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Why The Way We Read Sucks and How to Fix It: Part 2

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:

  1. Trying to read 100% and invariably losing steam after 10%, or
  2. 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.

Reading styles diagram

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” (ドクショヒャッペンギオノズカラアラワル). 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 😉 .

Next Article: The Unified Reading Process

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!

  52 comments for “Why The Way We Read Sucks and How to Fix It: Part 2

  1. beneficii
    November 1, 2009 at 00:35

    Ha ha. I’ve always read like this. I’ve always hated having to read a whole book start to finish. I like to skip to a part that might be interesting, and if I find I need to go back to clarify then I will. I might have a challenge finding the part that shows better how the interesting part came to be, but I’m already interested and it doesn’t bother me at all.

    I’ve been doing this with Japanese too (and allowing myself a twinge of guilt), especially with Japanese, because at times I still have that “wall of characters” problem.

  2. KREVA
    November 1, 2009 at 00:37

    Thanks for yet more new insightful advice, Khatz.

    As I was reading your post, I quickly realized that I wasn’t getting as much reading done with my manga as I had wanted to by way of doing the “look up every word in the instance I see it” method. It proved to be tiring, and I wasn’t getting much done. As a remedy, I think I will try “Swiss-Cheesing” it a few volumes. haha 😀 Thanks again.

  3. WC
    November 1, 2009 at 01:36

    I still don’t see how this fixes the need to read everything. When I’m reading a book, I don’t get anything out of it if I don’t actually read it. Skimming is all well and good, but if I only get 10% of the info (and that’s being generous, with my level of Japanese) then I get -nothing- from the book. I’d get just as much out of using flashcards WITHOUT AN SRS. That’s all you’re doing when you skim, anyhow: Briefly bringing a few words back to your short-term memory.

    Even in English, if I skim a book and get a full 1/3 of the information, that’s not enough to enjoy the book. For most books, 75% wouldn’t be enough.

    As for Tetsuo and Akira, the numbers are completely made-up and not based on anything. Reading a book every 2 weeks is believable, but skimming 3 books a day is not. Even skimming 3 mangas a day in English (my native language) isn’t believable. If I had the patience to skim 1 a day, that would be a lot. Even if I got 100% of the information from skimming, skimming a book in a day would still be too much.

    For comparison, in 2 weeks I read (not skimmed) Atlas Shrugged. In another 2 weeks, I read the first 3 books of the Wheel of Time series. In another 2 weeks, I read summaries of books 4-8 and skim-read (60% skimming) books 9-11 of Wheel of Time.

    That’s nowhere near the numbers you use above, and that’s my native language.

  4. Fdsfdaafsd
    November 1, 2009 at 02:00

    Skimming does work. Strangely I’ve started reading only Japanese books. I’ve actually started by skimming it. It had let’s estimate maybe 100-150 sentences for each book. This was when I was in school. One translated only the Sentence itself with no meanings or indication to what it means which is big. The only gave out the meanings only but you had to figure out yourself how to say it which was small but hard. Through skimming the easy big book first I proudly say that book has now been easy as hell for me. I can freaking read everything in that book without the furigana. Like Khatz said books get created everyday you don’t need to worry about reading it. Just like how new popular animes get created every couple of weeks like Haruhi. If you like watching high pitched girls who go to high great that’s good for a person like you or me. 😀 If you like watching insane amounts of violence and scarring yourself for life watch Elfen Lied or Hirurashi something and maybe even Evangelion Gennisis. It’s YOUR life. Even if people call you an otaku or Japanese wannabe ignore them. Do what you want if you do force yourself to learn Japanese your doing the same thing that classes do BORE YOU TO DEATH.

    You have to remember that dream to why you wanted to learn Japanese and literally live in it. I do that through just wanting to play video games in Japanese and great I will do that. If you want to watch Japanese without subtitles do it. It’s all a part of your dream. Right here right now. This is what your going to do in Japan because you’ve been doing it for so long. Like Khatz said the way you learn shapes your enviroment and the enviroment also shapes the way the way you learn. It goes both ways. Your dreams are a part of you unless you don’t want them to be a part of you. That’s when you quite literally give up. In fact you can just give up now if you really wanted to. This is you all in you. You have a choice to drop this and regret this in a year like what I did or you have a choice to keep going to learn the most in my opinion badass language on the earth. It’s all in you do what you want no one’s forcing you to do 9 hours of Japanese everyday. I’m not saying give up but if you do that’s your choice not mine’s. My choice is that I’ve just barely started and I”m ready for the next 1-2 years of learning the language since I’m all set for the journey.

