How to Read

post by Peter Wildeford (peter_hurford) · 2014-12-22T05:40:37.235Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 20 comments

Part of my attempt to provide a bunch of unsolicited, anecdotal evidence that probably doesn't work for everyone.


Of course you already know how to read.  But do you know how to read well?

Many people who read a book want to read for entertainment.  That's perfectly ok -- it seems like a great way to take a break and enjoy yourself.  But many times people pick up a book with the intention to learn something important.  If you're one of those people, it's important not to fool yourself, end up not learning anything, and just waste your time.  That's how you end up reading for entertainment without realizing it.

This was a big problem for me, and I realized I was wasting a lot of time when I otherwise could have been productively reading books.

While I'm still not the best reader, here's how I think I solved that problem:

I'm choosy about which books I read.  There are millions of books in the world.  I can't read them all.  So I have to be choosy.  I think about what I stand to gain from the book.  Is it worth my time to read it?  Is the book actionable?  I personally aim to read books that come to me in reviews, that from a skim of their table of contents look like they'll provide real value to me.

I think about what else I could be doing instead of reading.  Reading is great, but in many cases experience can be a better teacher.  Moreover, picking up some experience can help me understand and apply the lessons in books better.  I try to adopt a "doing-reading" loop, where I read something, act upon it, then read another something, etc., continuing to iteratively improve in whatever skill I'm after.  This also helps validate the advice of books.

I'm not afraid to ditch an underperforming book.  If I don't like it, it's wasting my time, and it's time to move on.

I consider sources other than books. Books are often the best source of information on any topic, and are often higher quality because they're intensely reviewed.  But many blog posts and online resources can be great too.  I Ignore them at my own peril.

I read a summary, read the book, then re-read the summary.  My favorite loop for retaining the main ideas of the book I read is to first find a high quality summary of the book and familiarize myself with the basic points.  Then I read the actual book.  Then, when I'm finished, I look back on the summary and remind myself of the key points and think of the examples that came up in the book.  Note that I can't just read the summary because summaries often only work to remind myself of the book and not to replace the book's content.  (Also note that this summary-read-summary loop might not work well with some books, like textbooks.)

I skim and read actively. If I'm hunting for information, there's no need to read every word on every page.  I feel free to skip through parts I already know, or when the author is belaboring the point too much.  Conversely, I re-read important sections.

I use Audible, Pocket, and Kindle.  Even with the best of intentions, I never actually make the time to read.  Instead, I've found much more success with fitting reading into the gaps of my day.  I use Audible to listen to audiobooks when I'm exercising, cleaning, or commuting.  I use Pocket on my phone to read blog posts when I'm standing in line or in the bathroom.  I use Kindle on my computer when I'm between tasks, or waiting for a program to run.  Substitute other apps as you see fit, but fill your time.

I take notes during, or at least after. Ideally, I should be taking notes on what I read as I read them.  But this usually doesn't end up happening.  Either way, I aim to take some time after reading the book to summarize the book and internalize my lessons learned and figure out what it is about my life (and/or my research program) will be different after reading the book.  If I can't come up with an answer, I probably wasted my time reading the book.

I slow down to digest the books.  Many good books teach a lot at once, and I need to slow down to reflect upon each piece.  Many times, this means I have to take some time away from the book to reflect.


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by garabik · 2014-12-23T12:22:49.197Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've made a decision to read fiction primarily in foreign languages, to get some side benefit from it (in addition to the entertainment). This did slow my reading down (I am quite a fast reader) - several times unless I am already proficient in the language. This is mostly because of my conscious effort to pay attention to the grammar and vocabulary (dictionary lookup not included) - otherwise the slowing down would not be so pronounced.

I found out that after 5 or 10 books (and introductory lessons), reading in a foreign language stops being a hard work and becomes enjoyable again.

Replies from: HungryHippo, peter_hurford
comment by HungryHippo · 2014-12-23T22:42:43.389Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


How many and which languages are we talking about here?

Can you comment on the difficulty of starting reading in a language you have zero prior or related proficiency in vs. zero prior proficiency but understand a related language?

Do you make an effort to "read aloud" inside yourself (using correct pronunciation)?

comment by Peter Wildeford (peter_hurford) · 2014-12-23T16:41:50.595Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That's an awesome idea! I'll do that if I ever learn a foreign language well enough...

comment by shminux · 2014-12-22T05:54:42.399Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I also use audiobooks more these days, mostly when driving or walking, but it's not conducive to taking notes or browsing afterwards. Not sure how to deal with that.

