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How to gain more from your reading (psyche.co)
234 points by prostoalex 3 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 90 comments

This article is, perhaps unsurprisingly, very well written and structured. A joy to read compared to most internet writing!

It vibes pretty well with my own "rules" for reading:

* I read one book at a time

* In general I only read when I feel like it, but I will read every day: if I don't feel like it, I'll just read one page

* At any point am I allowed to stop reading a book and pick up a new one

* I do not track "pages per day" or "books per year", I do not participate in "reading challenges"

This way, reading has most personal value to me without becoming a "second job" with the pressure to "perform" that comes with it.

>> without becoming a "second job" with the pressure to "perform that comes with it

Exactly. If you can develop a skill of reading in this manner, it's not something anyone can take away from you. No matter what happens to you: illness, imprisonment, poverty, divorce. No one can take that from you.

> This article is, perhaps unsurprisingly, very well written and structured. A joy to read compared to most internet writing!

Aeon and its sister site Psyche are genuinely awesome. Probably the best sites I've discovered in years. Would definitely encourage you to read more of their work. There are definitely arguments I disagree with, but nothing to complain about how they're presented or sourced.

I like those longer reads that are somewhat detached from daily events that you can't really learn anything from.

Why do you read one book at a time?

Have you tried more than that and found it unsatisfactory?

I usually have two books on the go. I leave them in different places. That’s key. I am a different person in each place, and I can keep my associations separate and distinct for each book.

Given enough places, I’m confident I could read more than two books in parallel.

I was a one-book-at-a-time person for the longest time, and in the last two years relaxed what I realized was an arbitrary rule and allowed myself to read any of a number of books (because I buy them faster than I can read them anyways) depending on my mood. I currently have at least one going in each of these areas:

- technical

- design

- autobiography

- classic fiction

- short nonfiction anthology

- history

Progress is a lot slower per book, but it’s not a race. I much prefer being able to pick up whatever I’m interested in at the time than having to wait, feeling like I have to slog through the end of the current book.

I read promiscuously. I want the ideas from disparate topics to have sex and produce novel offspring in my mind.

By the way, this is also a much better learning strategy. Switching topics means to recall the information before continuing, which is very much desirable.

One of the books I’m reading is Swann’s Way, which is basically stream-of-consciousness in structure, and there’s an appendix with a synopsis that references page numbers. I usually read the latest paragraph of that to bring me back up to speed before diving into the text. Super useful tool that I wish came with every book… I see things like Sparknotes in a whole new light now. But manual recall is definitely a good exercise!

I'd guess reading ebooks, even on tablets or phones, makes one-book-reading the path of least resistance. I mostly read multiple because I physically keep the (paper) books near where I read them. I'll read a different book in bed than at my desk than in the living room, because that's what's there. Some of those (the bedside one, especially) don't tend to travel with me. Others might. It's mostly a result of the physicality and locality of the actual books, as objects.

However, if I'm reading a book on my phone & tablet, I'll mostly stick to one until I'm done with it. They way they sync reading status and time-of-last-access across devices encourages it, even with multiple devices.

I read almost exclusively on my ereader, so “two books in different places” does not apply to me. But years ago before the ereader existed I also self-disciplined to one book at a time.

If I don’t, my reading will become like my internet browsing: chasing my interest of the moment, half reading something about it, going on another chase and never properly engaging with one subject.

Of course some people will be better at context switching and the discipline to actually finish the multiple books they’re reading…but not me.

Yeah, I don't understand this. I actually read 5 to 10 books at a time. Many "classics" that we have these days were actually published as periodicals/in serial form. So when War and Peace was first published, no one sat down and just read 1500 pages. New chapters were released once a month or so over the period of 2+ years.

So if that's how War and Peace was originally read, why shouldn't I read it the same way?

It would be neat to be able to subscribe to a monthly email that sends a chapter at a time.

I have added your response to my collection of wisdom; particularly for the statement "I am a different person in each place."

Reading a fiction and a non-fiction is doable. Non-fiction and another non-fiction as well. But not two fiction novels at the same time.

