HackerNews Readings
40,000 HackerNews book recommendations identified using NLP and deep learning

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Designing Data-Intensive Applications: The Big Ideas Behind Reliable, Scalable, and Maintainable Systems

Martin Kleppmann

4.8 on Amazon

241 HN comments

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies

Jared Diamond Ph.D.

4.5 on Amazon

239 HN comments

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World

Cal Newport

4.6 on Amazon

239 HN comments

Clean Code: A Handbook of Agile Software Craftsmanship

Robert C. Martin

4.7 on Amazon

232 HN comments

Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity

David Allen and Simon & Schuster Audio

4.5 on Amazon

231 HN comments

The Three-Body Problem

Cixin Liu, Luke Daniels, et al.

4.3 on Amazon

225 HN comments


William Gibson, Robertson Dean, et al.

4.4 on Amazon

218 HN comments

Harry Potter: Hogwarts Hardcover Journal and Elder Wand Pen Set

Insight Editions

4.8 on Amazon

212 HN comments

Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software

Erich Gamma , Richard Helm , et al.

4.7 on Amazon

208 HN comments

How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading

Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren

4.5 on Amazon

193 HN comments

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Yuval Noah Harari, Derek Perkins, et al.

4.6 on Amazon

191 HN comments

The Intelligent Investor: The Definitive Book on Value Investing. A Book of Practical Counsel (Revised Edition)

Benjamin Graham , Jason Zweig , et al.

4.7 on Amazon

188 HN comments

Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software

Charles Petzold

4.6 on Amazon

186 HN comments

Seveneves: A Novel

Neal Stephenson, Mary Robinette Kowal, et al.

4.1 on Amazon

184 HN comments

Cracking the Coding Interview: 189 Programming Questions and Solutions

Gayle Laakmann McDowell

4.7 on Amazon

180 HN comments

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Sorted by relevance

loughnaneonJan 11, 2021

I too love How To Read A Book. I've commented to that effect elsewhere on HN.

100% agree that a wiki-style version of the syntopicon would be excellent.

davidwparkeronJune 22, 2020

Honestly, reading a book and knowing How to Read a Book is a skill.

I highly recommend this book for that reason:

SquishyPanda23onSep 1, 2019

How to Read a Book is great, and so is the sarcastic response How to Read Two Books: http://scriptoriumdaily.com/how-to-read-two-books-erasmus-ad...


gchamonliveonJan 8, 2020

This reminds me of How to Read a Book[1], which is also a great read.

[1] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/How_to_Read_a_Book

ncfaustionApr 14, 2021

How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler is a great resource.

50CNTonNov 27, 2016

There's "How to Read a Book" by Mortimer Adler[0] which is quite nice in that it presents a systematic way to engage with the content of a book. That may or may not help with the attention span.


avindrothonSep 17, 2016

It's important to distinguish between books to read and books to inspect.

A vast majority belong in the latter.

How to Read a Book is a wonderful read on this topic.

bcbrownonJune 20, 2019

Read "How To Read A Book", it has a lot of good techniques.

nekopaonSep 20, 2015

Check out "How to read a book" by Mortimer Adler. A great process on reading to understand more. Even has a section about reading speeds too, as well as ideas on choosing a book.

peburrowsonSep 17, 2016

When you say "How to Read a Book is a wonderful read," do you mean one ought to "read" or "inspect" it? :)

sitkackonApr 4, 2015

I enjoyed your post. You might like How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler.


Alex3917onJune 8, 2011

Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren include him in the canon in How To Read a Book. That seems to be as authoritative a list as any.


ohduranonJuly 29, 2019

Number of books read isn't the goal. The goal is reading outstanding books with such intensity that you exhaust what can be taken away from them.

One of those books, by the way, is How To Read a Book, by Mortimer Adler. Check out my notes here: http://alvaroduran.com/how-to-read-a-book

agbellonAug 10, 2009

Great suggestion. I just added "How to read a book" to my books to read list.

ncfaustionNov 19, 2017

Check out How To Read A Book by Mortimer Adler. Great resource for techniques for understanding many different kinds of books.

doucheonAug 2, 2016

I love the fact that "How to Read a Book" and "How to Write a Novel" are back-to-back on the front page.

abc_lisperonDec 4, 2020

Not to make light of authors efforts, but the book “How to read a book” is much better, and more thoroughly thought about on the topic

bitwizeonJune 19, 2009

The best part of How to Read a Book is that when you buy it you get a free book to practice with!

jcmoscononApr 10, 2018

You should read "How to read a book" book from Mortimer Adler. If you read a book asking questions about why did the author said that? is it true? so what? Your mind will stop wondering around and you will be actively searching for the answers. That's a good book and everybody should read it.

ssijakonOct 28, 2020

Thanks for the links. And I just received my copy of the "How to Read a Book" :)

starpilotonSep 1, 2019

"How to Read a Book" prescribes reading a book 3-4 times. Just the sheer repetition will help you get more out of it.

ohduranonFeb 26, 2021

Agreed. Go straight to the source: How to read a book, by Mortimer Adler. Ironically you will find there that you must grapple with the good books, which arguably disqualifies just reading about it in a blog.

rimantasonJan 2, 2017

Regarding point b) there even is a book, aptly titled "How to Read a Book" which pretty much explains the similar approach. Although it does recommend to read linearly at first.

pitt1980onJuly 31, 2019

method described seems very similar to Mortimer Adler's How to Read a Book



I always wonder how many people follow this sort of advice, and how many hours are they spending when they do follow this advice

elzronAug 15, 2017

Have you read Mortimer J Adler's How to Read a Book? I just finished it a month ago and your mention of terms, propositions and arguments seems straight out of the book's theory of reading :)

Thanks for your review by the way, it motivated me to reread Euclid.

requin246onJune 11, 2020

The best information on this topic I’ve come across is contained in Mortimer Adler’s “How to read a book”.

