How to Read Books.

1 Abstract

This document records some practices I found myself using while reading texts. It is not at all exhaustive, complete or even sufficiently encompassing. It does not claim to be efficient. It is a work in progress. It is open for discussion. I intend to write down here some practices that I find useful, sometimes providing justification.

2 Reading setup

Reading is a thing that can be computer-assisted nowadays, and if it can be, it should be. I try to do the following:

2.1 Print out the book

Unless the book is about illustration or graphics, black-and-white is enough. I print it a typographic shop, ask for paperback binding and manually write the name at the book spine.

2.2 Have an electronic version open before you

I usually read PDF books, about 90%. I have the PDF file open either in Evince, or in Emacs pdf-tools. This simplifies searching. In 10% of the cases this is either an HTML or an EPUB version, which I still usually convert to PDF, or try to open in Evince.

2.3 Have Google prepared

I end up googling quite a lot, so I have Google open in the browser (Firefox) for quick access.

2.4 Have a dictionary open

I usually use Google Translate, and it’s enough just about 90% of the time. In the 10%, I use Wordreference, BKRS and mdbg.

2.5 Pencil and eraser

I use a mechanical pencil (I do not like sharpening pencils), 0.9HB. I have an eraser too, relatively hard. I do not use coloured pens or pencils for annotation.

2.6 Ruler

I use a ruler to focus on reading, and to sometimes demarcate important pieces of the text.

2.7 Smartphone with a Chinese character input method

I use it when reading Chinese material. Finding individual characters for input tends to be easier using handwritten recognition, than by radical search. Using CangJie may be easier, but I do not know it yet.

3 Reading practice

3.1 Timing

I use Emacs org-mode’s time tracking capabilities for measuring how much time exactly a book takes. It also helps me stay focused on reading, since I do not want to obscure time tracking data.

3.2 Notes file

I try to have note files for books I read. Emacs, and other special software has special functions for making notes, but I did not find a way to use them efficiently. This only relates to humanities, light, or fiction literature. Scientific literature I process differently.

The notes file is an org-file. It consists of two root nodes: a node for vocabulary and a node for remarks.

3.2.1 Vocabulary node

The vocabulary node is just called “vocabulary”. It contains just a single table of the following format:

# unknown word or phrase translation
0 sepulka сепулька

I usually do not fill in the dictionary at the moment of reading. I consider this a separate task, to be done later. (Maybe this should not be done like this?)

3.2.2 Citations and Remarks node

In the Citations and Remarks node, every heading corresponds to a piece of the text that made me generate a non-trivial thought. The thought is written in the body of the heading.

This is where have both the digital and the paper copy comes in handy. When I find an interesting piece of text, I can search it in the electronic copy and copy-paste into the notes file.

3.3 Reading using a ruler

I heard that it is recommended to use a “sliding window” to read text. I do not use it. However, I use a ruler to protect my eyes from wandering ahead of the narrative. I put it right under the line I am reading an move down after the line has been read.

3.4 Paper annotation

As mentioned above, I do not use colours for annotations, because I don’t know how to make them efficient. (Suggestions welcome.)

Apart from colours, there are the following markup tools:

  • underline the text
  • circle the text
  • put an exclamation mark at the margins
  • squeeze a remark between the lines

I tend to underline words and phrases that attracted my attention. If they seem noteworthy, I then copy them into the notes file remarks section. I tend to circle the words that are unfamiliar or unknown. I try to copy them to the notes file vocabulary section. I sometimes use a ruler to mark some extremely important pieces of text.

I sometimes circle “large sparse” pieces of text which make little sense and cross them out with several strokes to obscure.

Sometimes I write remarks on the margins. Sometimes I squeeze remarks in between the lines. Both of the above are not very efficient.

3.5 Googling

I tend to google work meanings if I don’t understand them on the spot, but do not write the meanings into the table. This is because I want to visit the vocabulary again, and have some “context to remember”.

I tend to google concepts that I do not know, but I do not write them anywhere. (Shall I have the third section in the notes file?)

4 Reading tricks

4.1 Read the table of contents first

4.2 Read the bibliography before reading the text

4.3 Read the introduction

4.4 Read the first paragraph of very chapter

4.5 Read the full story from the start to the end

4.6 Re-read the most interesting pieces

4.7 Write a short review for yourself

Do not try to make it a full-scale university-level essay. It would be a waste of time. But try to reiterate all the thoughts that you found useful, well versed, or non-trivial.

4.8 Discuss the material with friends or random people