How to read a book

by Blackened1 min read27th Jun 201223 comments

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I'm considering reading the book by the title How to read a book. A friend of mine (his critical thinking is quite good, but certainly not as good as it could be, so I can't trust his opinion too much) said he has read it and that it helped him a lot. He said it had advice on reading comprehension, critical thinking ("don't automatically accept what you read") and that when people read something, they tend to forget it quite easily (and that the book addresses this issue). But he also quoted a part of the book, which said that only reading hard things will improve your reading - it might be true, but it doesn't sound intuitive to me (according to my rationalist intuition, obviously :D). Also, the book is written in 1940 and revised in 1972. Additionally, the author is religious (I think he's even highly religious). And if I remember correctly, it's not based on research - there is a quite high chance that I don't remember correctly. I checked its Amazon page, nothing said anything about research (browsed through all the low ratings to see if they complain about that, nobody did).

 

Should I bother reading it? If it delivers what it promises, it will obviously be so cost-effective that most rationalists should abandon reading whatever they're reading and switch to this book. But is there a version that is entirely based on research, with references or sound theory behind most claims?

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Don't waste your time. Here is the algorithm:

A. Systematic skimming or pre-reading.

  1. This is achieved by: reading the title, table of contents, preface, editors note, introduction, back flap, etc.

  2. Reading the index to see the major themes, topics, ideas, and terms the author will be discussing.

  3. Reading through the book by reading the first couple of pages or so, the last couple of pages or so, and then flipping through the book, dipping in here and there.

B. Superficial reading is the second part of inspectional reading. To achieve this you must read through the entire book at a fast pace and without stopping to think about terms you’re unfamiliar with, ideas you don’t immediately grasp, and points which are footnoted for further inspection. Doing both (A) and (B) will prepare you to read the book through for the second time; the analytical stage.

IV. The third stage of reading is called “analytical reading.” There are three stages, made up of various rules, of analytical reading.

A. Stage one: Rules for finding out what the book is about.

  1. Classify the book according to kind and subject matter. This is also referred to as pigeonholing a book.

(a) Is it a poem, play, epic, work of philosophy or theology, history, science, etc.

(b) Is it theoretical or practical.

(i) A theoretical book reports facts, offers detached arguments, or offers insight or understanding of a position. These books teach you that something is the case.

(ii) A practical book tells you how to live, or how to do something. These books teach you how to do something.

(iii) As an aside, these two cannot be sharply separated. As John Frame points out in The Doctrine of God, facts and application of the facts go hand in hand. When I learn the 6th commandment I know how to apply it. But as I apply it to more diverse areas of life, I learn more about the 6th commandment.

  1. Succinctly state what the book is about. That is, find the main theme or point of the book. You should be able to state this in a sentence, paragraph at most. This is different than (IV.A.1) in that here we are asking what the book is about, not what kind of book it is.

  2. Outline the book. See this outline for an instantiation of this rule. Basically, you want to get at the bones of the book. The basic structure. The construction of the major themes and arguments. How the book proceeds. The skeleton.

  3. Define the problem(s) the author has tried to solve. To see the unity of a book you need to know why it has the unity it has (supposing it’s a good book and it has a unity!). To know why it has the unity it has you should know the authors main problem(s) he’s trying to answer; as well as subordinate questions and answers.

B. Stage two: Rules for interpreting the book’s content.

  1. Coming to terms with the author.

(a) A term is not a word. A term is the meaning of a word. Water and agua are two different words, they mean the same thing though.

(b) To know the authors terms, then, is to understand the meaning of his argument or explanation, etc.

(c) Find the important words and through them come to terms with the author.

(d) The words he uses in an important way, or the ones you have trouble understanding, are probably the important terms you need to know.

(e) Read all the words in context to find the meaning of the terms; how the author means them, that is.

  1. Grasp the leading propositions by finding the key sentences.

(a) Propositions are the meanings of sentences.

(b) You find the leading propositions by finding the key sentences.

(c) You find the key sentences myriad ways:

(i) The author marks them out for you in some way.

(ii) These are the sentences that give you the most trouble.

(iii) The sentences express judgments, I.e., they are not questions or exclamations!

(iv) These are his reasons for affirming or denying the main problem(s) he has set out to answer.

  1. Find the author’s argument by finding them in the key sequences of sentences.

(a) Sting together the important propositions into an ordered structure.

(b) An argument must involve more than one statement.

(c) An argument might be an inductive or deductive one.

(d) Observe what the author says he must prove and what he must assume.

  1. Find which problem(s) the author solved and which one’s he did not. If he did not, find out if he knows that he did not.

(a) Did the author solve the problem(s) he set out to solve?

(b) Did he raise new ones in the process?

(c) Did the author admit or know that he failed to solve some of the problem(s)?

(d) If you know the solutions to the problem/s you can be confident that you understand the book.

END

Is this "algorithm" based on Adler's book, or is simply an approach you endorse?

(I found "Don't waste your time" ambiguous.)

It's a straight summary of the book's contents. I made bookmarks with these points in shorter format after I originally read it.

As Rain said it is based on the book.

The more I read your post the more difficulty I have in answering. I don't know how valuable your time is, so cannot say if this book is worth your time or not.

It is not worth mine, but, alas, it was once.

If you read a book by starting on the first word and going to the next one until you arrive at the last one, then read it, the first half.

If you never read a book arguing for the classics, then read it, the second half.

Or instead of following what I say skim it, and decide if it is worth your time.

Even better, use the algorithm above on a book that you know is worth your time, and if you find the algorithm worth it, then you can infer that the book may also be worth it.

cheers

Funny, that's apparently a lot of how very young children naturally interact with television, which is why reruns are so common in those demographics :)

Sorry, I don't know how Discussion works and I still don't know why I got negged. Is there an explanation to what is the Open Thread for and what not, and what is and isn't for Discussion?