  5. beneficii
    November 1, 2009 at 02:41


    Khatz is not saying, Only skim a third of the book and then throw it away and never read it every again even if you find it interesting. He is saying, skim a book for parts that interest you. If you find an interesting part that needs to further explanation, then you will be interested enough to go back through the book to find that explanation. I’ve always read like this.

    I remember when I skipped to the end of a book in elementary school once, the teacher got mad and said I was “cheating.” (Khatzumoto’s comment reminded me of this.) But this is the way I’ve always read, and I find that I understand the book better when I do. Whereas when I try reading from start to finish, I find that I end up skimming anyway because I just cannot stand it. There are books that I find interesting enough where I can generally read from start to finish, but the moment I start running into boredom I skip. (This usually occurs when the book builds the expectation of something interesting coming, then seems to diverge unto something else. I usually skip that divergence and check the chapter headings for when I think the book starts to delve back into that interesting aspect.)

  6. November 1, 2009 at 03:23

    Wow, this post is seriously revolutionary to me (that may sound dramatic but I really mean it). Most of the time, when I read, I’m trying to absorb 100% of the info, which can be extremely not fun when it’s a boring book I’m reading for class.

    Lately, I actually have skimmed a lot of my assigned readings–and lo and behold, nothing bad happened. So thanks for this post–it’s quite helpful to me.

  7. kuraido
    November 1, 2009 at 04:36

    What about this method as applied to fiction? Having read cool non-fiction books like the Four Hour work week, and other helpful tomes, I can honestly say that skimming would work really well on nonfiction. Now in Manga, skimming would work wonderfully, you have the pictures and can catch something if the situation is too confusing and dog-ear the page. How do you skim in brick-o-text style fiction, where there are no pictures to fill in gaps? Would you just make many passes and leave it to your knowledge of plot and intuition to figure out the story? I know I have done similar things when I by a crud-ed out paperback at a garage sale for a nickel that has the first chapter missing…is this the same thing, only voluntary?

  8. Renee
    November 1, 2009 at 04:44

    This post comes at a good time for me! So thanks!

    I wonder if you WANT to read something straight through, if the story is so fun you can’t bear to miss any detail or any little interaction between the characters, I think it would be ok to read it straight through. Don’t you think? Like Khatz is always saying, it should be fun. So I think that skimming is a way to let yourself understand that you don’t HAVE to bear through reading something straight through because you think you have to. If you loose interest, then go to something else. You can always come back at another time and maybe you will find it interesting then. (I know this has happened to me with several things already).

    Maybe a good suggestion for people is to find things to read in your realm of interests at first. For me, since I’m a cook, I am reading some recipe books, and other things like this cook’s blog online. Since it’s my job I can start to think about Japanese while I’m at work too. If you play basketball, read about basketball in Japanese, etc etc. Definitely you’ll want to read other things eventually, but maybe this would cure some boredom/frustration of people until they get better at grammar and learn more words? Also I find I have more eagerness to learn the sentence even though it’s all completely new and bewildering since it’s something so close to other important aspects of my life. Once I do figure it out, I can easily equate it with stuff I do everyday.

    That’s my two cents anyway.

  9. Eldon
    November 1, 2009 at 05:00

    What you’ve described there (’bout the internets) is how I read newspapers – give most articles a quick skim, and only read the ones that look more interesting – and even then, not always the whole thing. I always feel a little guilty not reading every word, but maybe now I’ll try not to 😉

    I think skimming like that is harder with non-fiction, because 1) it’s self-referential (i.e. you won’t already be aware of certain details), and 2) good fiction should make you want to read every word anyway. Having said that, there surely is merit to skipping over boring sections – so maybe I’ll try it for that too 😀

  10. November 1, 2009 at 05:14

    Swiss-cheesing.. I love it. Hah!

    Actually, I think the fact that Japanese has a rather challenging learning curve for reading (learning to read all the Kanji), it’s really easy to skip. But, at the same time, Kanji help immensely in understanding, do they draw your eye in. So I’ve noticed anyways.

