rigor a PhD gives you, but it risks becoming absurd if we race through the experiences of reading and writing to reach the finish. I often find myself operating with urgency. I see my colleagues running alongside me, reading and writing with the same urgency. Where is everybody going?

Milestones such as the general exam and dissertation have their place. They set our sights, but we must not get stuck focusing only on them. This quarter’s experiment has helped me see that every class we attend, every word we write, every article we read is where we are going.

We are already there.