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:

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

4.5 Read the full story from the start to the end

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.