I also do two, usually one fiction and one non-fiction.

I generally agree with all of these, the one thing I guess that can be an issue for me is if I go too long in between picking up a book, then I'll kind of forget the context.

I am pretty much the exact same as you. Only difference is I set a "reading challenge" every year, but it's more of a guide then a rule. I've failed the goal multiple years; I am just happy as long as I am within a few books of my goal.

Does rule 1. And 3. Not mean you read multiple books at once? Just not simultaneously :)

Haha nice catch ;-)

What I meant with “stop reading” is “stop reading entirely”. If I read a book and at 50% think: I could probably finish it but it’s not really enjoyable at all, I just delete it from my ereader.

No sunk cost fallacy here :-)

I sometimes fall into the trap of bookmarking interesting content but failing to go back to read it, especially long form content, although I find such content to be the best for learning about interesting things.

There were a few articles I kept coming back to but couldn't get through because of distractions, so yesterday I decided to print out the articles I wanted to read. 30 mins later, I had gone through 3 three great reads (plus made notes).

It was great. I learned a lot, and they spurred some ideas as well. I think I might start doing more of this.

Printing is something I started to do some months ago. Instead of keeping the tab open for weeks, I decided I'd print anything I want to read and place it a physical "inbox".

Some tips: I print 2 pages to a side, so 4 pages per printer paper. Even long articles don't use too much paper, and for my eyes it's still readable (there are a few articles where I need to enlarge first). I print using either Firefox's "Simplify Page" feature or its "Readability" feature. This removes almost all the noise: No ads, no menus, etc. It's just the article and relevant images. Similar to reading a physical newspaper.

It's been a game changer. I can now read wherever I want. Going to the mechanic? I just take some of these printed articles with me. I find myself taking notes on the paper - something I would not do well on the computer screen. My eyes get a lot less strain. Once you get used to this, there's no going back. Now when I see an article through a web browser, it's just ugly. Too many distractions. Even the menus are annoying. I didn't realize I'd been putting up with filth for so long.

I initially worried that my inbox would get full and I'd have the same mental angst, and my plan was that if it happens, I'll take a random bunch and throw it in the recycle bin. But it never came to that - I still manage to read everything I print. Somehow, the physical inbox weighs less on my mind than the virtual one. I don't feel I need to deal with this inbox. It's OK if it just sits there collecting dust.

Bad for the environment. Good for the brain.

When I had more time (before having kids) i would print out a couple of articles every other day to read while commuting with public transport or during the evening. I became a bit obsessed with the optimal usage of paper space per article. So I wrote a HTML-to-LaTex converter as a golang learning project and applied the scientific paper style to the articles. I was quite happy with the results. Some HN classics can be found here:


That's pretty good. How robust is it to various types of articles (e.g. stripping out headers/footers/comments/menus etc)? Since I do it often, it's critical for me to have the process as smooth as possible (minimum number of clicks to get a preview before printing).

Also, the amusing thing is kids were part of the reason I started doing this. I detest reading on the phone, and I cannot be glued to my desktop because I have to watch the kids/babies and they love turning off my PC. Printing them out lets me read them while monitoring them and being away from the PC.

Do you have a simple system to keep track of the notes you take?

I ask because I also started taking notes, primarily because I want to write about some of the things I come across. I write an investment newsletter (https://playingfordoubles.substack.com)

I probably need to get myself some type of filing cabinet to keep track of articles I'd like to revisit in the future.

> Do you have a simple system to keep track of the notes you take?

Not a good one. I used to just use org modes' capture templates, but it wouldn't be organized, and it became a write only system. I recently switched to org-roam. Still, it takes work to organize so I don't really take many notes.

To be clear, when I said I take notes while reading, over 90% are "transient" notes - just something relevant for that reading and not intended for long term storage. So they're lost once I discard the article.

I was going to recommend the Zettelkasten method then realised you asked for something simple. But for others who are curious or don't mind a more involved system then I would recommend it. Works digitally as well.

thanks, i will look that up nonetheless.

