“How to Read a Book”. tl;dr

“How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading”, by Mortimer Adler and Charles van Doren.

Regarded as a classic, and receiving high praise. Amazon readers rate it 4.5 out of 5. Praiseworthy, indeed.

Weighing in at 426 pages, I am currently on page 168. Think about that for a moment. Do we really need 426 pages to explain how to read a book? I have put the book down for now. I hope to return to it later; but for now, I feel I have more important things to read. My reading interests are extensive, so it’s a question of prioritising.

In other words: “tl;dr” – too long, didn’t read. Don’t waste your time.

My main beef with the book is that it is too academic in its approach. It is nice in theory, but that’s not how I would want to read a book in practise. One reviewer summed up the problem succinctly: the books tells you how to analyse a book to within an inch of its life.

In nearly every case, that’s unnecessary. Even for someone performing a literature review as part of their PhD will find his description overblown, at least for science-based PhDs. I have never heard of anyone writing a PhD thesis trying to obtain a “complete” understanding of a book. The effort goes into UNDERSTANDING the RELEVANT parts of a book or paper (although for a paper, the whole, or none, of its contents are likely to be relevant), and then constructing a COHESIVE framework of those ideas from several sources.

The easy part of the equation is “relevance”. PhD supervisors know up-front what will be relevant for a student. Even for non-academics, find relevant material is not a big problem, thanks to Google. Do you want to know about Fuzzy Logic? Then Google for Fuzzy Logic. Simples. Looking at the page, you will gain a good idea as to whether it is worth reading, or not.

Actually, one thing I did notice when I was giving computer workshops is that undergraduates failed to look at the table of contents or indices of a book if they had any problems. The index is your friend when you want to search for specific information.

The hardest part of reading a book is the actual understanding. Mathematics and science are challenging intellectually, so this is where the greatest hurdles are likely to be faced. Structuring ideas is also difficult, especially when you’re trying to write a literature review. Most people wont be writing literature reviews, so that wont present a large-scale problem. Having said that, I think that structuring and understanding go hand-in-hand. All understanding is, in some sense, structured understanding. Otherwise, there is no real understanding, merely rote learning.

Adler’s fourth dimension to reading, “syntopical”, is, I consider, a peripheral aspect of most reading endeavours. Syntopic reading is about “how to read two or more books on the same subject” (giving rise to the joke about someone publishing a book called “How to Read Two Books”). It may be important for literature degrees, where you’re comparing Shakespeare with Orwell, for example, but of limited use elsewhere. Even in science PhDs, I don’t think there is any secret skill that needs to be mastered. A science thesis literature review is not really about comparing and critiquing. A mathematical proof, is, after all, either right or wrong; and one is only interested in reviewing the correct ones. Style is also unimportant. We don’t care how the author writes a proof, just so long as we understand it. So whilst it may be relevant to talk about whether Shakespeare was a “better” or “more important” writer than Orwell, it’s not the kind of conversation one has about Gauss versus Newton.

So, from my point of view, I found HtRaB to be disappointing. Your Mileage May Vary. If you want to be able to analyse a book to within an inch of its life, then it is the book you. If you want to be able to understand very complex material from within a vast sea of information, as I do, then you might be better off looking elsewhere.

For my money, reading is about learning. And learning is about how get understanding into a slightly-larger monkey brain. It’s about psychology and human cognition. It’s about the “5+/-2 rule”, which says that the human mind is capable of retaining only five things in short-term memory at once, plus or minus two. It may interest you know that it is the way that computer programmers think, sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly. A program of a thousand lines or more of code is impossible to fit into a programmer’s head, even if they did write it themselves. It is amazing how much you forget, and how the program is structured. Programmers cope with this complexity by isolating what they look at. Coding is not just about instructing a computer, it’s about instructing a computer in a way that limited human intelligence can understand.

Reading, and understanding, is also largely about building conceptual models. Given the limitations of human cognition imposed by the “5+/-2 rule”, it means that complex models are formed by aggregating simpler concepts together into a network. The way you learn is to build on what you already know.

Research also shows that humans have an attention span of about 10 minutes. Your comprehension abilities will start to decline after that. After about 25 minutes, you’re starting to push water up a hill.

So, when all is said and done, reading a book is about respecting the limits of human cognition, and maximising efficiency of learning within those boundaries. HtRaB did not address those problems at all. For this reason, I think it will disappoint many readers, who will be presented with different material than they were expecting.

If you are interested in the drawbacks of current learning paradigms, then you will be interested in the Youtube video by Donald Clark “Don’t lecture me”: http://youtu.be/9e4iFx2Gm0A

I would also like to point to an interesting blog article by Dan Kois,”Easy ‘Reading’: Just Take It One Page At A Time”
http://is.gd/WPTJ4h. In the article, he reviews the book “The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction”, by Alan Jacobs. “The solution? ‘Don’t turn reading into the intellectual equivalent of eating organic greens;, he urges. Read at whim, without shame and for pleasure”.

“Many of them say that they used to be able to read but since becoming habituated to online reading and the short bursts of attention it encourages – or demands – simply can’t sit down with a book anymore. They fidget; they check their iPhones for email and Twitter updates … ‘I miss my old brain'”.

I wonder, though, if the whole argument shouldn’t be flipped 180. The 10-minute attention span is something we should work WITH, not AGAINST. Consider The Feynman Technique, for example, named after the famous physicist Richard Feynman. It involves writing down a topic on a single sheet of paper, and takes about that amount of time. You can see a video by Scott Young, “Learn Faster with The Feynman Technique”, to learn more: http://youtu.be/FrNqSLPaZLc. There may be great wisdom in breaking conceptually difficult topics into self-contained chunks. Those chunks are aggregated until you have a complete understanding of a subject. Perhaps we’ve been doing it wrong all this time, and the youth are uncovering a new way of knowledge acquisition.

About mcturra2000

Computer programmer living in Scotland.
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