At the risk of stating the obvious, this post continues right where its predecessor left off. I enjoyed the mixed reaction to that previous post…it looks like maybe people who went through some flavour of the British school system have experiences closer to mine. Or, this may all just be a personal problem that I’ve overgeneralized. We’ll just have to see about that, won’t we? 😀
Anyway, let’s go straight to the action! As promised…how to fix the problems with the sucky way we read.
Perhaps the most important principle is this:
SKIP More Than You Read. Skip MORE Than You Read.
Many people are aware that some skipping is a useful and valid reading technique. But most people are not aware of just how useful and in just what proportions they should be skipping. They think of skipping/skimming as a side-dish.
Yes, you read it right, you want to skip MORE than you read. Your reading style needs to go from “reading with some skipping” to “skipping with some reading”. Skipping is the new main course. Skipping is the primary activity.
“But I won’t get the most out of the book”. Hehehe. Silly rabbit. First of all, you realize how many books there are in the world, right? And you realize more books are coming out every day, right? And you realize you’re not reading those because you’re busy slogging through this clearly past-its-prime-in-terms-of-both-information-and-entertainment-value book you’re so dutifully dragging your eyes through right now, right?
I mean, just because you pay for cable, does that mean you sit and watch only one channel per week, never switching until you’re “done”, in order to “get the most out of it” and “get your money’s worth”? I didn’t think so.
Play a little math (or, if you prefer, maths) game with me. Let’s say there are two boys — call them Akira and Tetsuo. Let’s say Akira now reads two 300-page books a month. 24 books, 7000+ pages a year. One book every two weeks — a little low, but not unreasonable in today’s world. And let’s say Tetsuo, using “skimming with some reading”, reads three 300-page books a day, for 328,000 pages a year.
“Objection, your Khatzumotoness — with skimming you only actually read 10~20% of the book!”
OK, so, docile, plodding Akira has 100% “read” read all 7000 pages of his 24 books, while Tetsuo has clocked in 32,000~64000 fully-read pages spread out across 1000+ books — average it out in the middle and call it 49,000 pages.
7000 pages versus 49,000 pages. Who has read more? Given that a minority of pages of a book hold a majority of the infotainment value who has learned more? Who’s more of an expert? Who can see more sides of the issue? Who has had the most fun?
And that’s what this is all about — fun. Reading the parts you like of the books you like, and leaving the rest out because life is short. Dude, you’re already skipping anyway simply by choosing to read one book over another. You might as well skip in an even more productive way.
Do you really think Akira’s half-asleep, semi-comatose, boredom-and-duty-and-just-get-me-outta-here-mode brain is taking in more information than Tetsuo’s alert, active, bright-eyed-and-bushy-tailed, fun-and-flow-mode brain? (I really need to go get some new adjectives…）
Do you really think that there’s just one or two really good books in the world, and if you only read these two, you’ll never ever need to do any more reading again?
Tetsuo, by having fun and reclaiming his right to make real, significant decisions about his time and life, has managed to read more in one year than Akira does in seven. Tetsuo reads as much every 18 months as Akira does every decade. If knowledge is indeed power, who’s the one rising to power — and not just the cheesy “power over other people” kind, but the meaningful, “power in and over oneself” kind?
Avoid Marking/Highlighting/Stickers, etc.
- It’s laborious.
- You waste valuable time making thousands of tiny decisions like: “wait, is this important enough to mark?”
- It leads to page clutter. Even with the best of intentions, a page can soon become so underlined and highlighted that the unmarked stuff stands out more.
- It’s irreversible. This doesn’t just lower the resale value of your books (which is not something you necessarily need care about, since the information contained in the book should exceed its cash price anyhow) — it also makes it harder to tell where and whether or not you are “done” when it comes to “post-processing”, post-reading activities like entering small parts of the book into an SRS.
- You can get wrapped up in an escalating “battle of infinites” — always trying to find bigger, badder ways to make things stand out because you highlighted something you thought was important but actually this other thing is even more important, and all the marking’s getting in the way and…cetera…
- It requires too much equipment and too many hands — it’s bad enough that you have to handle a paper book, now you have to have the right writing implements, too?!
- Instead of marking by pen, just dog-ear the page. Dog-earing is quick, reversible and requires no extra equipment.
Accept Low Conversion
- Conversion = the percentage of a book read that is closely and/or SRSed. That is to say, “converted” from inert text into close reading and/or SRS cards.
- Only read the parts you really like of the books you really like.
- Only SRS the quotes you really like of the parts you really like of the books you really like.
- There is no “should”. The only “should” is the reading itself. What to read is all up to you.
- Ironically enough, a certain level of acceptance of failure is necessary for success. Once you let go of aiming for 100% success 100% of the time, you can start swinging like crazy and knocking out 95s and 90s.
- Accept that most of the book isn’t worth reading.
- Accept that most of what’s worth reading isn’t worth dog-earing.
- Accept that most of what’s worth dog-earing isn’t worth entering into an SRS.
- Accept that at least 5% and as much us 25~50% of the little that does get entered into the SRS, sucks and should be deleted. 25~50% is high, but for people who have not been in the habit of regular SRS card-culling, it is a perfectly normal number.
Generally, I dog-ear about 20% of the pages of a book. And I only pick up SRS items from a fraction (5%~50%) of the pages I do dog-ear. And each page generally only contains one sentence worth the trouble of SRSing.
Many things may seem or even be “worth” knowing, but they also have to be worth the TROUBLE of getting entered. So, if you’re SRSing even one sentence per book, then you’re doing more than okay…
Low conversion, meng.