I did this for ten years. I would print 10-15 articles each day, and read those during my ~2h of daily commute.

I've learned a ton of things that way. I'm not proud for the environment, but the physical aspect did have its importance.

I wonder how the environmental impact compares against potential alternatives. Like if instead of reading those pages on your commute, you'd bought yourself a new hand held console every few years to play, or decided that since you're not using the time anyway then you might as well drive yourself to make the trip a little shorter.

> Bad for the environment. Good for the brain.

Get some composting worms. They like cellulose

For those that want to do something like this regularly you might consider the ReMarkable tablet, which has a Chrome extension for sending website print outs to the device. It is essentially just high tech paper, so very little potential for distraction. I've not used the web extension much but the tablet more generally has helped me a lot with productivity in reading academic papers and note taking.

Wow, that actually looks pretty cool.

I wish they had physical distribution so that I can go try it out...doesn't seem like they do. But they do have a 30 day return trial.

> so yesterday I decided to print out the articles I wanted to read. 30 mins later, I had gone through 3 three great reads (plus made notes).

I do this too and find it very enjoyable and easier to handle. I learned this from my grandfather. He was a civil engineer and one of the first people in the neighborhood to get a computer and internet at home. He had a good balance of traditional and modern.

This is a great idea, I have exactly the same problem. I'll try it out, though I'll probably have to print a hundred pages ha...

100 lol..

I think i have printed probably about 30 so far, 2 pages per sheet + double sided so 4 on a page

That's a good tip! I will definitely try that.

I have really struggled with this, especially since having kids. The problem for me is that I have very little time to read, so I either have to read fast or read very little, reading fast doesn't really work as the article describes, so the choice is to read very little, but then that makes choosing what to read a big commitment, and that leads to analysis paralysis, and then I end up reading nothing because it's too stressful to commit to something. For an example, I spent the first 18 months or so after my first child was born reading Les Miserables. Granted, that's a long book, but lots of good books are long. If my pace for reading is something under a hundred pages a month, that means I have capacity for two or three normal length books a year, and less than one long one, and that makes each choice feel extremely precious.

Here's something I've experimented with that I don't see recommended often - In similar circumstances, I'll leverage both the book and audiobook. This way when I'm on the move, I can pick up the audio version where I left off and keep the momentum going.

Downside is you invest a small amount of time syncing between the two sources, and there might be additional cost associated.

Upside is you gain more cumulative reading time, and it keeps things interesting by adding variability and a new dimension to the experience.

I have a very hard time absorbing audiobooks. When I read, I often stop and follow the train of thought that a particular passage has begun in my brain before then proceeding on with the reading. I automatically do the same thing with an audiobook, but by doing that I miss content because the audio continues while I'm thinking and I don't pay attention to it. Sure, I could stop and start the audio, but I typically don't realize I'm even doing it until I realize I've missed a portion of the audio.

I have to admit, I agree. I have friends that plow through audiobooks, but I don't absorb them well either. I like them for fiction, which I personally read for pleasure and don't analyze as closely as nonfiction, and to act as a bridge between print reading sessions. I've also found listening to podcasts sort of 'trains' your mind to attend more closely to long-form audio.

Yes! Audiobooks have been a godsend for me. I "read" a few of those a year, but I read essentially no books anymore. Unfortunately, I find that the type of book that works via audio is more limited than the full range of books. For instance I really can't read technical books that way. I also find I don't enjoy more literary books that way, for some reason. But I listen to quite a lot of sci-fi and non-technical non-fiction, like history and biographies and ... whatever you call mass market sociology / economics / self help type books (like Thinking Fast and Slow - pop-sci I guess?).

My solution to this was to simply read books (and other works) I wanted to read for my kid. (Luckily there is some overlap in interest)

Was pleasantly surprised to discover the depths of some children’s books though. Can heartily recommend anything by Tove Jansson f.ex

Thanks! I'm in the phase where my eldest is old enough to have opinions about which books to read, but too young to have those be interesting ones (though some are fun to read, like Fox in Socks).

I think this is exactly the spot audio books come in.