Replies from: torekp, peter_hurford, VAuroch, CBHacking
comment by torekp · 2014-12-24T15:49:40.077Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I use my phone to take notes, preferably by speech-to-text. Right now I use "Write SMS by Voice", but I'm not entirely satisfied with it, because of the few button-presses that are still required to get it going. Does anyone have any suggestions for all-voice-based note taking?

Replies from: shminux
comment by shminux · 2014-12-24T15:54:15.705Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Presumably, if you speak clearly, Siri/GNow/Cortana should be able to act as your private secretary. Here is the OneNote version:

Replies from: torekp
comment by torekp · 2014-12-24T16:29:20.475Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Much better, thanks

comment by Peter Wildeford (peter_hurford) · 2014-12-22T16:29:15.532Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I have had problems with that too. Usually if the point seems particularly insightful / important, I'll take out my phone to write down the note at that moment, usually as a text to myself. But that happens rarely. Normally, I just try to take notes when at the soonest convenient moment (e.g., at the end of my commute).

I think reading good summaries of the books before and after mitigates the downside of not taking notes a good amount, so I don't worry about this as much as I used to.

comment by VAuroch · 2014-12-22T08:21:57.400Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Programs exist for taking dictation and turning it into written notes, though I don't know any good way to tag those notes to the corresponding part of the audiobook.

Replies from: CBHacking
comment by CBHacking · 2014-12-24T07:53:58.351Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There are products such as Livescribe which are designed to "remember" what parts of an audio recording (aimed at lectures, but should work for audiobooks if the pen could hear the book too) any given written note correspond to. I'm not sure if that's more practical than simply writing the section of the book (or elapsed time of the audio file) in the margin of the note, but it's an option.

comment by CBHacking · 2014-12-22T08:19:51.753Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Actually, that gives me an interesting idea. I normally read on the bus during my commute. Mostly I read ebooks or websites (still working though the Sequences), but I've slipped the occasional e-audiobook in there too (tip: get them from the library, way better than "buying" a DRMed copy). There's no reason I couldn't take notes on my phone while listening to an audiobook. The playback controls are in easy reach, so I can pause or skip in either direction quickly, but at the same time I can have a note-taking app (I use OneNote usually, but there are lots of options) open. If you've got decent typing speed on the phone, you can probably even manage with minimal pauses in the narration.

Some e-reader apps will let you take notes on a text as you read it, but in most cases those aren't nearly as easy to review as OneNote/Evernote/whatever and you still have to take time away from reading to write. Audiobooks don't have that limitation, so long as you can take notes on the last thing you heard while still listening at the same time (a skill I mastered during a particularly intensive course back in freshman year).

Of course, none of these options work very well when walking. I'm not sure what would, aside from stopping to pull out your device and put down some notes.

comment by RichardKennaway · 2014-12-22T12:08:08.362Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Although you don't mention fiction vs. non-fiction, the advice appears to be about non-fiction. Do you read fiction at all, and if so, are there any particular techniques you apply?

Replies from: peter_hurford
comment by Peter Wildeford (peter_hurford) · 2014-12-22T16:27:51.012Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't read fiction much, and when I do it's for entertainment purposes, so I only care that I'm having fun.

comment by adamzerner · 2014-12-23T05:11:14.875Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I like Derek Sivers' book summaries - .

Replies from: peter_hurford
comment by pinyaka · 2014-12-22T16:38:10.105Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Plug: Castify has a funded kickstarter of the LW main sequences with an ETA of March if you're looking for audiobooks and want to read the sequences.

comment by adamzerner · 2014-12-23T05:16:06.634Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I remember hearing somewhere that there's pressure on authors to make their books 200-300 pages long, because people feel like they're getting short-changed if they pay the same amount for a 100 page book as a 250 page book. I sense that authors stretch things out to fit this requirement. I think this is something to look out for.

comment by emr · 2014-12-22T19:31:32.994Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Can this be ported to online reading?

Replies from: peter_hurford, peter_hurford
comment by Peter Wildeford (peter_hurford) · 2014-12-22T22:53:27.729Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"I read a summary, read the book, then re-read the summary" doesn't really apply for online reading, but everything else does.