    I guess I tried something like this before. In an attempt to go 100% coverage of a manga, just because I felt I wanted to understand something in Japanese fully, I read a manga once through. Added sentences I liked, and read through it again, and found that I caught even more the second time. It got me thinking, “what if I read this a third or fourth time?” — Well, that was wishful thinking, I did go through the first 25 pages or so with a dictionary and picked out some unknowns I was curious about that I kept overlooking, but I’d say I probably got 70% coverage of the book with all that. And, that was months ago, so I imagine that if I were to go through it once or twice more I’d get it all.

    Witnessing the magic of Swiss-cheesing is exciting. You’re like “hey, I didn’t notice that before!” It’s like watching a movie over and over. After a while you start to notice things in the background, slip-ups (like one moment there’s a cup, the next there’s not), etc. Likewise, I’ve noticed that the more that I use the monolingual dictionary, the more things I start to notice and understand that I didn’t even try to look at. For example, those little notes like 〔「掛かる」と同源〕 or, (ト/タル)[文]形動タリ. So, yeah, just keep on reading over things. With the dictionary again, I used to just look for key words to give me the meaning of stuff. Nowadays I can handle full definitions, and enjoy using them as example sentences. (Which are really great for teaching you how to describe things, heh!)

    Those that don’t think it’s possible to skim 3 books a day.. whether the problem be money or what have you, that’s why things like Aozora Bunko exist. Tons of free books. Make a spread-sheet or something of all the books you “read” on there and watch the list grow. Go back through if you wish, or just find a new one. I think you’ll find that after you’ve skimmed a bunch of them you’ll be picking up more and more (because you’ll notice things that repeat over and over), and then that’s just another hook to get you interested.

    I believe I’ve read something about how the more you read, the more chances you give words the opportunity to present themselves in the right way that you learn to understand them (without even looking them up). (You don’t want to know how many times I saw 器械 and 機械 before realizing the now blindingly obvious difference between them).

    Here’s an idea for music junkies. You’re probably already doing this, but, if not, try it! — Want to learn from -all- your songs and not just a few of them, but still learn to understand them all 100%? Apply this technique. Because, by its nature, music has so much repetition in each song and across all other songs. Plus, they’re short bite-sized little bodies of text. Easy to go through 100 songs a day if you want. Do it while you’re listening, that makes it a lot more fun (sing along for added fun).

    To manga junkies, I probably don’t need to tell you this, but there are literally tons of free raw scans ready for you to skim your way through online.

    Above all, I think you’ll feel accomplished looking at the shear number of books, websites, songs, etc. that you’ve skimmed through, and I think you’ll find that you understand a lot more every time you start. Even for those that say that they only get maybe a word or two out of an entire book, or out of a few books. Look at it this way, if you’re going through so many of them, catching those words and a few other every couple of books/pages/etc. then you’re increasing you knowledge while gradually picking up more and more out of each until one day you can’t help but read an entire book through and understand it.

    Great article Khatz. I can’t wait for the next one. ;D

  11. shikantaza
    November 1, 2009 at 06:36

    You always seem to write about stuff that I need to read.
    Earlier this afternoon I was trying to begin reading 『とかげ』by 吉本ばなな, but I didn’t quite know how to go about it. “Each time I encounter something that I don’t understand/can’t pronounce, should I look it up and SRS it, or should I simply read on and only put stuff in the SRS when I really want to know?”, I asked myself. I couldn’t decide, so I got no reading at all done.

    Then I check AJATT, and WHAM – there’s a new article about how to approach reading.

    Great reading as always, I really don’t get how I can’t remember the very essence of the AJATT-method though I’ve read everything on this site at least twice …
    Thanks for reminding me how all of this works!

    I’m looking forward to part three.

  12. November 1, 2009 at 08:07

    Why would you want to skim fiction? That’s like going to a movie and spending half your time hanging out in the lobby. Even when I’m watching TV, I might flip away from the commercials, but I want to be back in time to be able to follow the plot. If you’re reading because it’s fun, which it totally is, why would you want to do less of it just in the name of plowing through something fast? Nonfiction, especially fluffy self-helpy kind of books, are really padded and you can skim them and still get the basics out of them. But I think it’s more worth it to read one great novel all the way through than to skim twenty books of pop nonfiction.

    That said, that doesn’t mean I look up everything! I read basically like I read in English: straight through, and if there’s a word I don’t know, I just brush over it and move on, unless it gets to be so that I can’t understand what’s going on unless I look up the word. Just this week I finished 「七竈と七人のかわいそうな大人」and when I was finished I was curious about what かんばせ meant, precisely. So I looked it up, and that’s the only word I looked up in the 280 pages of that book.

