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Book Learnin’

Reading isn’t as hard as it looks

By Molly M. Strauss, Crimson Staff Writer

As shopping week draws to a close, get ready to dole out the cash. Whether you balance brimming piles of full-price textbooks and novels in a snaking line on the Coop’s top floor, log on to or Amazon and fill a virtual shopping cart, or stop by Gnomon Copy to place an order for $300 worth of bound essays, book-buying is usually stressful and costs a fortune. The worst part: There’s a good chance you’ll never even crack open that brand-new copy of “The Order of Things.” Come May, you might sell it back for a few measly dollars. But, fated as this cycle may seem, there is an alternative: considering why you lined up to buy that book in the first place.

Our insistence on purchasing texts in those early moments of the school year reflects enthusiasm—and starry-eyed idealism. This semester, we’ll do the reading. This semester, we’ll get something out of our classes. This semester, it will be different. I, for one, relish this attitude in myself and in my classmates. As long as the late-summer days stay warm and dorm-room decoration remains our biggest concern, there’s a real sense of possibility. But then reality catches up with us.

The truth of the matter: Many Harvard professors assign an inconceivable quantity of reading. Soon, overwhelmed by four (or five) classes’ worth of impossible course work, most Harvardians realize that they won’t survive unless they ditch some of their texts. Very few students I’ve met in my two-plus years here actually absorb word-for-word every assigned page (and the rare ones who review all the material do so over reading period).

But, while it may seem as if we don’t have any choice in the matter, there are ways to combat the post-shopping-period crash. The key is to prolong that initial sense of excitement that permeates the Coop in September—even once we realize we’re screwed. At that moment, instead of admitting failure, giving up, and declaring that life totally sucks, it’s hypothetically possible to stay starry-eyed. To see the coming semester as a puzzle. To pick and choose. To determine what’s actually necessary and fulfilling, and read it carefully; to skim some other, less important material; and to let go of the rest.

My recent academic history, I admit, looks more like the first option than the second. When the wind starts to bite, generally in late October, I often find myself hopelessly facing a pile of books full of pristine, note-free margins. It’s a vicious cycle—such a situation can be so upsetting that I fail to open even one. And then, when the time comes to sell the volumes back, I can’t remember why I bought them in the first place.

Contrary to popular belief, however, there’s no Book God out there who mandates an all-or-nothing approach to reading. Who’s to say I’ll get bupkis out of “War and Peace” unless I can run my eyes over every single sentence? Instead of imposing self-defeating standards on ourselves, we burgeoning academics ought to feel comfortable engaging with a text to whatever degree we desire. Undergraduates deserve to make their academic careers their own—and to feel good about their performance even when it isn’t picture-perfect.

Idealistic as it might sound—this semester, it will be different. At least, that’s what I tell myself now.

Molly M. Strauss ’11, a Crimson editorial editor, is a social studies concentrator in Winthrop House.

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