Extensive Timebox Use
- We tend to have incredibly warped time perception of two general types — one optimistic, the other pessimistic. Both types lead to inaction.
- Over-optimism: We think we have all the time in the world when we don’t.
- Over-pessimism: We think we have no time at all, when we have plenty.
- Timeboxing helps us realize both how much and how little time we have. It cures both inaction-by-optimism and inaction-by pessimism.
- My favorite timebox size is 10 minutes. But I do make use of 2- and 3-minute timeboxes when my ability to focus is especially shot. It’s a great way to ease into deep concentration.
- There are only 1440 minutes in a day, and you’ll be awake for maybe 960 of them, and able to do active work for, at best, 480 of those. Think about it.
Throw Books Away
- Selling counts 🙂 .
- Be honest — are you really ever going to look at that book again? I know you “should”, but do you want to? Come on, homeslice…we’re all adults here; there’s no need to beat around the bu… — get rid of it. What matters is the ideas in your head, not the flattened pieces of dead tree.
- Treat books as a disposable item. Again, the information needs to be in your head, ready to use. Not on Wikipedia, not on a bright-yellow-highlighted page in some funny book in some neglected corner of some overflowing bookshelf somewhere. In your head. Here. Now.
- A few bad apples ruin everything. Keeping books you don’t really like will, in my experience, lead you to read less overall.
- Do you own your books or are you being owned by them? When major life decisions are being made around the books’ welfare, this is a sign of problems.
- Of course, if you’re still building up a collection of, say, foreign language books, then “buy and hold” makes more sense 😉 .
Read Books Like You Read Websites
Our relationship with websites is much healthier, overall, than that with books. We seem to have much better reading practices online. People shift websites without any qualms.
No one would ever accuse you of “not really having read website X” just because you didn’t read every-single-word on it. I know I sometimes make fun of people who haven’t read all of this site, but, I’m just a jerk like that 🙂 .
If in doubt, use your Internet reading habits as a reference.
Always Touch, But Don’t Always Touch Down
Unless the book sucks intensely, or the table of contents indicates a clear lack of relevance, more or less every page gets a look, but only a minority of pages get a close reading.
Interestingly, this puts some responsibility on authors to ensure that their work can get its point across very quickly. Lately, here in Japan, non-fiction authors [I only really read non-fiction in any quantity; I figure I can make up my own lies if I need to 😉 ] are getting really good at this — far better than their American counterparts.
In fact, I recently read some 40~60-year-old Japanese non-fiction books [you know I keeps it old skool] full of massive paragraphs and virtually no typographical variation whatsoever…and coming from reading more recent stuff, it was jarring, to say the least. Like: “Dude…bold type…use it sometimes”.
But If We Don’t Force People, They Won’t Learn Anything!!!
Yes, people are lazy. I am lazy. But they’re also curious. You don’t need duty/obligation to force or compel you to look up things you don’t know…Curiosity and Fun will do all the “forcing” you need. Your curiosity will draw you to know more, to learn more.
If they’re anything like me, then many people have become so stressed out by their existing reading practices, that It’s no longer a choice between reading 100% and reading 10~20%, but a choice between reading 100% and reading 0%. Or, more accurately, it’s a choice between:
- Trying to read 100% and invariably losing steam after 10%, or
- Actively accepting that only 10~20% of the pages of a book are even worth reading in the first place, and moving on, using that knowledge to our advantage.
But What About Books That Really Do Need 100% Coverage?
All that we’ve said about low conversion basically applies to books that need 100% coverage, too. You skim and skip more than you read, you just do it over more times — either by repeating multiple, skip-heavy “passes” over the book, or by stabbing little non-linear, randomly sampled, Swiss-cheese holes into the book, or some combination of both.
Here’s what that Swiss-cheesing looks like in relation to other reading styles. Notice how The Ideal #1 almost always collapses into the bitter conclusion of #2; #3 and #4 are two enjoyable alternatives to what, for many, tends to turn reading into an exercise in suffering.
There’s a really cool proverb from China, apparently taken from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. In Japanese, you can read it as: “読書百遍義自ら見る” (ﾄﾞｸｼｮﾋｬｯﾍﾟﾝｷﾞｵﾉｽﾞｶﾗｱﾗﾜﾙ). In the language of Mordor, one says: “any book will make sense after a hundred readings”. And any book swiss-cheesed enough, we might add, will eventually see the abyssal darkness of 100% coverage, if that’s what you really want and need.
A book, or rather, our experience of a book, can change quite radically upon multiple readings/passes. In any case, the key, I think, is many fast readings/passes rather than one slow reading/pass.
But What About Fiction? Come On, Homie?
Royal we have never cared much for fiction, but you can do all this with fiction, too, if you want — I have 😀 (all the novel-lovers are having little heart attacks right now…calm down; the world isn’t falling apart).
Fiction is the most arrogant supergenre out there; it’s so full of itself; it seems to think that it always deserves dutiful, close, linear reading. More often than not, it just doesn’t. A lot of fiction is so boring that the “adventure” you can get yourself into by swiss-chessing it is actually its own reward — it improves the story. There, I said it. Bring it, fiction!
Of course, if your preference dictates a more “traditional” approach, then be my guest. I mean, good grief, it’s not like I live with you and am in a position to force you to change 😉 .
All you detailed-oriented lasses and man-lasses out there, get a change of panties ready!
In the next article in this series, we’re going to look at the process I currently use (I like to call it the “Unified Reading Process” or URP, for reasons to be revealed later, but mostly because I like to make up rather easy-to-mock acronyms), that ties all these ideas together into a bit of a mini-system you can use if you want. So…stay tuned!