When I am driving in the car, cutting the lawn, walking for exercise..I am "reading". I make time to walk 50 min a day without exception and you just rip through books if reading 50 min everyday.

For me reading fast (and loud) also works, I have realised sometimes it's even better.. when I read slowly there js chance of concentration disruption, speedy and loud reading is good sometimes.. but I avoid doing it when reading something very important to me.

What do you mean by "loud"? Do you mean reading out loud?

Yes. Reading loud enough so that you hear it.

I'm sorry, I know I'm being dense, but I don't vocalize when I read, even quietly. Are you suggesting that reading out loud is a technique you use to pay attention better, or do you mean it metaphorically?

There was some research that suggested that reading aloud is better than silently for retention. I had never vocalized before, and I'm struggling to do it because it slows you down so much, but it indeed increases my retention.

Very interesting! Thanks!

If you are reading physical book, give a chance to epub version on phone. It is much easier and faster to pop it out of pocket when you suddenly have a chance.

It made big difference for me in exactly that situation.

I can vouch for this. I've started reading on my phone and im tearing through books like never before. it's much better than mindlessly scrolling twitter

A shortcut can be to write fiction. Even if it doesn't go anywhere publishable, even if you only write a sentence a week, regularly tackling the challenge of writing well will naturally make you pay attention to how others write.

Wholeheartedly agree. As you read, you'll notice yourself noticing - you're consciously processing the narrative but also semi-consciously reflecting on how the narrative is delivered. You wonder what made that line stick out, what made that dialogue feel authentic, what made that description compelling.

It's like a casual fan watching MMA vs someone who practices martial arts. You attend not only to WHAT is done but HOW it is done, and what it means to be able to do it. You move beyond merely witnessing and start analyzing, learning, and appreciating.

This is very true. Though there are also books to read that can help see things more deeply. A couple I really found helpful here are Elements of Eloquence (gets into rhetorical tools, parallel structure as mentioned in the article being one of many such examples), and Writing Better Lyrics which gives a lot of tools that helps for all forms of writing not only song lyrics.

Those looking for a deeper dive might consider Harold Bloom's "How to Read and Why", for literature; and Mortimer J. Adler's "How to Read a Book", for non-fiction.

My main takeaway from Bloom's book that has served me well, is to clear your mind of groupthink and preconceived notions that he calls "cant" to approach the text with an open mind.

From the blurb on Amazon: "Shedding all polemic, Bloom addresses the solitary reader, who, he urges, should read for the purest of all reasons: to discover and augment the self. His ultimate faith in the restorative power of literature resonates on every page of this infinitely rewarding and important book.

It's clear from Bloom's introduction, written in 2000 I think, that he believed US society and particularly universities like Yale, his employer, had entered a dark time in which ideologies were blinding readers to the humanity of the authors, their characters, and to themselves.

From my casual attention to the subject, I hear it's even worse now

Great article. I agree with rereading. When I got into hardware part of networking which I am allergic to it took months of rereading until something clicked

BTW. I was surprised how sensitive this topic is at reddit. They are calling anything and everything gatekeeping. So even telling people how to retain more knowledge will get them to start screaming how you are putting pressure on people and killing the joy of reading. You get 10 downvotes instantly.

My problem with reading non-fiction books, esp while I worked in bookstore where I read book a day, is retaining knowledge. So I reinvented college syllabus like a dumbass I am.

Basically I went on to creating my own reading list of related books so I have this data cloud in my head that makes retaining what I read faster and better. I wasted months on this until I realised I am doing what universities are for in the first place and yep, after checking I found my reading list is bad version of collage syllabus that includes better books and way more current white-papers. And it is easier to shop around for better syllabus then spend months creating and reading books just to find something better later like how you skip patterns in programming while reading more and more workbook type programming books.

Reading is my life, I spend the majority of my awake time reading. However to be honest, I can only read endlessly when I know I won't have any extra gain from it.

I can read everything except what I have to read for work or study. Otherwise I am immediately bored.

A kind of procrastination I guess.