Am I right to assume that the Open Thread is for any post that seems not big enough to deserve a whole separate thread?

Yep, that's pretty much it.

Open thread is a biweekly "article" that says:

If it's worth saying, but not worth its own post, even in Discussion, it goes here.

There is no clear definition of what is "worth its own post", but in my opinion this article is a textbook example of a text that belongs there. Because there are already other texts like this. On the other hand, other texts like this are in Discussion too... which is a bad thing, and we should stop that. (For example this comment is good enough to be a post in Discussion.)

If many people ignore the Open Thread, it makes the website worse -- two or three dozen new articles a week, but very little content worth remembering. If you compare it with the old articles, obviously the quality today is dramatically lower. Lower-quality articles are much easier to write than higher-quality articles, so they quickly become a new norm. Then people spend more time on LessWrong and gain less, which causes repeated complaints.

I got the point, no need to explain it. The only think I didn't know is that there is actually a way to post my question besides starting a new thread in Discussion, all the rest is obvious enough. I think this information should be included in the Welcome thread.

It could in the text on the top of the "Discussion" page, which is also displayed when someone clicks "Create new article". Currently there is this:

This part of the site is for the discussion of topics not yet ready or not suitable for normal top-level posts. Votes are only worth ±1 point here. For more information, see About Less Wrong.

Could be a sentence there that very short texts belong to Open Thread.

It was alright, not particularly good, but it had some interesting thoughts on "coming to terms" (finding the right definitions of words to match the author). I use that skill a lot.

But he also quoted a part of the book, which said that only reading hard things will improve your reading - it might be true, but it doesn't sound intuitive to me (according to my rationalist intuition, obviously :D)

Why? The deliberate practice hypothesis is very popular these days. Takling hard problems is important for building any skill.

Yes, but only doing hard things is different from "push your limits". It's like saying if you're going to do pushups, you should stop carrying groceries, because the latter is a weak exercise and will dilute the impact of your pushups.

There are two ways to interpret: "Only doing hard things produces improvement". 1) Someone who doesn't do hard things won't improve. 2) Someone who does easy things won't improve.

I haven't read the book but it would suprise me if the book would claim 2) instead of 1).

[-][anonymous]9y 0

You are going to spend a limited amount of time reading. Reading fluff novels has an opportunity cost of reading dense and difficult material.

If eschewing the fluff will reduce your enjoyment of reading and thus reduce the amount of time you spend reading difficult material, you should read some fluff.

On the other hand, if you carry groceries, that's unlikely to prevent you from doing more pushups.

"Only reading hard things will improve your reading" can mean two things: 1) Someone who doesn't read hard things won't improve. 2) Someone who reads easy stuff won't improve.

It would surprise me if the book would claim 2) instead of claiming 1).

[This comment is no longer endorsed by its author]Reply

How is religiosity of the author relevant?

Shortly, because if someone believes in a single incorrect thing (also a quite big one that can't be overlooked), it increases the probability of him believing in other incorrect things.

The long explanation is that if the author believes in religion (something that's wrong - I know I might be wrong about it, but for reasons too long and irrelevant to write, I act as if I was certain that God doesn't exist), not only that he had tens of years of exposure to information and that didn't change his mind about it, but he actually believed in religion in the first place - following a conclusion from premises that don't lead to that conclusion. This is a (not necessarily strong) counter-indicator of ability to perceive the truth (I'm not sure if "critical thinking" is a synonym to that). Although it is entirely possible that he is in fact absolutely right, the expected outcome (I can't explain "expected outcome", I even started a thread on that - I trust on the reader to know what is it, otherwise the debate usually cannot happen) is that he is more likely to have flaws. Especially in a subject where he might follow anecdotal evidence and neglect the importance of scientific approach (some subjects might be more intuitive).

Of course, if I've read the book, all the information about the author becomes irrelevant, because it only serves to predict the content of the book. However, reading the book requires many hours (especially in my case - I currently desperately need time, and I tend to be inefficient in it, even when I'm not procrastinating).

P.S. Sorry if you can't understand how I use expected value to get to that conclusion, I just cannot explain it intuitively and I even (small) doubts about the validity of that approach, because I'm yet to see evidence of it.

I think you're likely overweighting this, at least in the general case.

It's hard to overestimate how good people are at selectively interpreting, and more importantly compartmentalizing, evidence to fit their identities. Now, selective interpretation alone would support your line of thinking -- if people accept only those data points that fit some preconceived notions, then of course their opinions aren't good evidence for anything related to those ideas, and religion theoretically touches just about everything. But when you take compartmentalization into account, it becomes possible -- even likely -- for people to hold sweeping irrational beliefs without significantly damaging their reasoning abilities on questions more than a couple of inferential steps away: inference isn't ignored, it just isn't propagated all the way through a network of beliefs.

If I'm considering a book by some author whom I know to follow a religion with strong views on, say, eating crustaceans, then I can safely discount any arguments against crab-eating that I expect to find in that book. But highly abstract topics are probably relatively untainted, unless the author's religion likewise incorporates a position on those topics into its group identity.

I didn't give information on how much priority did I put on the author's religion, but it's relatively low, because I've seen some quite rational religious people. Also I'm not sure about the significance of the correlation between

The issue I have with the author's religion isn't about the fact that his religion might prevent him from accepting certain bits of knowledge. It's because he believes in religion in the first place - this had negative implications on his personality - I'm talking mostly about Keith Stanovich's dysrationalia, but it also says that he isn't a strict follower of the scientific approach. Truly, he's born in 1900 when that wasn't so popular, but the fact still remains.

Presumably because the OP believes that if the author is religious he is less likely to be correct about other things.