  13. Max
    November 1, 2009 at 08:52

    Khatz, you should have mentioned right away that you were referring to non-fiction material. What yoyu are saying is sensible advice for non-fiction, but both sad and ridiculous for a good fiction book. (As in: Why would you keep on reading a fiction book that bores you so much that you want to skip parts of it? And if the book is so good, why should you skip any of its precious, precious content?

  14. Jes
    November 1, 2009 at 09:19

    I…still read piecemeal. I think I’m pretty much incapable of reading word to word. Plus when I’m engrossed in something, I lose track of the words and am in my imagination, the pages turn themselves, figuratively.

    I appreciate what you’re saying here Katzu, because it’s giving me encouragement to continue doing things the way I feel natural doing them.

    I have a couple こち亀manga and I can’t read them straight, like a grown-up I imagine. But as I hit the pages and panels, and read what I can, only a few pages to a page/panel at a time. It is fun recognizing new things in there, haha even though it’s only こち亀(think; equivalent to archie comics…though it kicks archie’s ass). And it even feels silly to say “I can feel myself recognizing more patterns” because…of course I can, that’s the natural way for me.

    The timeboxing pattern I’m finding success with. I need to jump more into that with more things to box with.

    I burn out with force and coercion, curiosity though…curiosity, hmm, I wonder.

    Speaking of which…I noticed the minuscule smiley at the bottom of the page…would it be fun if that linked to some random thing? I think so.(clickety-click)


  15. Henry
    November 1, 2009 at 12:21

    I agree with WB, the comparison you make with Akira and Tetsuo isn’t entirely convincing.

    If it’s a comparison, then they should be reading at the same speed if the equation is to make sense. Why does it take 2 weeks for one person to read one 300 page book, when through skimming you’re supposedly ‘fully reading’ the equivalent of 140 pages a day (49,000/365). If that’s the case then shouldn’t it be 1 book every 2 days for Akira? Therefore the only difference is that one person has spread his/her reading out over several books versus someone who has concentrated all of their reading into few books.

    I think this goes against what you were saying with acquiring new languages- that quality is more important than quantity. Depth over scope etc. If you’re skimming 3 books a day just to have read ‘widely’ then sure skimming is fine, but if you want ‘depth’ then shouldn’t you be reading the majority of the books you choose.

    For fiction, I think it makes no sense to skim. If you’re skimming fiction, you might as well not read it or choose a new book instead. For non-fiction, i think there are two important things you failed to mention: 1. If you are reading for an in-depth understanding then reading the majority of a book is a much greater way of internalizing important points/theories, and absorbing the knowledge necessary to read further within a certain area, thus making it easier and faster to read through more complex work (greater quality faster). 2. I think it’s more important to just choose books that are interesting/important/useful etc. than to skim. If you’re reading through Random House’s Top 100 Non-fiction books in full, this is obviously more beneficial to your general knowledge than to skim through twice as many. Basically if it’s a choice between a university professor’s knowledge in an areas such as politics, versus a high school kid’s general knowledge over a number of areas eg. history, linguistics, engineering, science etc. i’d much rather the former. Quality over quantity, right.

    That said, I don’t think skimming is such an entirely bad thing and there’s obviously no point always reading everything in full if you don’t want to/have to. But my point is if you’re reading something that needs to be skimmed by 80% or so, then maybe you shouldn’t bother, especially if the knowledge you get isn’t going to be retained to any greater degree, so what’s the point? And if everybody read books like they read on the internet, I think for the majority of people would lessen (or already have) .their ability to concentrate, think in depth, analyze, retain information at a high level.

  16. Jonathan
    November 1, 2009 at 12:41

    There is another side to this idea. Before I began my AJATT immersion environment I was reading a book about Miyamoto Musashi. I picked it up to get the true story of the man who defeated so many Japanese warriors. I found the book read more like an analysis of historical texts and the real history of Musashi was disputed on many situations. The book was boring and I just wanted to hear about the nice stories. However I slogged through the book reading every word and savoring the good stories.

    A few weeks after returning the book to the library I realized the parts I thought were boring were actually some of the most interesting. The different historical records and ways of interpreting them added to the mystery of the man. It changed the way I think about history and Musashi. If I had skimmed through and skipped all of these parts, I would have missed all of that knowledge and later understanding. Sometimes those tough bits can be the most bittersweet.

