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How to Read a Book [pdf] (umich.edu)
444 points by robschia on Aug 2, 2016 | hide | past | web | favorite | 140 comments

What bugs me with some books is that they have excellent content but are written redundantly. This leaves me reading 300 pages instead of 120.

Why can't this:

> We cannot talk to the designer, so we rely upon whatever information is available to us: what the device looks like, what we know from using similar things in the past, what was told to us in the sales literature, by salespeople and advertisements, by articles we may have read, by the product website and instruction manuals.

be written like that:

> Unable to contact the designer, we rely on preexisting information from sales material, salespeople, ads, articles or the device appearance.

or even:

> Unable to contact the designer, we rely on preexisting information.

Not every book should feel like Harry Potter, no matter how great the content.

So, a dirty secret in the publishing industry is that publishers often make book deals based on the number of words you write, not how effective and quickly you can convey your ideas.

This results in them rather taking a 300 page book vs 100 page book because they sell the 300 page book for more than the 100 page book and thus make more profit.

I personally have a friend who has authored many big name publisher books and he is always telling me how many words he has to have done by X date. The emphasis is on how many words, like 60,000 words.

Even though he can write a book that says the same shit in 20,000 words, the book publishers don't want this, because they won't make as much money.

That really sucks for the tech industry, maybe for fiction it is fine, since people just want more time outside reality anyways, but when you are trying to gain knowledge, a 300 page book is not usually as good as a 100 page book.


This is a huge reason I preferred to self-publish. I have a math book that is 12-chapters (~90 pages total), written in a compact, friendly style I prefer. There are too many incentives to pad out your writing when you are trying to fill physical shelf space ("look impressive" vs "be useful"). Instead of a page count, how about an idea count?

(I get the occasional feedback that people wish that the book was longer, they want more topics, but never any individual chapter being longer...)

It's harder to tell how long an ebook is than a paper book and harder to know where you are in it from the feeling of how many pages are gripped in each hand. This is a downside of ebooks for me--harder to get an automatic sense of the geography of the book, where I am in it, where interesting things I read were located, where to flip to in order to check something.

But I think there's a silver lining to the length being so hard to see. I suspect it will lead to more authors tailoring their book length to how best to express the content rather than to the market expectations of the physical size of a "book".

Yep, exactly. I prefer print for books I intend to refer to often. (I use createspace to turn the ebook to print on demand. With Softcover & LaTeX, you can get print-quality PDFs, best of both worlds.)

Focusing on the ebook version first helps you keep the content to the right (best-fitting) length.

What book? I'm on the lookout for a good math book.

Kalid has a whole pile of good stuff at:


Thanks Jacques :)

Math, Better Explained


Check out a few articles on https://betterexplained.com/cheatsheet and see if they fit your style.

Oh Kalid it's you! I haven't bought your book (and I'll remediate to that right now), but I've followed all your posts, they're fantastic.

Go buy this guy's book :)

Thanks Jerome =).


Just to throw in a plug:

'The Pleasures of Counting' is one of the best math books you can get your hands on.

Our company was contacted by a few publishers about writing a book on our industry, but they all wanted ridiculous page counts that were impossible to fill (with anything that most people could actually read and understand anyway).

I get the marketing/value angle but it prevents lot of good material that would otherwise be written or written well.

This is especially true when you are reading management books. I always look for some papers from the author on the same topic and substitute them for the books. I wish there is world out there that can reward short form books both fiction and non fiction.

Well if I have a choice in book selection, I usually do a few quick skims trough some random parts to see which ones explain things best. So overly verbose books would get less preference here.

Succinctness is important and I think your middle example is actually a much better sentence than the original, while retaining the same information (even if it should say "the device's appearance" or "the appearance of the device".

However, I think length is not the key to how long a book takes to read. There are 600 page books I could read in a week. There are 100 page books that take weeks to read.

There are books that are too dense: Sometimes a slightly rambling, digressive style can give the mind space in which to reflect. If every sentence hits us with another dense thought, our mind tires quickly.

Also consider this: writing succinctly is hard work. Perhaps the author didn't have time to work on making every thought pithy and still expressive.

