Reading Nonfiction Selectively

post by Vaniver · 2011-04-21T18:52:13.827Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 15 comments

This post is intended to be conversational. I'm noticing something about myself and changing it; take it for what you will.

I read quickly; about two and a half times as fast as I read it aloud. A more useful number might be a page a minute, but that's obviously subject to massive uncertainty. I've also read a lot of books in my life- many of them were fiction, but for the last several years it's been mostly nonfiction.

I have the feeling that I should read every word of a book. That's only half-true; as far as I can tell, I often don't read every word of a paragraph. But glancing at a paragraph and guessing its meaning is a far cry from writing off a lump of text as not worth my time. I suspect that's a habit from fiction reading- every paragraph is there because it's pleasant or it advances the story, and the story is far more valuable as a whole than as a series of disconnected events. But with nonfiction reading, the value of different paragraphs is massively variable. A Conflict of Visions, for example, is a massively insightful and valuable book. But I got the feeling when I read it that there was a lot of repetition and reiteration; to me, the first two chapters (35 pages) had about 90% of the value of the book (263 pages). If I had known to just read those pages and stop, I could have gotten 90% of the value for 13% of the time, and saved myself almost four hours.

(As an aside, I suspect this is one of the reasons blogs posts can be so valuable- many ideas only need a few pages to express, and books simply cannot be 30 pages long. Either you don't publish it, or you extend it to ten times the size.)

And yet, it is hard to take advantage of this. I'm familiar with the 80/20 principle (and, with the case of A Conflict of Visions, it was more extreme at 90/13) but there's the fear that I'll miss some gem, or won't fully understand the ideas if I don't read all the pieces. And so I do read many of my nonfiction books cover to cover. But the main thing I'm cultivating is a willingness to skip, not just words in a sentence, but paragraphs, pages, or even chapters. The main test I'm using is whether or not I want to read the sentence I'm reading right now. If I feel the least bit of disinterest, I flip ahead. (If I find I missed something, I can always flip back, and at this stage I suspect I'm so ignorant of my interest that if I've noticed my disinterest, it's serious enough.) And so those books I read cover to cover (at least, didn't skip any paragraphs) are the books that were fascinating the whole way through, not just any book I put my hands on.

At the moment, I just finished Somatics (recommended by NancyLebovitz here, with a link to a free, mostly complete version) and am reading Awareness Through Movement. I've found myself skipping substantial parts of the second one, for a few reasons:

1. It's well-organized. Each few paragraphs is introduced by a header that often will tell me I want to skip that section (either because the summary is sufficient or the content isn't worth it). The atomic nature of this- every few paragraphs instead of every few pages or every chapter- really helps because it's much easier to feel comfortable rejecting 3 paragraphs than 30 pages (what if one of those pages contains the best idea of the book?).

2. The author has a focus that is frequently different from mine. Many sections stress self-image, self-education, man's relationship to society, and other things that simply aren't why I'm reading this book. When I figure out he's going to talk about that for a while, I can go ahead and rejoin him when he's talking to me again.

3. I just read a book on a similar subject, and feel more comfortable separating useful and useless, especially since I've got a narrow definition of use. I want to develop my personal awareness and control over my muscles and posture, and the subgoal is extracting information to aid that goal from this book.

Suggestion: when you read a piece of nonfiction, have a goal in mind. If that goal is "eat up time," well, read everything! If that goal is "learn about X" then you may want to do some planning. The table of contents is your friend, and one that before this I've only used to measure the length of chapters.


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comment by Vaniver · 2011-04-21T18:54:19.015Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Meta-discussion: There was a comment a while ago along the lines of "I wish we had more sharing of personal anecdotes as anecdotes rather than n=1 justifications for theories." This is my attempt at what this would look like, and I'm curious if people found it interesting or valuable, and if there are specific elements they would want to change.

I haven't tried to polish this extensively, mostly because my drafts folder is full of articles somewhat started or awaiting polish, and I decided to publish instead.

Replies from: cousin_it, ameriver
comment by cousin_it · 2011-04-22T16:23:58.783Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Oh, hey, thanks :-) You certainly have a good balance of anecdote vs suggestion!

comment by ameriver · 2011-04-22T19:20:32.823Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I found it to be both! Cheers.

comment by PlaidX · 2011-04-22T04:31:12.113Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

[skims article]

Skim more. Got it.