  17. Chuck
    November 1, 2009 at 13:27

    Rather than skipping things, I usually just read them really fast. I go through all of the words, but I don’t necessarily take all of them in. I can read more quickly than I can understand. This is fine by me. I figure I catch all of the important stuff.

    When something catches my attention, I probably read it at a fifth the rate. If the English is difficult, maybe even more slowly than that.

    If the imagery is good in a piece of fiction I’ll usually read it fully.

  18. kuraido
    November 1, 2009 at 14:15

    Another thing I noticed is that books, like most possessions form chains to your heart. Its hard for me to throw a book away unread, and painful to eliminate the stuff I couldn’t read because I didn’t eat my veggies, or whatever. So I bought a Manga I really just don’t enjoy…I could just skim it and cut the chain of obligation and resell that garbage!

  19. beneficii
    November 1, 2009 at 14:36


    Not necessarily. Like when there is a piece of fiction you like, you probably still can’t stand to read it front to back over and over again (or even once).

    Like with Chibi Maruko Chan (my favorite manga series) I usually won’t just read a story front to back, but instead I’ll skim through, look at the pictures, and when I find something interesting, I’ll read it. If I’m curious how the situation arose, I’ll flip back.

    Stuff like that.

  20. Jen
    November 1, 2009 at 16:20

    Max, I completely agree with you.

    I honestly cannot see the point of skipping over half of a fiction book. I also don’t see the point in giving up if you’re not really excited/into it straight away. I get the feeling that Khatz doesn’t

    Non-fiction, yes, but I wasn’t really brought up in an environment which said “You must read every single sentence of every reference book which we tell you to”, so I always pick and choose what I’m reading.

    In my opinion, this post is not useful for fiction at all, UNLESS you are reading a collection of short stories.
    I get the feeling that Khatz really doesn’t read much fiction.
    I wish I didn’t like fiction so much, because non-fiction is much easier to read in Japanese!

  21. km
    November 1, 2009 at 16:27

    There’s another “big picture” side to this as well, and that is that skimming is more likely to keep you reading in your L2 for enjoyment, enjoying a larger cross-section of content. So if you’re going to get all upset about getting all the points and info out of a book, then fine, but I think it might be safe to say that skimming is a highly sustainable way of reading and relating to text. I just do whatever I feel like though…

  22. beneficii
    November 1, 2009 at 16:38


    That is true too. You could probably handle a moderate amount of boringness in your L1, because you understand it well. But if you’re still not used to your L2, reading something boring is going to throw you out over a black sea of oblivion under the night sky and threaten your interest in the L2.

    I find that I skim Japanese much more than I skim English.

  23. km
    November 1, 2009 at 23:11


    So then you could say that skimming, insofar as it dothly increasify your reading ability in L2, will eventually lead to the ability to skim less if you so desire, right? That sounds delicious.

  24. Nukemarine
    November 1, 2009 at 23:57

    Skimming makes sense. We’ve done it forever and day. We “skim” fiction books in school by watching the movie, the comic version, the cliff notes, the Reader’s Digest version (which is referenced in the Tiger and Dragon pilot – how did you miss that connection here Khatz), or the cover flaps. Ever read Lord of the Rings, show of hands of who skimmed the Tom Bombadil section? We also skimmed reference books (well, school books) by reading the summary at the end of the chapter, or going through and copying down the bold terms.

    Teachers hate skimming so much that the only way they can solve it is ask obscure questions that add NOTHING to the one’s learning of the material. In their quest to force reading, they make the students want to read less.

    You ever read the ENTIRE Encyclopedia or Dictionary (those paper bound things people used prior the gods delivering Wikipedia unto us)? Oh, you just went to the parts you were interested in. So what’s wrong with using a books table of contents and index to find the interesting parts.

    That said, an author with a great literary style and flow can force you through entertainment to watch the entire thing. That’s why I’ll read all of Blink or Freakonomics or Al Franken.

    PS: Skimming works great for Manga or Dramas too. Truth be told, I shut off Gokusen 30 minutes into it when it gets to the boring drama bits. Rookies I stopped watching after episode 4. 20th Century Boys was not worth reading past volume 8 or 9 (my opinion again). For dramas and mangas, I’m not skimming for information. I’m skimming for entertainment.