Some of us are slow readers, and just reading the raw amount of words is a limitation, even before we get into how difficult it is to understand.

I've bumped into books (and other writing) where there's simply far too much chewing to get to a bloody point. Every passage has some lengthy aside about irrelevent matters. Often personal bit. The late 1990s / early 2000s highly padded tech texts were the worst for this. Que is an imprint that comes to mind, and many of the "24 hours" type books. O'Reilly and No Starch were usually (though not always) better. The old AT&T Unix classics are the opposite: concise, clear, and highly useful.

Vendor docs are often the wworst -- simply repeating descriptions already apparent from interfaces or systems whilst providing no insight whatsoever to how the tool is used as a system.

The problems this causes are at least threefold:

1. The documentation is ineffective. It doesn't convey useful information.

2. If you're trying to find useful passages, yo've got to chew through far too much crud.

3. The books are huge and heavy. Carrying one means foregoing two or three other (useful) books. And they simply weigh too damned much.

I suspect crowding out other books for shelf space was part of the strategy.

Exactly. Writing well isn't about listing facts. It's an art. That's not to say works can't be overwrought. Buts it's also not to say that long needs to be short.

right, writing's about the useful order of the facts.

Sure, some books are too dense. But honestly, I've only met such in mathematics and theoretical physics.

Many interesting arguments can not be distilled into simple factual statements. Interesting arguments are often complex and nuanced. We write about them to share our thoughts on them with others. Language is a very lossy medium for transmitting thoughts, so we need to include lots of seemingly redundant information. The more details we include, the more of our original thoughts we can confer. Some of the things we spell out might be implied by previous statements; but the more we spell them out, the more we can assure that the reader is making the same associations. Redundant details are a sort of code to protect the integrity of the message.

Would you have been able to distill the information down like that without reading the more thorough/verbose versions first? If you come back to the reduced sentence in 6 months will you find yourself wondering where the pre-existing information comes from?

I have actually opened to book on a random page I don't remember reading, then looked for a relevant sentence.

You're right about excluding information (as in my third example), but my second example has practically all of it and is still much shorter

For non-fiction, I give everything a 15 minute skim to get the Very Big Points. Only then do I decide on if the details are worth chasing. (Usually it's if I need more convincing, or explaining) In many cases (example: Gladwell) 15 minutes is enough, and you can get through 15-20 High Concept books in the time that this author suggests that you read one.

This is a big change for me - I used to give every author the benefit of the doubt, and drove to finish everything I picked up. Then I ran out of time.

The first example is a lot more clear; providing specific examples to illustrate a general point is quite often useful.

As an aside, I really hope that future iterations of Google's SEO algorithm catch this. Right now it is too heavily weighted towards word count and keyword usage. People who write for SEO are rewarded for redundancy. There should really be a succinctness score. dibs.

I agree. Not trying to be racist, but I find that British authors are quite often unnecessarily verbose, so I'm somewhat gun shy when picking up their books.

One notable exception to this observation is Douglas Self, who writes thick, incredibly useful, highly detailed, and remarkably entertaining books on audio circuitry design. They read almost like good novels.

>One notable exception to this observation is Douglas Self, who writes thick, incredibly useful, highly detailed, and remarkably entertaining books on audio circuitry design. They read almost like good novels.

Maybe because sometimes you really need those highly detailed, long, and intricate arguments to fully understand all the nuances of the subject.

"British" isn't a race... just saying.

Spot on! As someone once said, most books should have been blogs, while most blogs tweets.

I'm with you 100%, and most of the time I'm very terse. After losing power a few times, my first digital answering machine message iterated down to "message."

It's stopped me from writing in the past, because I don't have the quantity. Nice to know someone might appreciate that fact.

Rework is the perfect example of doing this right. After writing the book authors went through it and made it 1/3 shorter.

Result is extremely succint and almost every sentence is valuable and insightful.

I seem to only notice this when I read recent books. I suspect only reading old books gives you a filter that gets rid of that kind of thing.

The worst habit is when writers just start listing examples of stuff, beyond what is required to make their overall point, as if by adding lots of unnecessary evidence will make their point stronger.