Replies from: Vaniver
comment by Vaniver · 2011-04-22T16:34:18.708Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


comment by Scott Alexander (Yvain) · 2011-04-21T19:04:18.634Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I have the same feeling.

The only caveat I have with skipping pages is that it's a slippery slope. I sometimes feel if I let myself skip the boring parts, I'll gradually start skipping more and more until all I read are the funny anecdotes. This is definitely true of any book I'm reading because I have to (say, for school), less so for books I genuinely enjoy.

Replies from: ameriver, Dr_Manhattan
comment by ameriver · 2011-04-22T19:26:36.816Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What did you end up deciding about Dawkins? Incidentally, I agree with one of your commenters that The Ancestor's Tale (provided you're already aware of the basic issues presented in The Selfish Gene).

comment by Dr_Manhattan · 2011-04-21T19:48:45.033Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Re: Dawkins, he is an easy read, informationally dense even if you have the main ideas down, and much of it is available in audio.

comment by nhamann · 2011-04-22T02:10:53.118Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Suggestion: when you read a piece of nonfiction, have a goal in mind

Agreed. See also: Chase your reading

comment by [deleted] · 2011-04-21T19:45:34.747Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You are encountering a problem, which is that there is much more to read than you have time to read it, and the only way truly to know for yourself whether a specific book, or part of a book, is worth reading, is to read it. You can ask people what to read, but their interests do not perfectly match yours. You can read a summary, but summarizers are unreliable. You can sample the text (e.g. jump into the middle and start reading), but this may fail to enlighten you for a variety of reasons.

It's a problem and there are only partial solutions. The problem is reproduced in science. You want to make a great, important discovery. But by hypothesis, you do not already know what there is to discover, for otherwise it would not be a discovery. So what do you do? The typical scientist picks an area of research, and pursues it, hoping to make a great discovery. The vast majority of them, through no fault of their own, pick wrong - as we can expect from the nature of the problem.

comment by Larks · 2011-04-21T19:31:47.819Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I just skim- read this post twice in 60 seconds.

My summary of what you just wrote:

*You often skip massive blocks of text; words in sentances, sentances in paragraphs, paragraphs in chapters and even entire chapters.

*This doesn't seem to impare your learning, because books have masses of redundancy.

*However, it would be handy to be more willing to skip, even though this is psycologically hard - even now you're spending too much time reading!

*This is especially true if the author has a different focus to you, or you already know the stuff.

comment by glunkthunker · 2011-04-22T23:10:53.895Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I would add another reason: Writing Quality.

Some people just have a gift for writing. They make the process enjoyable so I don't want to skim. It's much like how I wouldn't want to fast forward thru a good movie. A good writer could write a book about a subject i have little interest in, lets say sports, and I would want to read it -- word for word.

comment by scientism · 2011-04-24T03:53:19.072Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In the interest of sharing anecdotes... I used to have a similar problem. I had a strong desire to read books in their entirety but found that large portions were a waste of my time or were not relevant to what I was studying. For most of my life if you'd asked me to recommend a book, I wouldn't have been able to do so without a list of caveats ("but I only recommend part 1 and the conclusion" or "this is a great book as long as you ignore x, y and z"). Then I went through a period of intellectual development where I renounced a great many of my earlier beliefs. Since then I've found many authors whose work I want to read in full and, conversely, when I read outside these authors I have an easier time skimming because I know exactly what I'm looking for. To me this suggests that my earlier problems were due to being wrong about big, important things.

comment by jsalvatier · 2011-04-21T20:24:45.651Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I do this very frequently (perhaps too much). I think it's mostly because I usually have a specific goal in mind (learn subject X so I understand Y). If I can't see how a book is going to help me achieve my goal, I will often put it down. Interestingly, this focus makes me more likely to pay attention to prefaces and introductions since those will often tell me whether the book is useful to me.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2011-04-25T14:22:05.483Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I want to develop my personal awareness and control over my muscles and posture, and the subgoal is extracting information to aid that goal from this book.

Part of Feldenkrais, as I understand it, is developing your kinesthetic sense so that your innate (reflexive?) physical competence is more able to take effect. Your conscious mind doesn't need to be in charge of the details.

On the other hand, this sort of knowledge might be best gained by doing the exercises rather than by reading the more theoretical sections.