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It’s Okay to “Forget” What You Read (medium.com/the-polymath-project)
275 points by sus_007 on Sept 1, 2017 | hide | past | favorite | 58 comments



>So read always from authors of proven worth [Seneca]

Absolutely. The few authors that I love the best are streets ahead of the rest. Reading other authors is for me really just a search for the Next Big Thing. As time marches on, re-reading old favourites rises in value relative to reading new stuff, on average.

>Though our eyes may pass over all of the words and our hands may flip through all of the pages, what we read is never the entire book

The idea that reading is encompassed by the eyes zig-zagging down the page like a raster scan is an example of the 'bucket theory' of the mind, as Karl Popper put it. This is where knowledge supposedly pours into the brain passively via the senses. Which is a fallacy.

>If I read for pure pleasure, what harm is there in forgetting?

This is also the reason I've never seriously tried to speed read. Perhaps I'm mistaken about this, but why wolf down an expensive meal? There's nothing to be lost from optimising pleasure since it derives from the meaning i.e. from the true content.

>When we read, certain notable phrases, concepts and ideas [...] stand out more clearly from the others.

Oh yes. This is the Searchlight Theory of the mind, where our attention is continually homing onto the most interesting or semantically useful bit of whatever we are doing.


It makes me think of Darwin's journals, where you can see him picking up on useful little tidbits from the stuff he's read and observed. His reading of Malthus was a major influence on his development of natural selection theory, but it's not like Origin of Species is a Malthusian tract. Exposure to other people's thoughts helps create our own thoughts.

There's a great many scientists and philosophers who were wrong about things but who provided the structure and patterns necessary for later thinkers. From Plato and Aristotle to Smith, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud...


Interestingly, Wallace was also inspired by Malthus in his own co-discovery of evolution.


For me the following quote from Paul Graham's essay has struck a chord: For example, reading and experience are usually "compiled" at the time they happen, using the state of your brain at that time. The same book would get compiled differently at different points in your life.

It's changed how I read books. I used to feel that if I needed to re-read a book I did something wrong the first time – now I read a book again after some time just to get a different perspective of the book. It's the same thing that happens the second time you watch a movie: you notice details that you missed the first time around.


I also noticed this with books. My impression is that the same book can be called "great" by one person and "boring" or "uninteresting" by another, and it says really more about those people in relation to the book at that point in their lives, than about the book itself. It can show you what developmental stage these people are in.

For some, reading a simple book on emotions will be a game changer, while for others it will be stating the obvious and they won't even read more than a chapter or two, deciding that the book was too basic or even "bad".

I've developed a habit of buying and beginning a lot of books, but many I discard or set aside for the future. Few books seem "too basic" for me, with many I sense that their time is yet to come, or their utility at this point in my life is unclear.

BTW I have the same experience with movies; some of them have a great number of really interesting detail that I often miss the first time around.


This reminded of a nice little book by Pierre Bayard called "How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read", which actually dedicates part of itself not to books which the reader hasn't actually read, but to those which he might have forgotten. Unfortunately, I've forgotten much of the rest of the book, so I really can't say much more about it.

Still recommend it, though.


Talking about a book you haven't read shouldn't be too difficult. Just ask a lot of questions and pursue the interesting answers. Convincingly passing yourself off as having read the book when you haven't, is probably more difficult, but would depend on how deep the discussion gets.


Eh, you still forget 90% of everything you ever read, or just plain learn, and that includes the models you get from reading books about the crusade.

If you want to retain anything in more than vague details, you need to intensively practice and study.

That is not to say you should practice and study everything in intense details. There's only so many hours to practice being a world class programmer and then something else.

It's fine to be an average driver, an average cook, average almost anything.

But if you want anymore than an average result, you're going to need to invest more than average effort.


If you're reading books for the details, you're doing it wrong.

Read books for ideas. You can always look at the book for reference when you forget the details.

I despair for the people who are taught that learning is about memorizing facts. Ideas are far more powerful than facts and a heck of a lot harder to lookup.


>If you're reading books for the details, you're doing it wrong.

Blanket statements like that will get you in trouble.

While I can appreciate the point of the article, it has a rather narrow view on the types of books being read.

Sure - some books are more about expanding your mental models. But in other books, the value is in the details.

I'm really good at reading lots of books. I'd read one and then jump to the next one. A little over a year ago, I forced myself to put the brakes on. Any book where I felt the ideas are important, I decided to take notes. I write them on paper as I read, and later transcribe them to a blog so I can access them anywhere.

It really reduced my rate of reading. But I'm very happy with the results. Forcing me to go over it multiple times, and then occasionally revisiting my notes, has made a huge difference.

Yes, reading once will change your mental models. And reading again will change them even more (even if just a few months later). I think it is quite rare that you will retain all the big ideas (let alone the details) in one reading. As an example: How often have you come across someone who once read a book and is trying to change aspects of his life based on principles of the book - and you've had to point out how a number of their changes are in conflict with the book's contents? (Getting Things Done is a common one people get wrong).


