How to read hard books

[A thoughtful framework for reading and understanding deeply]( from Brad DeLong.

First, get prepared:

  • Figure out beforehand what the author is trying to accomplish in the book.
  • Orient yourself by becoming the kind of reader the book is directed at—the kind of person with whom the arguments would resonate.

  • During and after reading, try to rephrase and improve on the argument:

  • Read through the book actively, taking notes.
  • “Steelman” the argument, reworking it so that you find it as convincing and clear as you can possibly make it.
  • Find someone else—usually a roommate—and bore them to death by making them listen to you set out your “steelmanned” version of the argument.

  • Finally, try to disprove the arguments, and decide how you feel about them:

  • Go back over the book again, giving it a sympathetic but not credulous reading
  • Then you will be in a good position to figure out what the weak points of this strongest-possible argument version might be.
  • Test the major assertions and interpretations against reality: do they actually make sense of and in the context of the world as it truly is?
  • Decide what you think of the whole.
  • Then comes the task of cementing your interpretation, your reading, into your mind so that it becomes part of your intellectual panoply for the future.

  • The limiting factor of our education is no longer access to information–it’s making the most of the information we access.

    Related: [The purpose of reading is to write](

    Working less, deliberately

    Interesting research on how we might be more productive working [4 days a week](, and/or [4 hours a day](

    The basic premise is that humans are severely limited in our cognitive capacity, and working more than that amount of time actually causes us to do worse:

    > The [productivity] curve rose steeply at first and peaked at between 10 to 20 hours per week. The curve then turned downward. Scientists who spent 25 hours in the workplace were no more productive than those who spent five. Scientists working 35 hours a week were half as productive as their 20-hours-a-week colleagues.

    I recently finished [Why We Sleep](, which makes a persuasive argument that while studying and exercising are important, we only learn and grow when we sleep. Perhaps our cognitive capacity is capped not by the amount we work or study, but by how much we can then solidify through rest?

    The 4-hours-a-day article closes with a similar thought:
    > This is how we’ve come to believe that world-class performance comes after 10,000 hours of practice. But that’s wrong. It comes after 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, 12,500 hours of deliberate rest, and 30,000 hours of sleep.

    How images change the world

    An interesting argument about how and why to look at photographs of suffering.
    First, put yourself in the position of the photographer; imagine you are seeing what they did right in front of you:
    > Azoulay asks her readers to project themselves into the scenes of photographs, to notice the power dynamics at play, to identify the participants, and to view the outcomes not as inevitable but as one possibility among many.

    Then prepare yourself to act when you see similar situations in the future:

    > Viewers, through careful observation of images of horror, become witnesses who “can occasionally foresee or predict the future,” she writes. As a result, they can warn others of “dangers that lie ahead” and take action to prevent them…

    > To be resisted, it seems, violence must be seen, and photography makes such vision possible.

    Designing for memories

    I do a lot of reading, and recently I’ve struggled to balance the desire to read new books with the need to document my reading better. I find that when I concentrate solely on reading things, I don’t really absorb the knowledge fully. Since the main reason I read things is to reference that knowledge later, this is a problem.

    One way that I try to improve my retention is by taking notes on the books I read. Reviewing the notes later, the theory goes, will spark memories of the experience and remind me of the important knowledge I need. Does it work? I don’t know. For some reason (probably because I don’t write very compelling notes), I never go back and review them.

    Other methods I’ve tried for improving my absorption rate include trying to insert quotes or examples from the books I’m reading in my conversations with others (since we learn [95% of what we teach to someone else](; reading a book once for the overall view and then a second time for note-taking; and “reading” audio books so that I can concentrate less on the mechanics of reading and more on the concepts of the book. Occasionally one book will be extra memorable–but it’s usually due to the author or content, not the method I’ve used to read it.

    On a broader level, this makes me wonder if as designers we should design products for the instantaneous experience or the memories people will have of it later. If the latter, we should leverage our understanding of how memories work to improve the lasting value of our experiences.