Positive bias, what you expect to be right are used as arguments in favor of your idea (I'm not against you, it's just an argument for how some things are written for a particular objective group).

I read sometime ago how you have to explain several times in several forms the same thing to make it obvious to the reader.

While more concise and exact for example you can convey a lot of information in a very short space using math, but this relies on previous exposure to notation and practice with it.

A book that once you understand is beautiful and powerful and concise it's the compilers red dragon book, which uses math notation and procedural description to cover some topics.


It's also my main problem with many otherwise great non-fiction books. First, it takes more time. Second, when I don't learn new things my thoughts start to wander, and I get very far from the reading flow state. Third, I have a feeling that either the author think that I am dumb so (s)he needs to repeat things, or it is hastily written (for me, an admirer of the Paul Graham's concise style, reducing text takes much, much more time than just writing it... and it's totally worth it).

Because it contains less information. Maybe you can do 80% as good with 30% the length. But to go 100% you need to go into details that are lost by writing so succinctly. So if your purpose is to do a general overview, then yes, this approach is okay. If not, it's better to be more verbose than strictly needed rather than omit information for the sake of shortness.

The worst example of this that I've met to date is Douglas Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sander's Surfaces and Essences. It conveys such an important message but it repeats itself so often that the eyes start glazing over.

> Not every book should feel like Harry Potter, no matter how great the content.

Nobody is going to pay $29.95 for a pamphlet.

This is true, but if the information density is high enough, people might.

I will even pay extra for software that removes the padding :P

I have seen that price for research papers with single digit page count.

And nobody pays it.

Just like in school, authors sometimes have length requirements that make it necessary to pad their writing.

And not everyone learns in the same manner, sometimes repetition is necessary for people.

Your first example is exactly what I skip when reading a book..

Somebody here once recommended when doing any kind of text with exercises to open to a random chapter and attempt the first exercise. If you can't do it research through the index/book where the information to help you solve it is likely to be found and repeat for all exercises. I've been doing this ever since, finished my library of unread books I had collected over the years but never had the time to read.

Or even if it's not random: Start with the exercises. I've found great success through a "problems-first" approach, and that's been my default since I was a child. Anytime I diverge from it I find notably worse results.

Maybe people have different learning styles but this is the only way I really learn well.

What kind of books did you read using this technique?

Also, did you end up reading most of the text?

I'm a bit surprised that your techinque is more efficient than reading the chapter and then doing the exercises, because most of the chapter's content is on your short term memory and you know exactly where to find the information if you need to review a concept to solve the exercise.

It's not about efficiency, it's about effectiveness.

Sequential reading may be more efficient, but it's infinitely less effective if you never pick up the book to read the next chapter.

It's a workaround for the 'I started this useful, interesting book, read 50% of it, then never touched it again, for no good reason' bug. You solve the problem by nerd-sniping yourself with an exercise.

If you don't experience this bug perhaps it's not good advice for you.

My 'technique', if I want to read a particular book, is to carry it, and no other book, in my backpack. I'll inevitably read it in my down times.

Yeah I have the problem of reading too many books at a time. I am in the last few chapters of an awesome but technically dense book, but I keep putting it off because it's more fun to spend an hour reading "The Two Towers".

If I remember correctly this method was advised in the comments of an HN article about Concrete Mathematics by Knuth et all. I used this for undergraduate texts, mainly in math that I had collected over the years and never got around to reading, like Calculus (Apostol), Algebra: Chapter 0 (Aluffi), Computer Systems: A Programmer's Perspective (Bryant/O'Halloran), a 1000+ page book I flew through as I found I knew some of the material already and used the exercises to test what I had forgotten so I could re-read that material. I also discovered by doing this, subjects I thought I knew and would've skipped, I didn't actually remember correctly and other subjects I thought I didn't know, I could solve without having to read the chapter as previous exercises were helpful enough to understand the problem or I had picked up the information somewhere else.

Aluffi's book also helpfully tells you which exercises require solving previous exercises.

But Aluffi is so engaging even without this technique!