> Any book where I felt the ideas are important, I decided to take notes. I write them on paper as I read, and later transcribe them to a blog so I can access them anywhere.

Derek Sivers 'Books I read' section is a fantastic example of that: https://sivers.org/book


Learning is certainly about memorizing, whether that's facts or ideas or skills.


Learning is about changing the way we think and perceive. This is not best done through memorization.

Facts are important, however I would argue that the different conceptualizations of ideas and the relationships between them are far more important.


My mistake in using memorization in a different sense.

Let me clarify; memory is intrinsic to learning. Everything we ever know is based on remembering things.

If you mean rote memorization, to repeat something over and over again until you remember it but not necessary understand, then that is only one strategy for learning. It works but it is rather inefficient and may cause one to miss things.

Similarly, we cannot overemphasize learning concepts over practice and facts. A programmer do not look up syntax unless one is learning a new language. An even better example; quick bugfixing required a deep knowledge of the codebase, lot of experience with tons of different bugs and knowledge of debugging strategies.

To me, it seems wrong to separate facts from the concepts, and skills from intellectual knowledge.


If you really need to know a fact, you will naturally memorize it in the course of your work.

In reality, the amount of syntax to memorize in your programming language is tiny; there are probably several keywords you don't know particularly well that don't impact your day to day. Further, almost all common languages share huge amounts of their syntax and much of the semantics of their constructs.

Many chemistry classes require students to memorize the periodic table up front. This is a mistake; by doing chemistry work, you naturally learn the table, and, crucially, the patterns involved.

Contrast this to how I was taught multiplication: memorize this table. As a result, I was both bad at multiplication for a long time as a child, and I missed out on the beauty of mathematical patterns for a long time. It turns out multiplication is actually useful, so now I could produce a times table - not from memory, but from scratch from the concept.

I see far too often students who try to memorize the code for an algorithm - or even just the algorithm - without the concept itself. This is useless, it leads to frustration, and it fucks you when it's time to rewrite it in another language or add a twist.

Seriously, do yourself a favor and stop memorizing things. Do things, and if it turns out you remember it, then that's how you know its worth memorizing.


To provide a different perspective, I got exponentially better at my job when I decided to embrace deliberate memorization. I sort of have these mental patterns of "irreducible complexity" built up--things I couldn't or wouldn't have gotten organically, because I memorized half-understood or not-immediately-useful-but-promising-looking things until I could lock them together, like holding up a two legged table until I could find a third leg. I came to think of them like mental scaffolding. The scaffolding ended up discarded in the end, but I wouldn't have the building without it.


> If you really need to know a fact, you will naturally memorize it in the course of your work.

And then there's programming interviews for big companies, where they all want me to know minute details of things I'be never encountered in my day job, that I studied years ago in college, and that I will probably not need for my actual job (90% sure about this, seeing most products released by the big companies).


That's a good point. I very fortunately left interview mode a few months ago, and have pretty deliberately blocked that part of my life out. As you might have guessed, I'm not great at it.

You could argue that the fact that memorization is helpful illustrates how flawed those programming interviews are. It's just like any test in school, memorizing things for a short time before the test is effective, but it doesn't really help you in the long run.

Good luck with your interviews :)


>Learning is about changing the way we think and perceive. This is not best done through memorization.

Unless it has left a permanent mark in our memory, there's no "changing in the way we think and perceive".


Very next sentence after the quoted material begins with "Facts ..."; i.e. the comment is about the memorization of facts specifically (perhaps the same thing we call "rote learning"), not about "memorization" being any kind of enduring state change in the memory.


Sure, but this line of argument waters down the term "memorization" to something unrecognizable.


> Read books for ideas. You can always look at the book for reference when you forget the details.

This I agree with. Make marginal notes for some specific notable detail you think might be useful to recall in the future.


What I find, is that I will read something, and then "forget" it fairly quickly, but then I'll be doing something else, maybe getting stuck on a problem, and suddenly find that during my thinking or puzzling I will have a memory from that thing I read, and that will help me move forward.


Knowledge, use it or lose it.


I used to stress about this until I came across this quote:

“I cannot remember the books I've read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.”—Ralph Waldo Emerson

Even if you don't have a photographic memory, reading changes our perspective in important ways.


This is both a blessing and a curse. I'm always afraid that I will read false or unreliable things, actually recognise it for what it is, but still have it linger in my brain enough that I will believe it in the future...


In fact a number of psychological studies have found that people will remember false information as true if you tell it to them and then immediately explain it is false. At least that's how I remember it. :)


I really hope that the other direction gives the desired result.


That seems doubtful.