  25. Paul
    November 2, 2009 at 00:47

    Khatz, when you watch a movie on DVD for the first time, do you fast forward through 50%+ of it to get to the “good” parts? If not, what kind of distinction do you make between movies and fictional writing?

    I think your post makes a lot of sense for nonfiction, but not for fiction. I don’t know anyone who really enjoys reading novels, but skips massive parts of the text each time they read. As you’ve said yourself, you don’t like reading novels much.

  26. Renee
    November 2, 2009 at 01:25

    @ km & beneficii:
    That’s what I think too. Maybe you wouldn’t skim as much in your native language, because you can understand it easily. But as I can tell with myself right now, it’s impossible for me to understand everything in Japanese. For me to try and understand all the unknown words and all the unknown grammar in the sentences is too daunting. That’s why I think skimming is also good for this point.

  27. Maya
    November 2, 2009 at 05:06

    To anyone who uses/supports this method of reading for non-fiction (since it’s obviously useless advice for fiction):

    How applicable is this method to university books? We usually have 1-3 books that we’re supposed to read and learn in depth per course. Should I just skim the recommended books (learning only the important parts) and then skim other books to get more knowledge? Or should I stick to learning the recommended books in depth?

    I think that skimming a larger number of books would be more conducive in terms of actually learning more, but I’m worried that I’ll be tested on smaller details that were only in the recommended books (details that I’ll probably miss out on by skimming). Does anyone here have any experience with universities in North America that might be relevant in answering my question?

    Actually what I’m really wondering is: is it more important (in university, for a liberal arts degree) to have lots of facts memorized, or is it more important to have a general understanding of the ideas? If it’s the latter, I might as well sell my boring school books on e-bay and head straight to the library for some mad skimming.

  28. Drewskie
    November 2, 2009 at 06:46

    Maya, to answer your last question about facts versus ideas, the answer is ‘neither.’ College is not about WHAT you’re learning, but HOW you’re learning it. Your GPA is a direct reflection of how well you can learn a new set of information. What’s important, then, is whatever gets you an A.

    I used to be a main-idea person. My GPA reflected it, and I was fine with that. But then I did an internship over the summer (I’m a comp sci senior) and I realized that what I had learned in school was foundational, and most of the knowledge I needed for the job was learned while doing it.

    So if the knowledge you need for your future line of work is learned while doing your job, learning how to learn is really important. That’s why you’re at college. Consequently, this is also one of a hundred reasons why learning Japanese is a great hobby. Nothing like learning 3000+ kanji to teach you about learning, right?

    Applying that to reading textbooks, if you know how the test looks, or you know what will be required of you when you write an essay, you can target your reading specifically for that. Unfortunately, those things will vary class to class. There’s no way of knowing exactly what kind of details the test will go into. You can ask the professor to get a good idea, and that’s about it.

  29. HiddenSincerity
    November 2, 2009 at 07:25

    I was reading all the “doesn’t work for fiction” comments, and I was agreeing with them.

    Then I realised it does apply to fiction too, at least in the context of AJATT.

    Remember the advice where Khatz says to read/watch what you already understand?

    Well, if you’ve read a book already in English and you liked it, why not start by cherry-picking your favourite scenes? You’re not going to miss anything in terms of plot etc and you already know what it means and it’s a part of a book you really like, so why not? Even if you really love the book, there’s going to be parts of the book that you didn’t enjoy as much as the rest; that probably not going to be different in Japanese. And the oppistie too; if you really liked a scene and are hanging out to read it, why wait until you’ve trudged back through the less interesting bit to get it?

    Just my two cents, back off – ブリジット・ジョーンズ is waiting for me.

  30. Seth
    November 2, 2009 at 10:25

    To be ironic, I skimmed/skipped most of this article.

    I hope no one has made that joke in the comments yet… I skimmed them, too.

  31. Jimbo
    November 2, 2009 at 14:36


  32. Saru Sponge
    November 2, 2009 at 20:02

    I skimmed your mum.

    I don’t know, it makes a certain amount of sense to me, as well. With fiction, when starting out, skimming is a necessity or you will get bogged down with details. It will kill you, if you do not go from bit to bit. Full understanding of fiction books is just not something a novice can do.

  33. November 3, 2009 at 03:18

    When I think about it… this is how you read a manga you don’t fully understand already. If the manga is interesting enough, you skip over the phrases you don’t understand and laugh/enjoy at the ones you do and are able to continue on with the story.