"The reader who has read the book but cannot do the exercises has learned nothing." -- J.J. Sakurai

A lot of books from my school had exercises you could not solve if your only knowledge about the subject was the previous chapter(s). So for those who could be bothered (most efficient technique is not doing reading or exercises at all but somehow getting a good grade) there were times one would come up with an insight or read further ahead / another reference and discover a new connection. Either way made for deeper learning.

If I pick up a book to learn a new math topic, the first chapter or two may be all refresher to me. I may have a good foundation in some other chapters already, as well. This method bypasses that. Instead of getting bored or distracted, you can identify what information you're missing in particular.

Another benefit of this is that you can see what information you've actually learned/internalized, versus what was just staying on the surface of your memory/mind when you last took a related course.

I guess if you do the exercise first you actively know what information you need. So you can skip the content that's irrelevant and the stuff you know well enough already.

I think there's more to it. By turning material into a problem or an exercise, you've already turned on an active learning response. There's no way to coast through the text if you have something to grapple with already.

This is a classic problem in game manuals as well. They have to act as both tutorial AND reference guide.

Working through front the front to back is necessary in order to learn the systems and things have to flow in a logical progression. Which deserves a particular style of writing and formatting. Embedding bits and pieces and forming a narrative as well as logical flow.

But when you're in the middle of a game and need to know the exact rules surrounding a specific corner case and how it interacts with all the other relevant rules, suddenly a detailed narrative flow isn't what you need. You need a reference guide, or a mapping of how it ties in with other components.

Unfortunately, this is quite difficult to execute for things even as simple as board game systems. For a textbook I imagine it's infinitely harder. A professor I had once talked about how each figure and diagram can take a week to polish to that is conveys the information in a detailed, yet succinct manner.

This seems like a really hard version of the credit assignment problem -- if you open to chapter 20 and get some differential equation that you can't solve, then what's the search strategy, other than read chapter 20? Which would make no sense if you hadn't read chapter 19, etc. Or so it seems -- I haven't actually tried it. Could you elaborate a bit on the process? I like the engagement and the 'information chase' aspect of it...

Found the original post that explains the algorithm better: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=665250

It is hard if the book has an incomplete index or poorly named chapters forcing you to skim around.

Yes, that does sound hard, but you might have to chain all the way back to chapter 1. Often times, chapters are grouped in self-contained blocks.

>> It’s satisfying to start at the beginning and read straight through to the end. Some books, such as novels, have to be read this way, since a basic principle of fiction is to hold the reader in suspense. Your whole purpose in readingfiction is to follow the writer’s lead, allowing him or her to spin a story bit by bit.


Here's how my (much) younger self used to read novels:

a) Start at the begining

b) Read a few pages until you're reasonably sure all major characters have been introduced.

c) Skip to the end to find out if they're all alive and well at the end.

d) Skip back, approximately to where you were before (c)

e) Read a few more pages until something major happens

f) Skip a few chapters ahead to see how the major happening pans out

g) Repeat from (d) until it all goes quiet again

h) Skip a random number of pages ahead (but no more than the size of the book; duh)

i) If that makes no sense, return to where you were before (approximately)

j) Repeat from (h) until you've read the whole book.

I read about all of Jules Verne, Hector Malot, Enid Blyton and A. J. Cronin like that (I know, right?).

On the other hand I remember a particularly tedious passage in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea where several pages passed describing various molluscs found at the bottom of the sea. I actually read it all very carefully because I was curious to see how much it would last for and whether there was some bit of plot hidden in between the discussions of various species' chiralities etc. Jules Verne could eat Stephen King for breakfast when he got into his stride.

I only stopped doing that sort of thing to books when our lord Umberto Eco decided to write Foucault's Pendulum to punish me for the mistreatment of literary works. That hurt.

So you "hacked" novel reading. I think one more hack is stop reading a book you know is not worth the time. It's a hard habit for me, but I've finally realized there are too many great books out there to waste time on ones that aren't. Put the book down, it's OK.

It's funny how abundance has changed reading, vs. scarcity. There used to be this implicit assumption that if it got published, it was worth reading (with a few caveats), so you were willing to give the benefit of the doubt to the piece, really engage with it, wait for the payoff. A lot of fiction demanded that approach.

