How I developed my reading strategy

Today I got this mail from Scott Young discussing a trade-off between quality and what he calls smoothness. Since this is an issue commonly addressed by my friends, I will tell my own lessons on choosing which books to read and how.

When I was a kid I was banned from reading books. This is very strange. My parents wanted me to become a chess champion or a math professor and did not allow me to read books that I loved, like science fiction and classics. The holes in my education started to hurt when I became 19 years old. A strict A student in prestige University, I expected myself to know things. Yet I failed simple trivia questions via my less distinguished friends from psychology and history faculties. Something needed to be done and I addressed the issue head-in. After getting my first degree I found myself working for ministry of defence with too much time in my hands and enough money to buy any book I want, and I started reading seriously.

Since I had many holes in my education, I decided to fill them in: literature, history, philosophy. Very soon I realized that not everything I recognize as important I could actually absorb. I realized that I am fascinated by biographies and stories, but I cannot actually read more complex literature without getting thoroughly bored. I came up with “9 books” system. At any given time I would read 9 books: 3 books were difficult but (by my account) important, and I would read a section of each per day – as I was able to concentrate, 3 books were fun and I would basically “swallow” and replace them, and 3 books were disappointing and I was undecided if I want to keep reading them or give them up [I will get to this in the next paragraph]. This method was perfect for me at the time since it combined fun, flow and coverage of the important themes.

Eventually as I gathered more information, my questions became more focused and the method could not satisfy me any more. I started to work on my PhD and needed to read complex articles which were just too boring to handle. I needed to look for information using this new search engine called Google (the year was 1999) and I needed to find the basic principles that could explain and systematize the abundance of seemingly unconnected stuff I learned. Basically all I was reading was the stuff that I would call disappointing 3 years ago, only now I did not have this luxury any more. I perfected the approach I started earlier which I called “read, put away, read again”. I would read the material very fast – I understood only some of it, the parts that were interesting when I read the material, and I would put the article away. Then I would read 20-30 more articles in the same way. Thus I understood much better various approaches to the issues that I needed to learn. I would put those away. I end up with a loft stack of 30 articles. I went through the articles I already read, until one of them interested me sufficiently do dive in and then I would “dive in” and reread the article.

I met Anna the year I finished my PhD. She explained what she does. I told her that I tried to this myself, it did not work, and I do not believe in what she was doing. She had other assets that caught my attention, and it was not very long till we got married. I found myself in situations where I needed to help my wife, and the only way to do this was taking here course. On the first meeting she gave me 3 articles extremely boring, poorly formatted and totally outdated (printed in 1970s). I marked them as “not worthy” before I started reading them, so my reading score was terrible. Anna told me that I got lower grades than here students that were marked as mentally retarded by Anna. I explained that her materials not worth reading, so what could she expect? The answer was simple: with the new method she teaches I will read fast and remember EVERYTHING, no matter how boring and outdated – as long as I needed to remember it. After ~10 weeks of training I graduated the course (1000 wpm 80% retention). I still felt that I read very slowly, simply the timers did not to work properly when I as reading. So I decided I should speed up a notch.

At that period I understood that while I had pretty good understanding of what happened long ago, I do not follow current trends at all. This issue became more evident when 2008 financial crisis outlined huge holes in my understanding of the reality around me. To keep up with people around me I needed to read A LOT of articles. So I came up with a strategy I call “sort, open, read, mark for future”. I would read the abstracts of articles on google, tech blogs, wikipedia, etc. If I liked the article I opened it as a tab [I used Firefox since 2007, Chrome since 2012]. Once I had ~20 articles open I would read them very fast. Usually the articles were sparse [3 markers per article], but if I found a dense article I would mark it for future. After reading ~100 articles I had 5-8 marked articles to reread. The rereading would usually take some time since it was ~20 markers per article.

As I need to write more than ever before, I am adopting yet a new reading strategy. I am focusing on articles and details that I can reuse in my future work. I am still not sufficiently fluent in this new strategy, but I can outline its main flow:
1. If I find article I like to read about, I add it to google spreadsheet.
2. If I have 3 article on google spreadsheet under the same criteria, I open an article in my blog.
3. I formulate questions following the main questions I want to discuss in the blog and perform web search accordingly.
4. I do not come back to the information for a couple of weeks, letting it “ferment” in my mind.
5. I write the article almost from my memory, occasionally adding more influential references.
The idea is very simple: you do not truly understand anything until you can teach it. By writing an article I get deeper understanding of what I read. Strangely enough, I find myself in situation that I am not motivated to read anything unless I can write about it. [Not all of my blogs are publicly available].

My takes from this story:
(1) Each period of life comes with unique challenges. As en effective tool to address this challenges, reading strategy needs to be adapted.
(2) How we learn is a matter of why we learn. Much more so than what we know and what reading methods we use.
(3) It is OK to leave gaps, or even huge holes in our reading, as long as we are ready to come back and fix them when we are ready.

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5 Replies to “How I developed my reading strategy”

  1. I couldn’t find the point of your article really, except that you sometimes force yourself to read shit books and your parents had banned you from reading books when you were a kid.

    Please use bold, italics, and subheadings to make your articles easier to read.

    1. I am really sorry that you feel this way. Not every article I post is teaching material, occasionally I simply share my experiences. Usually the last paragraphs of my article summarize the article.

      Here is what I take from my experience:
      1. Reading books is a privilege, not everyone can read nice book.
      2. You need separate strategies for every period of your life.
      3. Start with cool books when you get first look into subjects.
      4. As you get older and accomplish more, you may eventually need to read harder books and you need to learn to deal with that
      5. Be proactive in your research, or you may end up rereading the same stuff over and over.

    1. Yes, I read the post when it originally appeared. It is important to train memory and visual processing before you train speedreading, yet the available courses I know skip this step… If you get more information than the brain can process, your retention will be low…

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