"When I began disciplined reading, I was reading at the rate of four thousand words a minute," the girl said. "They had quite a time correcting me of it. I had to take remedial reading, and my parents were ashamed of me. Now I've learned to read almost slow enough." "I don't understand," said Miss Hanks.

That's from R.A. Lafferty's "The Primary Education of the Camiroi" from 1966. I think I was turned on to Lafferty by this site and immediately loved his work. Still, I have "read" six books this week, and barely even remember which ones they were, let alone what they were about.

My problem is bad memory. I don't remember much of the books I read. Even recently.

So, I become very discouraged and see reading as waste of time as very little will stick and this I'll "grow" very little from time invested. Poor ROI.

I still read but mostly for eprmeral enntertainmen

Taking notes helps a lot with recall, IME. Otherwise I'm the same way.

For professional development books, my process is is two steps: first, read a chapter. Second, extract key insights I want to remember into an Anki card. I may have to re-read the chapter in part to do so, which definitely helps with recall.

I generally try to do about one chapter a night, or ten pages an hour. And I admit it can be hard to get both steps done in the time allotted. Also, the resulting new card review load can be a pain in the ass -- a good cloze card will have three or four forms to review. If you're adding three or four cards per chapter you end up with a lot of new material to review that Anki frontloads by design.

tl;dr: Remembering stuff is hard. But possibly worth it.

Every mentioned problem (workload, new vs. old reading task distribution, scheduling, plus retention) is exactly what incremental reading–at least, as implemented in the other prominent SRS–aims to solve (which it does, rather well). Does the Anki IR plugin not tackle them?

> (workload, new vs. old reading task distribution, scheduling, plus retention)

I've never really understood the appeal of IR as defined elsewhere. My reading queue isn't just wikipedia dumps or some other 100 percent valuable source, often it's somewhat speculative. I really don't want to read 3 sections from random journal papers and then create cards; I need to once over a paper to even be sure the cards created are worth remembering.

Also, I bought a Kindle to read papers from more comfortable locations than a desk, with less direct light, and AFAIK, that is not directly compatible with the IR approaches that want to track reading progress. So I have no idea if these problems are solved, because I've never felt compelled to try.

> I need to once over a paper to even be sure the cards created are worth remembering.

In my experience, this task is still better when distributed over time. Time-distributed reading involves distributed judgement of quality.

What Incremental Reading would do for you, given enough sources and/or sufficient coverage of the subject matter, is effortlessly resurface highlights and cards whose usefulness was initially doubtful. Each resurfacing would be in a successively reshaped knowledge network that stands a better chance to help you understand its merits and role between other pieces of knowledge: between reviews, this network is forming and expanding in an initial stage, to then contract, solidify, and be pruned of noise.

When evaluating the usefulness of the card or piece of knowledge, without IR one may fall back to simply taking a snapshot of the network at t1 and t2 and judge on those premises. With IR you will have made the piece integral to the network the moment it is created, and will evolve as part of it. In the end, this piece may not be simply kept or discarded, but perhaps reassigned to complement a different source, or morphed into answering a different question. Whatever the result, it has better chance to serve your purposes (and even this capacity may be reassessed in the future).

It depends on what you are reading they could be different ways to read based on the type of content. When I have to understand something complex while reading I usually use the student teacher pattern where when I try to explain it to myself while I'm reading and grasping and try to question myself.

I do the same -- I take good notes explaining things in a way that make sense to me, so I have personalized study material for when I inevitably forget three months from now what I read.

I read about 6-8 books at any time and I'm having a problem forcing myself to focus on one book. I'm also enrolled in about 5 different online courses trying to learn everything. I hardly get anything done.

I used to be able to "multitask" when I was in my early 20s and I got a lot of stuff done which resulted in my fast career progression and overall I noticed my knowledge about everything grew. The more I learned the easier it became to learn new things since pretty much everything is derived from something else, the concepts are quite similar. It doesn't take much to connect the dots.