Now I, like you, am willing to give up on things. I demand proof that you have something to offer before I'm willing to invest in the relationship with a book. Only very rarely do I violate this practice -- if something gets a ton of a buzz I might push through when otherwise I'd quit.

I wonder if we're better or worse off. Certainly we're different readers now, and probably writers.

There's also the fact that we demand way more from our fiction now (or maybe not so much if you look at the bestsellers of the past decade). Back in the day people got exposed to very few new stories in their lifetime, most of them were probably part of the folklore and some from books but now it's the other way around: thanks to the multimedia landscape it's very difficult to find a storyline pattern that you haven't already seen somewhere else (it can be a movie or even another book). The best books are way more than this but I believe that this is the reason why some of the "classics" are found to be profoundly boring by today's standards. They were edgy and original back in the day but by the time you're 30 you have been exposed to most (if not all) patterns and those books become boring.

> I think one more hack is stop reading a book you know is not worth the time. It's a hard habit for me, but I've finally realized there are too many great books out there to waste time on ones that aren't. Put the book down, it's OK.

I'm in exactly the same situation and do the same thing. There's nothing that reminds me more of my mortality than looking at my (digital) library of books that I have yet to read. It's obvious now that unless I make it very big I won't ever have the time to read all of them so it's very important that I do not waste time reading books that aren't worth it (technical books are mostly exempted from this though). Like you say it's a hard habit but it's the most efficient thing you can do since time is such a scarce commodity and books are dime a dozen these days.

Wow this 'method' broke my heart :)

> On the other hand I remember a particularly tedious passage in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea where several pages passed describing various molluscs found at the bottom of the sea.

This reminds me of the passage in The Picture of Dorian Gray which amounted to some detailed description of gemstones or worse, the chapter in The Great Gatsby that was essentially a list of names.

I usually aim to read a text in its entirety out of respect for the author, but I had no qualms fast-forwarding through those sections.

I still laugh about the chapter in the middle of Les Miserables where the author spends something like 20-30 pages talking about the battle of Waterloo. It was interesting, and very detailed, but had nearly no connection to the plot of the story (other that one of the people there left an heirloom for a character, or something?). Later, he did the same thing for the sewers of Paris, and I believe I skipped that. ;)

Similarly, Moby Dick has tens of pages describing the particulars of the whaling industry.

And Michael Crichton's Airframe has tens of pages describing airplane parts and their inspection processes.

I love it when books do that -- fortunately, it's easy to distinguish between technical passages and drivel.

Ever read the Iliad? The catalog of ships was murder. I had to make myself remember that literature served a very purpose then, and existing in a very different context, in much the same way that the crazy excess of detail (so it seems to me now) of 19th century literature came across very differently to people who didn't have TV, movies, or practically any visual media.

The gemstones bit is drawn from Huysmans' À rebours (which is referenced indirectly in Dorian Gray), which is basically an entire book of that. It's great!

When I was younger I used to read only the last sentence of the book, and then read the entire thing through. It usually kept me guessing as to what it was referring to, which characters that sentence was about. More often it than not it's something cryptic which doesn't spoil much without the earlier paragraph.

My least (and simultaneously most) favorite one was “He put on a little light music instead.” I think that's the last book I read in that way.

Sometimes authors do this for you. For example in The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut he quickly introduces a time travelling character who tells the main character vaguely what will happen to him throughout the book, leaving him with a picture of beautiful Sirens on Titan, Jupiter's largest moon. From then on you wonder how the main character will end up living on Titan. Vonnegut even centers the title of the book around this kind of suspenseful trick.

When done by a skillful author, this kind of pre-reveal can be really engaging.

This is called a circular journey. In contrast with a linear journey. I too, prefer the circular journey as it adds a little bit of flavour to the story

Fiction is for the journey so the word count means nothing.

Ulysses. "Bloom had a glass of water". I'm not better than Joyce.

Ah, my least favorite part of reading 19th century literature.

