DRMacIver's Notebook

How to read a book

How to read a book

I have mixed feelings about Adler and Van Doren's classic How to read a book. There's a lot I like about it, and my reading definitely improved after I read it, but I also disagree with a lot of it. I have not engaged with the book in a way that they think entitles me to disagree with it, but that's OK because I also disagree with their claims around when you are entitled to disagree with a book.

But that's not what this post is about. This post is about what one might think of the central failing of the book: Despite the title, it never actually tells you how to read a book. It is not a book about how to read a book at all, it is a book about how to engage with the contents of a book.

This is not what reading is. Reading is not an act conducted by a pure mind engaging with an idealised platonic flow of information. Reading is an active engagement between a physical body and a physical object. The purpose of reading is to engage with the content, but reading itself is a physical act.

And the physical act matters, clearly.

This is obvious in the extreme cases. If you are in constant pain while reading you're not going to be able to concentrate on the reading, right? But I think it matters far more than we expect it to.

People often are amused at how strong my opinions on book formats are, but this is because book formats are important.

Briefly my opinions on book formats are:

  1. Audiobooks might be fine but I haven't been able to make them work for me (I should revisit this now that I have solved my problems with podcasts)
  2. Ebooks are a shit format for consuming hard material, but their convenience often outweighs their shittiness for lighter material.
  3. Most hardbacks are a bad format made by bad people.
  4. Trade paperbacks and other large paperback formats are a blight on humanity and the people responsible for them should be put on trial.
  5. Small, light, ideally paperback, books are the god tier format and are the only one that allows you to properly engage with difficult material.

You will tell me about textbooks etc that have too much content to be small and thus are better as large physical books or PDFs. I acknowledge those textbooks cannot be made smaller, but I contend that this is because they shouldn't have been written with that much content in the first place and should have been a series of shorter books. This is a separate argument.

The reason why ebooks are bad is twofold:

The reason large physical books are bad is that it is almost impossible to maintain a proper reading posture while reading them without a book stand or something, which let's be honest literally nobody is using. They also can't be carried in your bag (and a book stand certainly can't), which means your opportunities to read them will be limited.

Why am I telling you all of this?

I'm telling you all of this because if the physicality of reading matters, and you are struggling to read, then you may be able to improve your reading not by "improving your reading skills" in some sense, or by fixing whatever is stopping you from concentrating, but by simply changing actual practical physical details about your reading habits. It's possible that you're just fine at reading but are attempting to read in a way that doesn't work well for you.

Here are some interventions in the act of reading that have all worked pretty well for me:

  1. Reading out loud. Reading out loud makes it much easier to engage with difficult material. It causes you to remember it better, and the act of reading out loud makes it harder in a way that makes it possible to concentrate
  2. Explicitly structuring your reading into a 20/10 pattern (20 minutes reading, 10 minutes mandatory break) so as to manage fatigue and concentration better.
  3. Fix your reading posture so that you hold the book out in front of you rather than looking down at it. The looking down posture is not good for your neck and breathing in a way that I think disrupts the ability to concentrate and makes you feel more distracted while reading.
  4. Reading while standing up (with the book held in front of you!) and vaguely walking or pacing is particularly good. This combines particularly well with reading out loud.
  5. Reading while Semi-Supine with the book held out in front of you. This combines particularly well with the 20/10 structure, with your phone deliberately left out of reach.

All of these seem kinda dumb and like they shouldn't matter, because we have become overly attached to the idea of books as pure sources of information that we engage with intellectually, rather than physical objects that we interact with physically as part of a process with an intellectual goal, and little things often have a much larger effect on such processes than we think they do.

They're all also very easy, so if you really think they won't work, the fastest way to prove me wrong is to just try them and see what happens.