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How to read

19 July 2018

From Robert Heaton:

Five years ago I realized that I remembered almost nothing about most books that I read. I was reading all kinds of non-fiction – pop-psychology, pop-economics, pop-sociology, you name it – and felt like quite the polymath auto-didact. But one day, after I had finished blathering at a friend about how much I had enjoyed Thinking, Fast and Slow, they asked for a quick summary of the book’s overall thesis. I thought for a while, mumbled something about System 1 and System 2 and how I had only really read it for background knowledge, and adroitly changed the subject. As I was falling asleep that night it occurred to me that calling yourself an auto-didact doesn’t mean you actually know anything.

. . . .

As adults we read non-fiction books because they are fun, and because we want to know and remember the things inside them. However, it’s not surprising that we don’t remember much about what we read. Learning comes from repetition, and few people have occasion to think about capital-income ratios after finishing Capital In The Twenty-First Century. Even fewer spend much time immersed in black holes post-A Brief History of Time.

One completely valid way to deal with this fact is to decide that you are fine with it. Reading Manufacturing Consent is an enjoyable experience and worth doing for its own sake; you don’t want to be viewing all of your leisure activities through the lens of a strict cost-benefit analysis.

. . . .

Learning comes from repetition, but books are long and verbose and not designed with this in mind. You can get a macro, high-level form of repetition by reading multiple books about the same topic, but even this doesn’t guarantee that you will remember the specific things that you want to or how it all hangs together.

To try and get more reps in, I think that books should be read in two phases:

  1. Read and annotate the book in a way that makes it easy to scan and digest once you have finished
  2. Once you have finished the book, make a “writeup”. This involves summarizing the book, doing further research and making flashcards (using Anki)

Link to the rest at Robert Heaton

Non-Fiction

8 Comments to “How to read”

  1. “Read and annotate the book in a way that makes it easy to scan and digest once you have finished”

    Seems no ‘digesting’ happened as they read, almost as if they weren’t interested in the book/subject. I’m guessing this is one of those types that would would run a highlighter over most of the book in the hopes it somehow makes them ‘remember’ it …

    “Once you have finished the book, make a “writeup”. This involves summarizing the book, doing further research and making flashcards”

    Yup, you really got something out of a book if you need flashcards to remember anything about it. (I hear they sell crib-notes of many things, I guess you could read those and make a crib-note of the crib-notes? 😛 )

  2. “To try and get more reps in, I think that books should be read in two phases:”

    Either Robert remembers more then he thought after reading Mortimer J. Adler’s classic “How to Read a Book” or he’s reinventing the wheel.

  3. > calling yourself an auto-didact doesn’t mean you actually know anything.

    Neither does passively sitting through a class and passing a test.

    There’s a big difference between having information and knowing what to do with it.

  4. He’d do just as well/poorly using ginko biloba. 🙂

    • Whenever someone says that, I hear Howard Cosell say, “Ginko Biloba, the feisty bantamweight.” HA!

  5. The older I get, the worse my brain works. I seldom remember much about the books I read. I enjoy them in the moment, then let go of them. No longer do I think I’m failing at reading when that happens. I’m succeeding at enjoyment.

  6. I read a book on brain surgery once. Anybody need a tumor removed? I’m available.

    P.S. I went through the second, summarizing step, so it’s okay.

  7. Suburbanbanshee

    Compared to the ancients and medievals who used the ars memoriae, none of us ever remember a book.

    Usually, though, one can remember something better if one just tells oneself to remember it. As one reads, the brain will create a memory structure of sorts.

    But unless one will never encounter a copy of the book ever again, there is seldom much point in the modern world.

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