    I think Khatz is getting a bit ahead of a lot of his readers and forgetting that many of them need to be like children and not to be afraid of watching that one film or reading that one manga over and over and over again because they *enjoy* it and want to read it more.

    With fiction (which um… what else is there to read? Why would you want to read boring non-fiction stuff in Japanese? Khatzumoto is such a nerd :P), I do highlight and dog-ear on my uh… 5th time through I think. By that time I already understand the story and content very very well, but I was always too damn lazy to enter the few things I didn’t know it into SRS. You should see my copy of One Piece 第一. 😉

  34. beneficii
    November 3, 2009 at 06:49


    “I think Khatz is getting a bit ahead of a lot of his readers and forgetting that many of them need to be like children and not to be afraid of watching that one film or reading that one manga over and over and over again because they *enjoy* it and want to read it more.”

    I don’t think Khatz has forgotten this. He has said to read, watch, or listen to things you like over and over again. I think he has even mentioned it in this post.

    Unfortunately, it’s too boring to go back and check. :p

  35. November 3, 2009 at 11:01

    I’ve long had the skimming part down (my political science degree often required the digestion of massive tomes of really boring crap), but, much to my wife’s chagrin, I’ve not managed to implement the “throwing books away” part. 😉

  36. Chris
    November 3, 2009 at 17:41

    Of course this doesn’t apply to fiction; fiction may be more demanding in terms of vocabulary, but it requires less concentration and attention – you simply get absorbed in a work of fiction like you do a movie. I finished reading Crime and Punishment recently (a freakin’ mammoth achievement for me as far as reading literature goes) and reading from start to finish was easy, because the story was absorbing. No way I can do that with a work of non-fiction; I’d burn out too easily.

    The swiss-cheesing method for non-fiction therefore sounds great and I will no longer feel guilty for skipping bits, thinking a book must be read from A to Z, in that order. The trouble is, with certain non-fiction, particularly philosophy, it has ideas that build on one another which require linear reading. It’s worse when one section refers to an earlier section which refers to an earlier and you ending reading it linearly, but backwards in order to fill in the required gaps. I guess it depends largely on the work, but I suppose it would work very well to “swiss-cheese” a book like “The History of the World” by JM Roberts, which I ACTUALLY read in it’s entirety – all 1200 pages, start to finish and almost died from boredom and exhaustion…So I guess you could set it up as follows, at least this is how it seems to work for me:

    Books in a “SERIES” format (their sections are independent of one-another):
    Encyclopedias, reference works, history, biographies, readers/compilations
    These books are swiss-cheeseable.

    Books in a “CO-DEPENDANT” format (their sections build on and refer to one-another)
    Fiction, much of philosophy
    These books aren’t so suited to swiss-cheesing

    This is just a rough sketch, but looking at it, it seems most genres would do well to take the swiss-cheese approach, which I shall be doing from now on! Thanks!

  37. アメド
    November 4, 2009 at 09:30

    hey did anyone see that banner when you enter the AJATT site? QRG THE MOVIE!. haha i mean yea a movie that explains the AJATT method. That’s good to hear i was already planning on getting the sentence pack+QRG guide pretty soon anyhow just as a way to donate b/c learned alot of japanese and only been 4 months of this method. On another note i was interesting in that kanji kentai thingy for the future maybe in 2 years or something lol. Tests 6000 kanji. I was thinking of adding more kanji to my RTK kanji deck on anki but hmm i guess it’s better to learn all new kanji through sentence cuz of the context you get to use it in other than the meanings only. Hence the need of monolingual because it’s only way to get somewhere solid i..e fluency.

  38. November 4, 2009 at 20:36

    I love to read. I’ve never seen it as a chore, either in English or in Japanese. If it’s a book I’m bored with, I just don’t read it – luckily my school days are far behind me. I skim newspapers all the time so it’s not like I’m not familiar with the concept, but as far as I’m concerned reading is fun.

    Why would I want to read just 30% of a good book? Where’s the fun in that? There’s more to reading than the “information” contained within: the setting, the writing, the characters, the developments, the dialogue…so much more than just “information”. Sometimes if I like a passage/page a lot I even go back and read it again. Me? Skim City Hunter? Never!

    In other words I completely disagree with Khatz and the rest of you on this topic.

  39. Drewskie
    November 5, 2009 at 12:48

    きのこ、 I think the point is not to arbitrarily skip material, but to skip material you find boring. If you love every word of a book, of course you would read every word. If you only liked 30% of a good book and you skimmed for that 30%, then made another pass later, you might find that 30% less interesting, and with the context of that original pass, you might find other parts a little more interesting/relevant.