    Daniel Kahneman has done interesting research on how our memories work. He has found that we typically remember two things about an experience: the peak moment, and the ending state. In [one famous experiment]( he artificially extended the length of a colonoscopy procedure for a subset of patients by leaving the instruments inside after the procedure–a less painful state than the rest of the procedure, but still one that is mildly painful. It turns out that because the less painful portion was now the ending state for the patients, instead of the highly painful peak state of the regular procedure,they rated their overall experience (based on their memories of it) as *less* painful than the regular procedure, even though the total “amount” of pain was greater.

    Kahneman spoke about this in [an interview with Australia’s ABC Radio](

    > The experiencing subject we think of as life is a sequence of many moments…anywhere between say half a second and three seconds depending on different definition. Now there are about 20,000 moments of three seconds in a 16-hour day so this is what life consists of, it consists of a sequence of moments. And each of these moments is actually very rich in experience…[But] what happens to these moments? And of course they’re lost forever, they’re lost without a trace mostly, that is we don’t remember, we keep memories very selectively, what actually happens to us so the experiencing subject I would say hardly has time to exist.

    > The subject that has permanence is the remembering subject; life from the point of view of the remembering subject is a very different thing…It’s a narrative…so there are moments that count, there are beginnings, there are peaks, there are endings and that’s how we think of our own stories and of our own life…*the remembering subject is the one that keeps score and it’s also the one who makes the decisions*.

    When you understand that, it’s easier to think of ways to design experiences for better memories. For instance, understanding that we remember most the peak feelings and ending feelings of experiences led my wife and I to take our vacations in different ways–shorter, with a more intense peak and a better, longer relaxation at the end (as a side benefit, that’s also cheaper). Similarly, it speaks to the direction of smaller, more focused products that have a clearly-defined key action, and the fact that one killer (or problematic) feature can define the entire experience for people. My favorite part is the fact that a good ending, something that’s often ignored in favor of basic functionality or the initial advertised experience, makes up a large portion of the memories.

    Implementations of these strategies will vary widely between various product types. Software will have to design differently than physical products, which themselves will be different than immersive experiences. But the general theories are fascinating to me, and it will be interesting to experiment on my projects with designing for memories.

    Will it fix my experience with books? Unfortunately I think it will be up to the books to determine that…but I’ll continue trying to fix my memory with any tricks I can. And maybe I’ll pick up a few fun books that I don’t need to remember the specifics of. Now where’d I put my copy of _The Da Vinci Code_?

    Better living through self deception ( – how our thoughts and memories impact our performance and experience…”Perhaps the way to true personal achievement and happiness is through lying to yourself instead of being honest, loafing instead of practicing, and purposely forgetting information.” – This is the Google side of your brain – how we’re offloading our memories to Google…”even writing didn’t change the process of memory, just what we chose to remember..In pre-literate societies, what was worth remembering might be complex information about who can marry whom, or the history of long-term trading relationships, she says. Today, “the emphasis on what kinds of knowledge need to be remembered has shifted.”

    bookofjoe: BehindTheMedspeak: The more you forget, the better your memory – “‘Until now, it’s been assumed that people with high capacity visual working memory had greater storage but actually, it’s about the bouncer–a neural mechanism that controls what information gets into awareness.’ In other words, it’s not your memory capacity that makes your recall good or bad, it’s how good you are at disregarding the irrelevant”

    Lions Gate Films – The Final Cut – editing memories; but more interestingly, searching and archiving them.

    LA Weekly: Features: Memory and Manipulation – memory is malleable, much like perception


    just a quick note for now–i’ve been making the argument lately that it doesn’t matter what you KNOW; what matters is what you CAN know on command, for instance with an instantaneous connection to the internet hardwired to your brain. but the problem with that is i’m not sure that attitude will create the kind of rich knowledge i personally want to have. consider this article in the ny times, which says that the decline in oratory and poetical tradition has robbed our society of eloquence, reducing us to the “literature” of online gibberish found in blogs (like this one) and internet chat rooms. but then we are left to speak to others in the real world, and i doubt that any computer, Turing-test-approved or not, will ever possess the creativity and intelligence to artfully weild the english language in conversation.

    interestingly, also in today’s ny times there is an article on a crusader for the decapitalization of the word “internet”. we’ll have to be very careful to avoid the complete loss of our literary traditions.

    ok, c u l8r! ttyl, bob.