Reading Well, Memory Vs Understanding, and Building Rafts
Reading books as a way of learning, gaining insight or simply just satisfying a niggling curiosity about unexplored fields, is perhaps the most effective, most underrated and most profound practice you can undertake. If you ask most people if they read, the answer returned is typically a “Yes” but the truth, is somewhat the opposite: outside of their jobs, very few people actually sit down and read — be it fiction, non-fiction, research papers, newspapers or whatever — and in today’s world, this is more the case than ever. People like to sound smart or driven, so when asked if they read, of course they will say yes. But reading one hour per week cannot really be called reading — it certainly isn’t a practice.
Of the 1% of people that do read — not for entertainment, but for learnings sake — there is also another sub-category of people: the ones who read properly. Fiction — Novels, Short Stories, Light Poetry, etc — Biographies, a large part of News and Magazines, are all generally easy to read and require little mental effort; it’s hard to go wrong reading these. On the other hand — Scientific Books, Philosophy, Great Poetry, Self-help Books, Instructional Books, and all kinds of books that hold deep lessons, wisdom and insight — are books that are very rarely read correctly.
Sure you can get results, good results even, from simply sitting down and chowing your way through book after book, after book. Passive learning is real and works. But great results come from actually thinking about the process; true understanding and real growth are functions of selectivity, of thinking about what you are reading and why.
The modern day self-help trend explosion is a great example: there is a large percentage of people who are addicted to self-help books — that is, they read book after book looking for the silver bullet answer, never satisfied, and forever not getting any wiser. The problem is that they don’t take the time to firstly, think and select a book they truly need; and secondly, once they have a book, read it carefully, throughly and properly — by thinking about the lessons and actually applying them. And this isn’t the case with only self-help books; it can happen with all types of books that are worth reading. In fact, under the self-help books umbrella you could perhaps place all types of ‘learning books’, for their intention is indeed to help the self — you.
You may ask what the problem is with this type of attitude — of reading book after book without really thinking about the lessons learned — if the reader is enjoying it, and in some way benefitting from it. Well, the benefit gained from it is probably very little, as is the case with self-help addicts. The real question is, what is the point of such an attitude towards reading? If you are actually investing time, energy and money into reading, why not get the most out of it — by reading great books and reading them properly?
How can you do this exactly? The first rule is that you should be thinking when you’re reading; instead of just glossing over the words, page after page, book after book, take time to understand what is being said. The second rule is that you should be selective in what you read, especially on the internet. We think that Dogs like bones because they eat them, but Dogs don’t like bones, Dogs like steaks; Dogs eat bones because that’s the only choice they’ve got. You are a human being; you get to choose. These two rules go hand in hand: sometimes you first have to read the book to know if it’s right for you; most times you’ll know from the title. Another key tip is to not think you should read the whole book, or that you should read it front to back.
In a seemingly unrelated digression, what follows is the analogy of building and using a raft to explain the best way to read. Not only in reading however, but in all types of learning this is a great way to think about, and remember, the how to get the most out of your investment:
[You are Mowlgi from the Jungle Book and on a trek through the forest. You meet a wide, deep river that you must cross. You can’t swim because you don’t know what big fish lurk beneath the mucky water. But you do know, how to build a raft…]
Rafting and Learning
Step 1 — You find the materials to build the raft: First, tell yourself that you are going to go through all the proceeding steps. Then answer a few or all of these questions (reword them if you like):
What type of information am I dealing with — a book, blogpost, news article…? Who is the author? What is their reason for writing it? What is their history? What has it been written for? How long will it take you to read? What are the contents, key words and pictures?
Ask yourself — with the utmost honesty and brevity — why you are reading the book. Think about how it will benefit your life; think about how you will use what you learn in your own life.
Step 2 — Build the raft:
Read the book. Play the ideas out in your head. Converse and argue with the author — yes, speak to yourself (If you’re in a public space, this is best done internally, unless you want to risk being locked up.) Imagine you were sitting in a room with them: what would you say? what would they say? Learn the key arguments. Understand the governing principles. Come to terms with the writing and the author. Draw and take notes. Visualise applying the ideas to your own life. Do you agree with the book? — disagree? — why?
Step 3 — Now take the raft across the river:
Draw practical applications from what you have read of learned, and apply the ideas to your own life. Test whatever theories, ideas or assumptions you’ve come across. Teach what you have learned. Write about it. Draw.
Step 4 — Leave the raft behind; move on:
Tear up your notes. Drop the book. Leave the ideas behind and trust in your ability. Stop clinging to memory; stop trying to remember. Just let go. Know that if you ever need to build the same raft again, you can deal with it when the situation calls — because, you know how to. This requires being comfortable with doubt, trusting yourself and going forth; it means forging ahead not without, but in spite of uncertainty. Consider this carefully.
In Step 1, you are being selective in your information choice and thoughtful about what it is you want to get out of your reading. This asking of questions is a cool way to open up your mind to the ideas that follow. Think of it as both a filter (you decide to read a book or skip it) and a preparation (you get your mind thinking about the right things). It’s crucial to get this step right before the next step — when you read the book.
Step 2 can play out many different ways — skim reading, deep reading, skipping pages, reading back-to-front, etc . It depends on the reading material and what you want to get from it. It’s essential that here you come to a full understanding of what the author is saying; it’s important not to move on until you grasp the key concepts and principles of the book. See this as making sure the raft is secure, strong and durable-enough to get you across. Note “durable-enough”: this means learn just enough to understand the book’s big ideas. 90% of books (not so much blogs, articles and magazines) are for the most part just filled with endless verbosity and preaching from the author; the content is 90% bulking-agent. The reason is that books have to make money. Otherwise they’re simply another blog post, news article or book that never happened. (Perhaps this is why blog posts are so hot today?) The MED (Minimum Effective Dose) is what you’re looking for.
Step 3 is where you personally test the ideas from the material read. Depending on the book you read, you may find examples of how you can apply or test the ideas given; but many books, — especially the ancient greats, poetry, psychology — don’t. Call these books theory books. It is your job then, to formulate practical applications from the theory. If you’ve followed the previous 2 steps this will considerably easier than if you skipped them. By applying the ideas and testing the assumptions of the author(s), you’re seeing if what you’ve learned is actually true, valid or real. Your doing your own thinking. And by doing so, you’re both building your critical thinking muscles — which will help you understand and learn much faster — and if the ideas are good, you’re pounding in the lessons you learned. Examples of applying include: teaching others, writing about the lessons, testing the assumptions in a personal experiment, thought experiments — i.e. for Philosophy and Poetry, explaining it to a 6 year old, speaking with others about it, and doing more research.
The final step is where you take the final step, the step of a true polymath, a real disciple of knowledge, an loving admirer of learning. Memory is much spoken of in education and learning, but memory is fallible, unreliable and a poor substitute of the mark of an intellectual — understanding. Step 4 is (where you leave the raft behind are have faith in your ability to build another if faced with the same situation) where you trust in your understanding of the topic you’ve just immersed in. This is where you stop clinging — to notes, memory, hope or otherwise — and blend your thoughts with the present, and move on to the next task — be it another river crossing, book or skill to learn.
If you’re reading daily, if you’re actively trying to learn something unrelated to your daily life, then you’re already in a very small percentile of people — the kind of people who, are usually the ones who do special things in life: make new discoveries, build businesses, create art, redefine the impossible. They’re definitely the most interesting people in the world. And they definitely don’t waste time reading wrongly and trying to remember.