I teach philosophy, and my students often come into my classes with the expectation that the texts we read will be difficult, dense, and impossible for them to fully comprehend. They’re right.

If you can read a text breezily, in a reclining position, with a cocktail in one hand, and come away with confident assurance that you have understood every single thing the author has said, then that text is probably not worth your time. It might be good as pure, time-filling entertainment, but you may as well watch day-time reruns of soap operas.

Such a text isn’t telling you anything you don’t already know, so it isn’t stretching your mind. To learn from a text, it has to have a certain level of difficulty and this means going well beyond your current level of understanding. It can’t be completely incomprehensible, of course, but I don’t think that many of my students are laboring under the false expectation that they should be forcing their eyes to run over paragraphs of Linear A.

How should one approach such texts, then, so that the difficult and challenging is not, at least, tortuous?

I have one simple tip, but it requires patience and the willingness to get through fewer pages (it’s tough for those achievement-oriented checklist types and worse for procrastinators reading last minute for a deadline). Read one sentence at a time, even one clause at a time if the sentences are complex. When you hit the period, pause. Think about it. Make sure that you have actually understood at least the most obvious implications of what has been said. Then move to the next sentence. Pause. Think about it. Now here comes the crucial bit: Do you understand why this thought follows from the one before it? If you do not grasp the logical progression from the thought in sentence A to the thought in sentence B, don’t keep going. Stop. Read the two sentences together again. You may even have to go back a paragraph or two—or ten.

Naturally, this will be slow-going, but it gets faster in time. The more you practice this kind of deliberate reading, the more you will begin to understand the deep-structure of what authors are saying. Human beings across centuries have very few truly new ideas, and the connections between the ideas flow along largely predictable lines. When you master the flow from A to B to C in one author, you will much more readily grasp the flow from A to B to C in another. You’ll even be much quicker to recognize the flow from A to B to D in a third author who disagrees with the first two. You’ll be able to spot the critical juncture of their disagreement.

When I first explain this way of reading to freshmen college students they often roll their eyes, sigh, and make clear that what I’m suggesting sounds like a total drag. Really, it’s a much more enjoyable experience than the alternative.

I surmise that most of them read like this: Read a sentence. Kinda get the gist, or at least that certain subjects were mentioned. Read another sentence. More words on that subject. Great. Read another sentence. Think about pizza. Half-realize that their eyes have passed over three intervening sentences. Skip. Read another sentence. Kinda get that sentence because it reminds them of a funny clip from The Office (they haven’t seen the full episode, only the clip on TikTok). Read another sentence. Totally meaningless. Wonder when this whole ordeal will be over so they can order that pizza. Read another sentence. More meaningless philosobabble. Put the book down so they can order the pizza anyway. Think about picking the book up again twenty minutes later, experience a shudder of revulsion for the whole previous experience, a vague sense that they are being judged by someone for being stupid, immediately followed by a series of defensive slogans belittling the usefulness of philosophy.

Such an exercise is much worse than wasted time. After a few such experiences, many students will fall into misology—a distaste for thinking—which Socrates gravely warns against in the Phaedo.

Since the student moved on from the very first sentence with only a vague impression of the subject matter, it was inevitable that the following sentences would devolve into an incomprehensible mess. When we are faced with a stream of incomprehensible nonsense, it becomes increasingly difficult, with every passing second, to keep our interest up (don’t just blame technology for our short attention spans). When our interest is broken and we become distracted by numerous other things that we do understand and care about, then the game is up. There’s even less chance at that point that we will understand the flow of thought from the following sentences since they assume that the reader has read and understood what came before them. Hence, each following sentence will just get worse and worse. Continuing to move our eyes across the page at that point is simply an exercise in self-masochism.

I would much rather have a student who came into the next class and said, “Professor, I’m sorry, but I simply could not finish the whole reading assignment. I became stuck on the very first sentence. If I understand him correctly—and I’m still not sure that I do—I think Aristotle is suggesting that…and I became very puzzled by why he would think that let alone begin there. I spent an hour wrestling with the grammar of this long first sentence before giving up. I had to move on to my math homework. Here are my notes.”

That student gets an A for the day and is exempt from the quiz.

Stay tuned for Part 2, in which I will give directly contradictory advice.