This is basically a modernized, summary version of Mortimer Adler's classic of the same name which changed my life. Beforehand, I was reading much too quickly, letting information, and more importantly understanding, pass through me. It's better to be well-read than widely-read.

That's kind of funny because there's a major trend now following people like Elon Musk who promote skimming through engineering texts. The idea being that you're not going to learn rocket science reading a dissertation on rocket fuel, but you will become aware of things you hadn't done before, and retain random knowledge that could be useful and will be useful as you continue skimming more and more technical books.

Adler doesn't say you should read every book deeply though. He defines four levels of reading, from reading the table of content, to deep reading and synthesis of multiple works in the same domain.

Elon's technique makes sense, but you can't just do that. The most impressive people seem to be T-shaped: they have very deep understanding of their specialty, but they also a familiarity with a wide breadth of fields.

I skim a bunch of technical software books that are not immediately useful to me. My goal is not to remember every detail, it's just to get an idea of what's out there, and where to find more information if I need it.

This type of reading is described in Adler's practical book. It's called "syntopical reading" in which you read multiple books about the same topic in furtherance of some particular idea. In this style of reading, you're encouraged to skim, skip sections, etc.

Elon may skim through some texts but he definitely also does some thorough reading and research as well..

"One bit of advice: it is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree -- make sure you understand the fundamental principles, ie the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to."

-Elon Musk Reddit AMA https://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/2rgsan/i_am_elon_musk...

Musk is a CEO, not an engineer.

He is a CEO and an engineer, one known in particular for going from zero to rocket scientist level impressively quickly.

Are you claiming that Musk does engineering work for SpaceX?

From what I heard yes, he does, if you count his nanomanagement. Moreover, he most definitely did initially - SpaceX didn't start with full complement of trained aerospace engineers on board. He learned his rocket science before starting the company.

He regularly participates in design discussions with engineers, and reviews their designs, I think. From what I hear, outside of software startups, he's one of the most technical CEOs in the world.

Most definitely an engineer, then a CEO.

Farnam Street has an excellent overview of how to read a book that is based on Mortimer Adler's book: https://www.farnamstreetblog.com/how-to-read-a-book/

I'm trying to reconcile your statement with Alan Kay's, who said he has read about 16,000 books in his life.

Should I read slowly and be well read? Or read quickly and get the big ideas of lots of fields?

To me, deep and broad aren't mutual exclusive. My take is that well read persons are, to use the technobabble du jour, "tee-shaped".

Or rather double/triple/quadrouple/n-ple tee-shaped having read broadly across many fields and comparatively deeply in more than one. Relative depth in multiple areas becomes easier and more likely with age as interests change and realized opportunities to read to greater depth accumulate.

Reading deeply requires time. Reading broadly requires time. Neither has a shortcut. Neither precludes the other given a lifetime.

Depends on your goal IMO. You can't do both - it's something I've struggled with in my life so far... Interested in too many things to become an expert at any one

Well, I think you can't do both with all of the things. Figuring out priorities is surely one of life's biggest challenges for those of us with many interests.

Changed my life as well. I am starring at the 50+ volume collection of the Great Books and usually have one within an arm's length.

Same. Another benefit of reading How To Read a Book is that it inspired me to read higher quality books such as the Great Books.

My rant from when I was reading "getting things done" by David Allen: on about 250 pages, the first 80-100 pages are about how good is the GTD system.


I have similar complaints about most YouTube "how to" videos. The first few minutes are typically spent providing context which I usually don't need, especially if I'm rewatching. All digital content should have a "jump to point X if you don't need background" option.

This is actually recognized as the Wadsworth constant[0]. It used to be the case, though it doesn't seem to work anymore, that you could add "&wadsworth=1" to the YouTube video URL to immediately jump to 30%.

[0] - http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/the-wadsworth-constant

The original comment by /u/Wadsworth that coined it: "For EVERY youtube video, I always open the video and then immediately punch the slider bar to about 30 percent. For example, in this video, it should have just started at :40. Everything before :40 was a waste. This holds true for nearly every video in the universe."

Fascinating, thanks!

