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What happened to nature?
Olena {The Wizard}
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Immortal since Aug 5, 2009
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    How to Read?
    I've been reading a lot lately, but unable to actually finish as much of that as I want.
    Sometimes I just move on to the next, or whatever is important at that time. Sometimes it's just because I get too busy. But actually the dilemma is that some of this material is very dense, and it's hard for me to get through.

    For example I had to put down "Elegant Universe" because I got to a point where I just couldn't understand what Greene was talking about anymore — the math & physics were above my ability to imagine coherently.
    Then last night, I was reading Adorno and, excuses aside, there were some pages that I had to re-read ~5 times before I felt like I understood it well enough to be able to "teach". I find myself unable to concentrate, or just getting so lost in "detail" words that 5 re-readings later I realize that the main idea is something SO simple... too simple for so much effort.

    Anyway it's very frustrating. I was hoping you all might have some tips how to read not only comprehensively but quickly.

    Tue, Mar 9, 2010  Permanent link

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    sjef     Tue, Mar 9, 2010  Permanent link
    There's always a trade-off between speed & comprehension, the trick is to adapt your reading style to suit the purpose. I recommend finding a copy of this old book:

    MonseigneurBienvenu     Tue, Mar 9, 2010  Permanent link
    I have to deal a lot with texts where people are just muffling, chucking concepts, rephrasing their every thought several times, going off on one and making logical loopy loops. Such people are mainly judges and eccentric academics, but also include high profile physicists (to take a science example that first comes to mind from experience), where their excuse is simpler: you do not know enough (or another one I encounter a lot: 'I can write page-long sentences, but have not mastered commas just yet'). I found that after years of reading such material, it just becomes very easy - you begin to spot a whirlwind coming up, so you slow down and read every group of words carefully, stopping and imagining what exactly it says before moving on to the next small bit. That way you may not need to read the text twice, or if you do - you'd read it second time quickly, just to confirm the overall picture.

    Another approach is this - read the text quickly first, trying to imagine the overall idea and main patterns of thought and then read slowly - this way you have the benefit of knowing in advance which areas you can simply skim, and which you ought to grace with an understanding.

    It is a given that I make notes, which also helps: try not to make them too detailed (that's what you have memory and the text itself for), but just jot down arguments/patterns/points in groups; I tend to use large handwriting, arrows and bullet pointing, as well as colour, but that may be unnecessary for your purposes. These will be of benefit in several ways: pictorial representation of thought/argument in condensed form, memory cue and a way of ordering your thoughts on the matter - I feel free to add my own commentary 'as I go' to the notes in forms such as: '[My note: this is rubbish because x]'

    It's a tedious process, but that's what degrees are for.

    P.S. That book looks brilliant, ha!
    rene     Tue, Mar 9, 2010  Permanent link
    Most books and even movies have become too linear for me. It is increasingly difficult for me to be a captive audience for the duration of somebody else's timeline, which is mostly determined by conventions established a long time ago by the publishing- and movie industry. To remedy the situation I usually read the introduction/beginning of a book, then move on to the conclusion and from there on scan the rest focussing on key words that are suggested by the way the book has been framed. With the help of sticky papers I indicate what I have and haven't read for future reference. With movies I appreciate the automatic function of DVD's to allow me at any time to pick up where I left off. Besides an hour or so spent online everyday for a dose of serendipitous information I try to limit my exposure to whatever might influence my main inquiry of the moment, which is mostly determined by the myriad projects I tend to be working on. More than anything else it helps me to put my intuition in charge of the process.
    sightbyvision     Tue, Mar 9, 2010  Permanent link
    Below are the sections I found most helpful from the wikibook on speed reading. I'm a philosophy major so I can relate to your experience and M. Bienvenu's.


    Of the sections, comprehension technique is the central idea. I'm doing an independent study in visual cognition, and have focused in on information design. I am learning that paragraphs and text on pages are not suited for the information therein contained.

    Spreed Inc. is a company trying to capitalize on this inefficiency.

    The take away is that when you're reading text, you've got to parse it in a way that you're mind can understand it. With digestion, you only swallow in small chunks called bolses. Same thing for the mind. And that's what the comprehension technique is talking about when they explain framing information into powerpoint slides.

