How to REALLY read a book?
March 1, 2011 11:26 AM   Subscribe

I am about to embark on a massive technical book reading escapade. Please share your information retention methods.


I come from a family of "fast" readers, where the underlying purpose to read is to finish the book as soon as possible and hop to the next one. It's not such an issue with fiction. Lately I've been reading a lot of information heavy non fiction books and I am finding that my information retention from them is lacking at best. I am not expecting to read a book once and to memorize it by heart, but surely there are some tricks of the trade to organize that information better than just re reading the books multiple times.

Alot of this may sound very obvious but I found it really helped me:

- "Isolation Tank". I am very sensitive to noises, movements and just generally easily distracted. I found that being in a sanitized clutter free, well lit environment, putting some EAR PLUGS to further shut down the noise and knowing that no one will ever disturb/open doors really helps me concentrate.

- Highlighting. It seems kinda obvious, but was quite a revelation to me about two years ago. I highlight with a marker key sentences and ideas that I should especially remember. That action alone with the addition of reading the sentence again while marking it, seems to really help me retain critical information. Also helps locate it on later on.

- Right mental mode. When I am anxious, angry or generally upset I find my mind drifts more easily and I tend to skim the content without actually soaking anything in.

- Timing. I found out that I am able to concentrate better in the very early morning, and right after having a good meal. Good amount of physical exercise a few hours prior also tends to sharpen my concentration.

- Continually. I find that if I am not persistent enough, or my attention is spread between multiple books, I tend to read only the first third of most of them and then jump to another interesting subject. By reading one book at a time, and concentrating all my available reading time to just one title, I am more likely to finish it cover to cover.

- Thorough research about the book, prior to reading it. Reading plenty of reviews and comparing it to others in the field make me more confident that the mental energy and time I put into reading the book is worthwhile thus making me much more motivated to finish it.

Did anyone ever tried to create a personal "wiki" regarding a particular studying subject? Any other software like that? Anyone writes short summaries of books they read and refer to them later on?

Any techniques, tips, tools, software or books about reading/studying well will be much appreciated,

Thank you and have a fantastic day!
posted by Sentus to Education (7 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
Without knowing what topic you'll be immersing yourself in, I personally find it easier if I can implement what I read soon after reading. The act of doing cements things pretty well, and for some reason it makes recalling that information later much easier.
posted by tmt at 11:38 AM on March 1, 2011

tmt has it, but you can also study the text rather than read it, i.e. read slowly and consider each paragraph. When you get to the end of a section make notes - translate what you've read into what you've understood. Better still, try co-reading: set up a mini book group and read a chapter at a time then discuss. You can do this online, or even with a partner. The key thing is that you recreate the information for yourself order to fix it.

It's not the same with fiction because you can easily 'fill in the blanks' with your own interpretation, you've been honing this skill unconsciously all your life through earlier reading, observing and absorbing human behaviour, fictional tropes etc. New technical info needs to be built upon in a fairly systematic fashion. If you aren't yet able to fill in those blanks, you'll need to start from the ground up.

This much I have learned through taking on a science subject years after finishing a liberal arts degree...
posted by freya_lamb at 11:51 AM on March 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

I remember stuff best when I am able to create "richer memories." Creating more, distinctive "metadata" about the experience - what coffee shop/restaurant/library I was in, if I was on the bus - where was I going?, what time of day, the weather, etc - it gives me more things to grab onto when I am recalling it.

If I find a lunch place I really like while I am studying for an exam, I will purposefully order different things on the menu each day. One concept becomes "chicken yakisoba" and another concept is "cheeseburger with onion rings."
posted by milkrate at 12:02 PM on March 1, 2011

I'm not so good at this...but if you write down what you want to remember in question/answer format, then you can quiz yourself by just reading the questions. This way you know what you retain.
posted by sninctown at 12:29 PM on March 1, 2011

Reading technical material is an associative task, where you associate the new materials with what you already know, then reinforce that association with variations and exercises. I find that there are different levels of "reading" for technical materials, generally: reading < comprehension < understanding. To go from reading to comprehension, I find it useful to create a "cheat sheet" of foundational information and try to store that into my "cache"; then I try free-association of the new material with said "cache" to identify all possible linking paths between the foundation and the new idea. To go from comprehension to understanding, I do the exercises provided by the text (or find example that the text mention) and try to solve for the result they claimed. Once I've done enough exercises, I'll be assured that the new idea is now integrated and useful.

The people I know who can speed-read technical materials are those who have explored all the possible variations of the idea, its application; and is knowledgeable about its limitation. They can speed-read because they can instantly identify the anomaly/contradiction of the new idea within their existed, build-up universe; and they can instantly focus on the right mechanism to test such idea. In essence, the "new" idea is in fact old to them. Otherwise, as a student learning a new idea, I've found the only way is the hard (slow) way.
posted by curiousZ at 12:51 PM on March 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

The trick I like to use is to give a summary or restatement of anything highlight/underline worthy in the margin - the quick effort of putting a phrase or sentence into your own words seems to help with retaining the information. Also, if I ever need to refer back to the book I can quickly flip through my notes to find what I'm looking for.
posted by caminovereda at 1:56 PM on March 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: A book that totally changed my (reading) life was How To Read A Book. The book lays out a methodical process for reading non-fiction. The authors lay out three levels of reading: "x-raying" a book, reading the book (understanding what the book says), and criticizing the book (forming your own opinions about the validity of the authors arguments, developing counter-arguments, etc.).

If you follow the process outlined in the book, you inevitably end up taking detailed notes. For me, I am writing one sentence summaries of each paragraph in my own words and making lots of meta-comments (identifying key words and special terms; determining arguments the author is making; and cross-referencing other things I've already read). At the deepest level of reading, you are attempting to form opinions about each and every paragraph the author is writing (agree, disagree, suspend judgment) and formulating arguments when you disagree. The notes will be too voluminous to write in the margins, you need to do it on a separate sheet of paper or notebook. You'll get good at recognizing "bridge" paragraphs that don't convey any new information, but even then, you can still end up with 30-50 pages of notes for a book.

At the end of my read, I'll sometimes consolidate/edit my notes into a formal outline if I think I'll need to refer to it later. As you can imagine, this is a time consuming way to read, but I find that by the time I get through an article or a book, I've got a deep understanding of what the author is trying to get across and can retain it for years. I've got a couple of notebooks of outlines and find that, if I've forgotten the main points of the book, it only takes a couple of minutes with the outline and the book comes flooding back.

I first came across How To Read A Book about ten years ago and have been using the techniques ever since. I can tell you that it gets faster and more natural with practice. Since most of my technical reading is now on-line, I use an outlining program to take notes. At work (Windows environment), I use Notemap; at home (Mac), I use OmniOutliner. I've found that both do a good job of supporting the kind of detailed outlining I am doing when reading, though OmniOutliner is my favorite.
posted by kovacs at 6:48 PM on March 1, 2011 [5 favorites]

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