Speaking of that, what is the GTD system? On the 'Hello Internet' it is a running joke that GCP Grey swears on it and his podcast-partner finds the system a triviality.

The "Getting Things Done" system is a book about management of work in the sense of things that you have to do. It really shines when you have multiple aspects of your life.

This seems to be the case with all books aimed at a business/management audience.

If you want to be a friendly explanatory writer:

1. Adopt the inverted pyramid structure. This means to front-load your conclusion, to put the summary sentence first. In other words, if the reader stops reading at any point, they know the answer, at least in outline. Continued reading just results in more and more detail, more and more zoom-in.

2. Read The Elements of Style (100 pages) or On Writing Well (just need to read the first four chapters) or both. Both are short. These will help you word things efficiently. This doesn't mean you're leaving things out. But mysteriously human language is like computer languages in this: there are infinite ways to write something, and some ways are shorter than others --- shorter by several times!

Ezra Pound's ~ABC of Reading~ changed the way I read poetry and literary fiction. When, much later, I started to be interested in technical things I don't think I found it too hard to adapt, but I still focus on style, allusion, irony and so on in the things I read. That's generally a recipe for disappointment of course but when you come across technical writers with a voice of their own it's a lovely surprise. Wilfrid Hodges, for instance, is a great writer who becomes a friend as you work through his books.

> Know the intellectual context

This is often what I am most left wondering about. I guess nowadays I end up trying to wikipedia the heck out of the topic, or look for similar books.

What do you do?

Also I was confused by

> Read the whole thing!

Which makes me think of careful reading, but they mean "read straight through, not stopping for details."

I had been unable to do this for years. Eventually I was able to just plow through a book and it turns out to be more helpful than I imagined. It is often better to proceed than to be stuck, putting it aside forever.

For now my "hack" is to "just read the damn book". I don't care anymore if I get 100% out of it, because I keep finding myself surprised what I can suddenly recall as needed anyway. But you won't have anything to recall if you don't read the book.

Has anyone here tried PhotoReading?

It's the same principle of reading the same text several times, along with an additional preparation by "photo reading": taking in the whole book with a relaxed gaze, one page at a time (about 1 second per page).

This makes it easier to find relevant information later, as you instantly familiarize yourself with the high level structure of the material: the relationship between the layout of the page and the information contained.

Highly recommended!

I literally just wrote a book review on this goddamn thing with a summary for hackers. This book is way too wordy and redundant. https://medium.com/@seanaubin/book-review-how-to-read-a-book...

Did you click the link? This isn't "How to Read a Book" by Adler.

I have seen the following happen to me while reading books.

Event driven - you go back to a book based on thinking around a problem and look for information around it. I have found this very effective to understand the content, especially something not so trivial and those that you may not get by passive reading. However, this requires more time and effort from you in terms of self-thinking around problems.

The second way is passive reading - just read because you got interested in the topic. You don't understand a lot of it immediately, and so either your interest may carry on and you may get more than where you began or you may give up.

But if you give up, in the interim you may encounter some things related to what you read and you go into the first mode. Or you find that what you started is not your cup of tea at least for the moment. You iterate over other topics of interest.

Does anyone use the citation advice he gives? If so, what tool do you use? It sounds like it might be a good way to store the important parts of books, especially when you get 100s-1000s of books in.

May I offer this as an alternative?


...and when you're ready to write your own book, here's a helpful text that can guide you through the lumber selection process, before you start producing the pulp that will go into the paper for your book:


I have to say this is contrary to my experience. For example, whenever I try to do what this tells, and jump ahead and skip around the text to try and grasp the general points I invariably get confused and lost because some detail from further back is need to understand the text further ahead. It's only when I invariably need to start over and read it properly that I understand and assimilate the knowledge.

I thought he was referring to this [0] which is a more detailed plan of attack along similar lines.

[0] http://www.evergladeshs.org/ourpages/auto/2015/5/28/58122395...

I am afraid to skip a book, because I am afraid to miss some important things that I just skipped.

I can't easily get over this feeling, when I'm reading a book, so I keep reading every detail of the books I read.

I also think that taking notes will take too much time, so I'm always reluctant to take notes when I am reading something.