    I've been trying to figure out the essential form of paragraphs. I'm finding that most paragraphs have a key idea, around which the other ideas fit. So I look for this key idea and highlight it. A form that resembles this is the arch. The nice thing about arches is that the keystone is much easier to find. Usually the key idea in a paragraph is between the first and last sentence; sometimes it's not. Other times, a paragraph is just elaborating the key idea in the last paragraph, so it doesn't actually have one. The weakness in traditional text is a disconnect between the form of the information and relationships within the information. To compensate for this weakness, we use alterations in forms, like italics. Simple outlines are also an attempt at forging a connections—the form of the information (ie, what tier is it on?) corresponds with the information. This is the strength of diagrams. They use space and shape to help the reader identify key ideas and how they relate to one another. With paragraphs, everything is buried. Traditional text does have it strengths, but it could be greatly augmented with the addition of images (and I don't just mean pictures).

    The texts for my study, if you're interested, are
    Visual Explanations, Edward Tufte
    Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud
    The Back of the Napkin, Dan Roam
    Visual Thinking, Rudolf Arnheim
    I also had The Anime Machine (Thomas Lamarre) on there until I honed in on information design.
    johnrod     Tue, Mar 9, 2010  Permanent link
    This is a good observation. A lot of material is woven together, rather than linear, and has to be unpacked or decoded by the reader. Sometimes it helps to skim through the entirety a few times to tune the comprehension buffers. Visualization in charts and graphics is parallel to verbal explanation. May have to index new terms for definitions. Reading chapters in reverse order at some point may indicate how author constructed conclusions and why some things were stuck in earlier. Nourishment keeps the energy cells functional. Writing a summary, analysis or comparison to others, can also prioritize, put things in context and pivot to other considerations. Sleeping on it reinforces connections. There is some evidence that repetition at longer intervals solidifies learning. Actually using things in practice is a way to judge voracity and find improvements. Of course, writing is another topic... Thanks.
    Olena     Tue, Mar 9, 2010  Permanent link
    Thank you so much for your responses!

    I was laughing to myself along the way because now I face a similarly silly problem: Do I read all of this material (linked to, or that book sjef posted) about reading first? Or do I stick with my "initial inquiries" and finish my reading? :D
    First Dark     Wed, Mar 10, 2010  Permanent link

    In reading a difficult book for the first time, read the book through without stopping. Pay attention to what you can understand, and don't be stopped by what you can't immediately grasp on this way. Read the book through undeterred by the paragraphs, footnotes, arguments, and references that escape you. If you stop at any of these stumbling blocks, if you let yourself get stalled, you are lost. In most cases you won't be able to puzzle the thing out by sticking to it. You have a better chance of understanding it on a second reading, but that requires you to read the book through for the first time.

    - Mortimer J. Adler, How to Read a Difficult Book

    Hard Reading Made Easy, How to Read a Book Superficially, How to Keep Awake While Reading, +
    Mariana Soffer     Sun, Mar 14, 2010  Permanent link
    I think we need to understand that our ability to for incorporating knowledge is limited, and also affected by the emotional state we are going trough (if you are depressed is much harder to concentrate). You can not force that ability, what you can do is try to be balance and train the habit in order to get better, but as everything it takes time and effort, you do not become an Olympic athlete from one day to another. By the way I read your post because I thought it was related to this one which you might like to check out, it is about how we read indeed, some inside about our internal mechanism.
    shiftctrlesc     Mon, Mar 15, 2010  Permanent link
    "Most books and even movies have become too linear for me." - Rene

    Quoted for truth.

    One of the (many) reasons why I keep going back to McLuhan's work is that he broke free of the numbing linear tradition. Most of his works are mosaics of ideas that you are free to navigate on your own. It's a form that's much more in tune with our electronic awareness. And it was (is still?) far ahead of it's time.

    rene     Mon, Mar 15, 2010  Permanent link
    I agree. McLuhan's never ceases to amaze me. If you know of any thinkers with that kind of foresight today, let me know.
    Jason J. Gleeson     Tue, Mar 16, 2010  Permanent link
    I too have Brian Green's books - they have been next to my bed for a year now. I read my first book front to back at the age of 25, its never been easy to read anything. Sometimes I read a page 5 times and still don't get it especially Green. But when I do I don't forget it.
    Olena     Tue, Apr 20, 2010  Permanent link
    One of my professors (amazing guy, super intelligent but modest) gave us some great advice the other day — he actually asked, "You guys know how to read when you don't understand something, right?"

    He said, "Read backwards. Forwards just spells 'sucker'."

    Meaning, begin with the point being made (at the end), and then go backwards from there. Like a dissection, versus following instructions to put something together. Actually I often hear from engineers/etc. that this is how they learn.
    meganmay     Wed, Apr 21, 2010  Permanent link
    im really glad that last piece of advice didn't involve A LOT OF READING :)