But the "multitasking" had its peak and gradually became worse when I entered my 30s and now I'm 36 and I have to struggle to finish a book (or a course) and I hate myself for it. Whatever progress I make in one sitting that's more or less it. Every time I start reading a book, I immediately think about another book I could read. I have more kindle books, paper books and audiobooks than I will ever have time to finish and yet I can't stop myself from buying more.

It's a real struggle focusing on one thing and finishing it. I know some people prefer the freedom of doing multiple things at once but I think it's a trap and that freedom will eventually come at a price of attention disorder. The more things you do, the more things you want to do and with everything being immediately available these days, it's not that hard to get trapped in a vicious circle.

Perhaps my fault is that I used to read to complete an achievement and I did it for a very long time and somewhere along the way I forgot to read for pleasure; much like I listen to music or look at paintings.

I mostly read fiction and I try my best to read everyday. My problem seems to be that I sometimes try to rush through the details to the main story line to figure out the plot. Because I get limited time to read, I try to read very fast and cover a lot of ground so I can know more of the story. From reading this article, it sounds like I should slow down and re-read but I am not sure if some books are worth it.

Old eyes tire quickly. Reducing eye strain and increasing font size will also go a long way towards content retention. Zoom in!

And brighten your light. A well aimed lamp does wonders to ease eyestrain, especially for high-mileage eyes.

How do you folks deal with the following? I borrow books from the local library but can't mark or underline anything in the book to go back and refer. How do you then keep notes to retain the salient points of the book? Maintaining notes separately breaks the flow of reading. Suggestions appreciated.

If you'd prefer the low-tech route, try this: Buy notecards for your thoughts and leave them in the book as you go. Then before you return it, review them to make sure you've captured enough context that they make sense without the physical book.

>Maintaining notes separately breaks the flow of reading.

I would push back on this point. You do not have to keep a flow of reading. If there is something that stands out to you, then it is noteworthy enough to pause and think about it for a bit. When I read books I am waiting for moments like this, as something the author wrote resonates with me. In my opinion, that's what makes reading fun and valuable. After you reflect on the line you can re-read to get back into the flow until you are pleasantly provoked by the next piece :).

I used to keep a pad and paper - now I can snap a picture with my iPad and then annotate on it with the Pencil in my own writing. Writing is far more effective at retention than typing so I stick with it. It's not as convenient as writing directly in your own book, but it's pretty darn close. And if it's a subject of importance I'll just get my own copy of the book. I recently re-discovered independent used book sites like abebooks.com - it's a challenge to not go nuts :)

I second this. I take pictures with my phone to save for further study.

Edit: I use https://www.onlineocr.net/ a lot when I later want the text

Sharing on own reading habits: https://link.medium.com/4a2hr1VE6hb

I liked the part of reading everyday - even just a page or two. I found through my own experience to be rewarding in time.

Another one I've learned is being open and immediately committed to reading suggestions for others, it's personally opened my perspective(s)

For non-fiction, I've found that underlining engages me more and causes me to retain the information to a higher degree than when I'm "passively" reading.

For some books I'll also use the margins or even bring along a pad of sticky notes. I tried actually taking notes while reading, but it ended up requiring too much setup for me to engage with as often as I'd like.

To add to the great advice in this article, a rule of thumb I have is to plan to write a review for the book I'm reading right from the get go. When I know I need to write a review once I'm finished, I play closer attention to the book's ideas, write thoughts and criticisms down, etc.

The article is very well written,

Actually, on point, in the middle of reading something I often loss interest and just closed it, unless it is something very interesting to me. Thus, of course I missed out on more information I could have extract from it.

Lets see if I can apply these methods toward my next reading list...

Excellent article - especially the advice to occasionally read sections of text out loud.

Which, BTW, is not the same as listening to an audio book. I like Audiobooks for fiction and entertainment, but listening to an Audiobook is NOT the same as reading, which this author touches on even they don't make the explicit connection.

Great, succinct article. I like to underline as I read, then summarize into an index card that I keep, one for each book I've read.

I feel like most of the work of reading is choosing what to read. When I get that right everything else falls into place.

One of the most effective techniques is to pause reading to subscribe to the article's newsletter.


If you scroll to the bottom, there is a section with key points.

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