How to Read

Here is a post I like a lot, by Robert Heaton: How to Read

Five years ago I realized that I remembered almost nothing about most books that I read. I was reading all kinds of non-fiction – pop-psychology, pop-economics, pop-sociology, you name it – and felt like quite the polymath auto-didact. But one day, after I had finished blathering at a friend about how much I had enjoyed Thinking, Fast and Slow, they asked for a quick summary of the book’s overall thesis. I thought for a while, mumbled something about System 1 and System 2 and how I had only really read it for background knowledge, and adroitly changed the subject.

Here is why I like this post:

Learning comes from repetition, and few people have occasion to think about capital-income ratios after finishing Capital In The Twenty-First Century….

Yes! This is so true (for most of us, like everyone with a normal memory.)

And this:

One completely valid way to deal with this fact is to decide that you are fine with it. Reading Manufacturing Consent is an enjoyable experience and worth doing for its own sake; you don’t want to be viewing all of your leisure activities through the lens of a strict cost-benefit analysis.

YES! I was sort of expecting this essay to fall into either the I Have Diagnosed A Problem or the closely related You Are Doing It Wrong category, both popular among writers of posts and articles and essays, though perhaps questionably so among readers. Robert Heaton luckily has not contributed to that dubious subgenre of holier-than-thou essay-writing.

I’m currently trying to learn a lot about economics. I care a lot about this project, and find it sufficiently compelling that I’m willing to spend my limited reading time for it in a way that optimizes for learning over fun. I’ve evolved a system to help me remember more of what I read. It’s proven quite successful, and has won me such plaudits as “Where did you regurgitate all that from?” and “Well someone clearly just read ‘Why Nations Fail’”. It’s obviously completely made up and not the result of years of (or indeed any) scientific verification, but I have found it to be effective. Here’s a brief summary.

So … read the rest if you are interested.

I will add, I am quite okay with reading a nonfiction book two or three times, thus building up the repetition necessary to remember at last some of the material I care about most. For example, I have read all of Peter Kramer’s nonfiction books at least three times, sometimes more. Ditto with various books about (I’m sure you will be shocked) dogs — genetics and structure and so on. I have An Eye for a Dog on my coffee table whenever I am evaluating puppies and sometimes when I’m not. I read it a little at a time, over and over, with careful attention to the drawings. Then I look for those things in real dogs at dog shows. So this is serious study.

I have never done the kind of writeup Heaton suggests (I can’t draw and canine structure is SO visual). But I wrote up a lot of pages summarizing canine genetics on my other website, so I bet that counts as the kind of study that works for him.

It’s nice to have a knack for just remembering random trivia … ask me what order African elephants are in compared to Asian elephants and woolly mammoths. Go right on, I will remember because that’s just the kind of thing I do remember.

But I absolutely do tell students, practically every day: Read with a pencil in your hand. Write stuff down. Summarize as you go. This will help you tremendously in figuring out the material and remembering it.

Good essay. Click through and read the whole thing if you are interested.

Please Feel Free to Share:


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top