    As other’s have established, though, this is definitely more useful for non-fiction.

  40. Ampharos64
    November 7, 2009 at 08:07

    Hmm, I can see how it would work with fiction in L2 – since I can’t understand much yet I’ll take those sentences I do understand and skip those I don’t. With L1, though, I don’t want to miss a word, in general the idea of wanting to skip = does not compute, since to me it’s ALL the good stuff.

    Well, I am taking an English Lit. MA, after all. <3 reading.

  41. November 9, 2009 at 20:41

    HAHAHA. Thank you for this post, this is what I need to cure my terrible reading habits that stop me from ever finishing a book! I know this site is for Japanese but I’m going to write Korean anyway~ 뗑큐!

  42. November 15, 2009 at 20:17

    I haven’t seen this discussed anywhere yet and it’s a pretty noob question, but here goes:

    How do you SRS sentences from these non-fiction books?

    I can understand SRSing sentences for language learning, such as Japanese and Chinese where you have the original sentence on one side and either a translation or an L2 explanation on the other side.

    But if I’m reading an L1 self-help book and I want to SRS a sentence (as Khatz seems to like to do), I put the sentence on one side and…. what, exactly, goes on the other side? Or do you not need anything since the point is just to drive the sentence/meaning of the sentence into long-term memory?

    Any comments are appreciated. Thanks.

  43. Shigehisa
    November 18, 2009 at 23:03

    This doesn’t seem quite congruent with the “all in moderation, including moderation itself” post.

  44. December 24, 2009 at 05:09

    I don’t really agree that what you said about skipping and skimming applies to fiction. Sure, people are free to do whatever they want, but I think the whole purpose of fiction is for the reader to catch every word. Apart from enjoying the the mere story, a very large part of it is enjoying the way words are used in the literary form of art. If people find certain pieces of fiction boring, then that perhaps means 1 of 2 things. 1) it really is boring and not worth the read, or 2) the reader just doesn’t have the level or reading experience under his/her belt that is necessary to enjoy a piece of literature of that level. You know? Enjoying the feelings, emotions, etc, that are evoked by the way in which the words are used is everything with fiction.

    That’s my opinion at least 😀

  45. Elaine
    July 29, 2010 at 08:05

    Haha, I’ve been reading non-fiction like this for ages, only way to do it.

    As for fiction I have a friend who constantly skims and skips chapters and reads the ending of novels all the time and doesn’t seem to suffer for it. I, however, find it much more enjoyable to read a story from from start to finish. 🙂 If I find myself skimming, that means it’s boring and if it’s boring then it’s not worth my time, and if it’s not worth my time I stop reading it (or read a summary and a forum discussion about it if it’s for school).

    To me reading non-fiction feels like internet browsing and reading fiction feels like watching a movie.

  46. Elaine
    July 29, 2010 at 08:09

    **AND read a summary….
    (May I request an edit button?)

  47. Nick
    February 12, 2011 at 02:52

    This is a very interesting conversation. I’m not learning Japanese, but I love reading about reading. I think a lot of points here are converging towards the idea that different kinds of books need to be read differently. This is actually the topic of a great book by Mortimer Adler called “How to Read a Book”. It’s definitely worth a read… or a skim.

  48. Sleepy
    January 29, 2014 at 01:05

    I must thank this blog for this post. Some time ago, it allowed me to LIKE reading once again. I have a book that I like to go through many, many times a day. I only own 1 book, I might get another, but I enjoy this one soo much anyways.

    Also, my brother, who HATES reading with a passion, calls me a bookworm(again, I only own 1 book) and a otaku all the time.

    • 名前
      January 30, 2014 at 12:19

      Curiosity got the better of me, which book is it?

      • Sleepy
        January 30, 2014 at 21:30

        みんなの日本語. Think of a Textbook for foreigners that is pretty much 100% in Japanese(It has furigana too, people have varying feelings about furigana).

        Funny thing is, it was kinda expensive where I got it($44 about, but stuff like this is hard to come by on America’s Amazon). It didn’t come with the CD either(I’m fine with that now, but some may not be).

        When I first got it, I wanted to read it like everyone else, slowly and page by page. Needless to say, I disliked reading until I learned to skim pages real fast and then got addicted to reading again.

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