Reading well is a skill, one that most people have not developed.
Levels of reading:
- 1: Elementary reading. Able to read. Think of this as transparency - no longer have to devote attention to the act of reading, can focus on the content.
- 2: Inspectional reading. Able to skim to determine thesis, structure etc.
- 3: Analytical reading. Actively engaging with content to gain understanding. In math terms - reconstructing proofs, understanding why theorems were chosen, seeing if conditions can be weakened, or if stronger results can be proved with stronger conditions.
- 4: Synoptical reading. Drawing from a large number of sources to find understanding that isn’t present in any individual source. Research-level reading, for when a convenient map of the subject does not yet exist.
Elementary reading. Often not attained even by college. Freshman students struggle with complex grammar, reading the wrong meaning into arguments etc. Originally published in 1940. Has this improved since? I don’t get the impression that most college students struggle with elementary reading.
Inspectional reading. Skimming/pre-reading. Main aim is to find out whether it’s worth reading the book in detail. Title page, preface, table of contents, index, blurb. Skim chapters that seem pivotal to the argument. Skim random pages of the book. Read the last few pages / conclusion / epilogue. Read entire book through quickly, without stopping to check references or to think carefully about arguments.
Hold these questions in mind:
- What is the book about as a whole?
- What is being said in detail, and how?
- Is the book true, in whole or part?
- What of it?
Note-taking. Structural (outline), synoptical/conceptual (themes and ideas), dialectical (state of knowledge/debate in the subject overall).
- Figure out what kind of book it is (eg pop science vs textbook, accepted vs contentious, entertainment vs education, practical vs theoretical).
- Summarize the point of the book in a couple of sentences.
- Note down the outline of the book.
- Define the problems the author is trying to solve.
- Find and define the core terminology/vocabulary (whether it’s jargon or a specific use of a common word).
- Find short statements of the core points.
- Find and briefly restate the arguments/evidence supporting those points.
- Find the solutions that are being proposed.
Must be able to do the above before declaring agreement/disagreement/suspension of judgement. Disagreement could be because the author is uninformed, misinformed or illogical in some argument/evidence. Carefully distinguish between argument/evidence and personal opinion in your response.
- Find possibly relevant texts (using advisors, reading lists, bibliographies).
- Quickly inspect each text on the list to find which are worth reading.
- Find the core points of each text.
- Translate into common terminology.
- Find the core questions of the subject.
- Collect and organise the discussion that occurs around these questions.
- Analyze the discussion. (Figure out which arguments are invalid. Verify supporting evidence.)
Be very careful to avoid mischaracterizing authors you disagree with.
Ironically, I ended up skimming much of this book. There’s a lot of filler.
Pretty much all of the advice I have seen before, much more concisely, in the context of reading math and cs papers (eg here). This book made me realize though that it’s strange that I don’t apply the same techniques to reading books. I’ve been in the habit of reading technical books like fiction novels.
That inspired me to skim every book that’s currently on my reading list, which lead to removing some of them from the list and moving others up. I’m also now making an effort to group related books together - skimming them all before reading any one of them. Hopefully this will counter the confirmation bias where any single book only focuses on the data that supports it’s own thesis.
I also started to find that many books only need skimming. A lot of pop-science books, especially, are 80% anecdote and only contain a few good ideas. For many of the books on my reading list, I could have just skimmed the excerpts on Google Books to find out they weren’t worth buying to read in full.