“However, for the man who studies to gain insight, books and studies are merely rungs of the ladder on which he climbs to the summit of knowledge. As soon as a rung has raised him up one step, he leaves it behind. On the other hand, the many who study in order to fill their memory do not use the rungs of the ladder for climbing, but take them off and load themselves with them to take away, rejoicing at the increasing weight of the burden. They remain below forever, because they bear what should have bourne them.”

As comrade Schopenhauer put it ( https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/301471-however-for-the-man-... )

Later, Wittgenstein echoed that item - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wittgenstein%27s_ladder


Schopenhauer was not a socialist.


Picked up that habit from P.G.Wodehouse's comrade Psmith.

A harmless affectation. No real socialism involved.


Books are like lovers. They change you, even if you don't recall the particulars.


I've quarrelled extensively with both.


I think it was interesting how it was talking about getting different things from the same book at different points in your life.

That's certainly how it went for me with the Silmarillion. I read it at 16 just after I had come off of reading Lord of the Rings and it was extremely boring. I read it again at 30 and I found it to be quite interesting. The book hadn't changed, but I had.


I've also found that to be true with movies. When I first watched Jaws 15 years ago, I thought it was boring and slow. I recently watched it again and loved every minute of it. The dialog, characters, and building tension was fantastic. I almost felt like I could smell the beach and the boats.


I have watched Apocalypto 3 times with a difference of 3-4 years. Each time I felt I was watching a completely different movie. Last time I watched it I saw it as a masterpiece in film art.


Yeah? I need to put it in my queue and give it another try.


Well that's a relief. They are talking about books, but I suppose it applies to all the time we 'waste' on HN and other news sites too.


that's one reason why I really like https://archive.org/ and other similar projects


If you want to learn how to program, surely you would go asking the software engineering community how to do it? But rarely do we pay attention to how the people who're serious about reading and writing say you're actually supposed to read. I thought I knew how to read a book. But then I read the Well-Educated Mind and realized that I had went about it all wrong. English majors read books way differently than most people do. It is crucially important for retention and understanding of a book to actually write down thorough notes about it.


Thanks for the book recommendation. I'm going to check it out.


Just from looking at the description, it seems to cover the same territory as Mortimer Adler's How to Read a Book.

I'd read Adler's book first, but reading two different presentations of what might be the same idea is better than reading only one.


I should hope so or I'd need to stop reading.

Incidentally, Sherlock Holmes never said "elementary, my dear Watson."


Everywhere when there is a context about reading.. Ppl talk only about physical books, doesn't the same ideology apply for an article that you read online.. Be it HN articles? I even forget from what I read in HN.


It depends. When you read, you're approaching a well to drink the knowledge therein. When you're approaching a place that streams- HN, reddit, twitter- you're approaching a river.

You approach rivers and wells differently, and so you probably forget books and "flow"-based articles differently.


On re-reading books:

The first time I read Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace I found myself unable to determine what was Important for much of the first few hundred pages. None of it made sense and I couldn't figure out what The Point of the book was. I kind of read the pages but didn't really take any of it in.

The second time I read it was a completely different experience: those first pages immediately made sense, and I derived a sense of pleasure in reading them that I didn't have the first time around.


Tangentially, I've had a similar experience when teaching myself some areas of pure mathematics via books. The first time around I had a hard time figuring out which theorems were significant and worth more attention than others. The second time around the most important ones were a lot more obvious.


That information reshapes your brain is something I think that most of the people on this site and reading my comment understand. Johnny 5 said it best - INPUT


A lot of comments in this thread make it sound like if you're not going to perform rote memorization of what you read then it's not worth reading at all. Learning is more than memorization. To simply write-off all knowledge as just regurgitating facts is exactly what's wrong with the modern education system. Read for the sake of reading, explore new ideas and grow.


Honestly, this makes sense to me too, but what scientific evidence is there of reading creating/affecting mental models for people? The article seemed like a lot of opinion, but not much evidence.

When I listen to audiobooks or read for personal development or business, I make an effort to apply things I've learned from the books to derive value.


I noticed that if I read a book, I don't understand it immediately truly deeply. Some sort of analysis happens and then after few months or even years my mentality becomes different and I start to think in a different way. So it takes time to build a different mentality by reading books.


Wasn't this story on here last week?


I posted this 5 days ago, why does HN not pick it up as a duplicate?

https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=15111163


I see the irony here :)


Sorry yours didn't get any attention! It's mostly up to chance, so the software lets through resubmissions of earlier posts that are too old to save but didn't get any discussion.


Maybe the time stamp on the original post should just get updated in case of a re-submission of a previously unsuccessful post. The community deserves to get information quickly and there should be only one thread per post to avoid redundant arguments)


Or maybe, just maybe, non-fiction books(not textbooks) are a terrible medium to learn anything, in light of what we know of how memory works ,and in light of various knowledge management technologies, which don't work terribly well with books ?

And books only exist because they are the lowest common denominator for someone to share an idea, and they are a good form of entertainment, similar to facebook posts ?




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