After reading this directive, I will try the steps it says.

I got over that attitude when I walked into my uni library the first time. Seven million volumes. No way I was going to read them all.

I focused on specific interests, though also sampled other areas.

> 1-3 pages of notes per 100 pages of text is a good goal to shoot for; more than that is often too much. I often used a technique of transforming a book into a mindmap, it's much more visual and readable than a simple plain text with notes.

Is this a good technique for reading programming and technical books as well?

I have the same question.

I recently read a programming book on Go [1] and this book reminded me of the pleasure of reading a programming book cover to cover. For a reader whose purpose is not to just get through the coursework (as in a graduate school), a well written programming book can be as pleasurable a read (if not more) than the most gripping novel. The author's style of writing has a lot to do with the readability of a programming book. I think.

[1]: https://www.amazon.com/Programming-Language-Addison-Wesley-P...

It sounds like you had the good fortune of reading a well-written book. Any well-written book, regardless of subject matter, will be a pleasure to read cover to cover.

Fantastic read, I have been reading technical books cover to cover, slowly. I am going to try this new technique out over the next year, it will take time but I am game.

I like reading physical books, but don't like writing directly on the pages. Does anyone have a good alternative?

I don't mean to be flippant, but can I suggest trying really hard to get over that hangup? I used to feel terrible for marring them, now I feel like it's not mine if it doesn't have my writing all over it. Writing in the books has been an amazing boost for my relationship with the ideas contained therein.

Commonplace-style book indexed by works you're reading. Don't really need to index further within each work, even 5-10 pages of notes per 100 pages or so isn't hard to flip through to find something, especially if you've got little drawings and such here and there to act (as a secondary function) as signposts.

Note the exact edition you've got at the beginning (so you can probably track it down again if your copy is lost/sold/destroyed/whatever) then feel free to use page numbers liberally to reference stuff you don't want to copy completely. Consider using a set format, maybe with a box around it or something, for making note of extended quotes or passages you want to refer back to in the work—something like two lines consisting of a short phrase describing it (this is just for you to recognize later, don't worry about precision or even making sense), the first few words of the quote, then a page number(s).

Use headings however they make sense to you. Chapters/sections from the book are usually all I use.

I use notebooks roughly trade paperback sized, 120-200 pages. Can usually fit a few books in each one. Keep a separate sheet or (much smaller) notebook for a global alphabetical (or whatever makes sense to you) index of the notebooks to answer "which notebook did I use for that book I read six years ago, again?" questions.

Done right you can use these, with the book itself, to do super-fast refreshers on the high points of a book. Really handy. If you want to use it for that, include very rough plot outlines and such, too, at least for fiction. Bonus: writing all that stuff helps you remember some of it unaided, too.

I use post-its, and I let some of it stick out of the page in question to serve as a bookmark for important notions. Or if I need more space I write on a separate sheet of paper that I leave in there, at the risk of losing it though.

I use index cards as bookmarks and for note-taking. Post-it's also work.

I also wrote down references to pages, paragraphs and sentences, etc. on those cards, e.g. p42p3s5.

Nowadays I just make a light x in the margins, with a pencil (so that I can erase it if I want to).

Kindle! I never wrote in physical books either because I normally read in bed or reclined. With Kindle, I annotate like crazy.

read without any purpose is more valuable, sometime. Without valuable, you can meet some interesting valuable things in unexceptional way. Somethings like other world view, life view...

Has anyone found an epub/text version of the same content?

I was able to save it as RTF and it preserved formatting quite well. (Used DEVONthink, FWIW.)

And, if it's a math (or math-ish) book that works through example problems: try to work the example problems yourself, based on the material preceding it, _before_ reading the author's worked-out solution. Then you'll be able to make a lot more sense of the presented answer. (I wish I had figured that out as an undergraduate).

I love the fact that "How to Read a Book" and "How to Write a Novel" are back-to-back on the front page.

A book about how to read a book ? Hmmmm

If you actually read and follow it, it's only 30 pages.


Aren't You supposed to learn that shit at school? Like when you're ten? Man, Silicon Valley engineers are so uneducated :)

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