Highly recommended if you’re doing any non-fiction reading.

npsimonsonMar 16, 2018

This review reminded me of "How to Read a Book", specifically the getting more out of it with each reading. It might be hard to fathom with most of today's mediocre fiction, but there's a reason some books are classics and end up on lists of what books someone would take to a desert island.

siversonMar 15, 2018

I read slowly too! I think it's an advantage. The real learning comes when you reflect upon what you've learned.

This great book - "How to Read a Book" - https://sivers.org/book/HowToReadABook - has a great methodlogy for reading books deeply.

foobawonJuly 4, 2018

For those interested, I recommend reading "How to Read a Book" by Adler. It basically outlines the details of getting the most out of reading in different contexts.

tomsthumbonApr 30, 2017

This is the first phase of syntopical reading discussed in "How to read a book", which is a great book about reading other (mostly nonfiction) books.

hahahasureonMay 28, 2021

How To Read A Book was pretty insightful. But I'm finding myself reading less because I need to have notes ready, and reading can't be done casually.

I also have a hard time seeing how it's possible to read Plato 3 times in a week, even without a job.

chrismdponJan 7, 2015

One of them was "How to read a book" by Mortimer Adler. I kid you not.

It taught me just how much I was reading for my own entertainment, not for real information.

tmalyonFeb 1, 2019

I would suggest taking a look at the book How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler. The title of the book does not do it justice.

It covers analytical and syntopical reading. But it also addresses how to read different types of texts

tagfowufeonFeb 26, 2021

This is just an unashamed ripoff of "How to Read a Book" by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren. Seriously, he didn't even get "syntopical" right.

nik1aa5onSep 2, 2016

Probably the best to start with is "How to read a book". That opened my eyes and helped me a lot with deciding what to read and how to read it.

lemonberryonFeb 26, 2021

I'm rereading "How to Read a Book" by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren right now. It's worth picking up if you're interested in getting more out of your reading.

has2k1onJan 4, 2015

I highly recommend "How to Read a Book" by Mortimer J. Adler, it was quite an eye opener for me.

hoodwinkonAug 2, 2016

Same. Another benefit of reading How To Read a Book is that it inspired me to read higher quality books such as the Great Books.

a_conFeb 16, 2020

For me the steps are taking smart notes are

1. Get started, doesn't matter how dumb your notes are

2. Use tiddlywiki for connecting ideas

3. Read the book How to Read a Book

4. Repeat

sn9onDec 5, 2017

At least with Campbell, you can find corresponding study guides from the publisher filled with ways of testing your knowledge which are amenable to SRS.

For books in general, you might find Mortimer Adler's How to Read a Book useful.

vizer20onDec 11, 2020

I listen to audiobooks, it helps to filter boring books. And after listening to the audiobook If I feel that I missed a lot I can read a regular book.

There is a great book "how to read a book" by Mortimer J. Adler.
It teaches to filter books and understand if it worth reading

eddylonDec 29, 2019

Adler's "How to Read a Book" (the 1972 edition) also recommends to avoid subvocalization and to use your finger as a "pacer" to guide your eye across each line. I was surprised to see that the author of this article suggests that these two techniques are not supported by scientific studies. I'm glad I have not gotten far in adopting these!

tmalyonFeb 4, 2019

I am currently reading How to Read a Book. I would recommend it as it covers how to read different kinds of text and analytical reading.

Its a practical book

sn9onSep 3, 2017

Just from looking at the description, it seems to cover the same territory as Mortimer Adler's How to Read a Book.

I'd read Adler's book first, but reading two different presentations of what might be the same idea is better than reading only one.

seg_lolonOct 6, 2020

This is excellent!

You might enjoy another metacognitive handbook in Mortimer Adlers, "How to Read a Book"

There is a wonderful hyperplane on the net in the "how to read a book/paper/something" vein. [2a, 2b]

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/How_to_Read_a_Book

[2a] https://duckduckgo.com/?t=ffab&q=how+to+read+a+paper&ia=web

[2b] https://www.sciencemag.org/careers/2016/03/how-seriously-rea...

metric10onMar 17, 2018

Check out “How to Read a Book” by Mortimer J. Adler. It seems like a pithy title, but he’s quite serious and has interesting things to say on the subject.

breckonApr 30, 2008

One of the best books I ever read was "How to Read a Book", written by Mortimer Adler. I think it was written in the 60's or so. I read it in high school and it immediately made me a significantly better reader, and the impact wasn't short lived.

ohduranonJuly 23, 2019

My favourite one is How to Read a Book, by Mortimer Adler. It was given to me by a friend of mine and I thought "but I already know how to read!"

Turned out I didn't. There's so much going on when you look a book closely that you don't even notice it's there. Also, it helped me plan and prioritise how to read. It's a wonderful read, believe me.

In case you want to check out more, I put together some notes of it here: https://alvaroduran.me/how-to-read-a-book

Happy to hear your thoughts!

marcoamoralesonJan 8, 2013

For anyone reading to acquire knowledge, or to learn new things, may I recommend How To Read A Book by Charles Van Doren, Mortimer Adler.

michael_nielsenonFeb 13, 2010

Mortimer Adler wrote a wonderful book about reading, "How to Read a Book", that's still in print after 70 years. It changed my life by transforming my view of reading, and, consequently, how I read. It's like a very souped up version of this blog post. Link: http://www.amazon.com/How-Read-Book-Touchstone-book/dp/06712...

chensteronAug 8, 2016

"How to read a book" should be the first book gift you ever give. It changed my life.

yawzonDec 4, 2020

On how to read books I trust and like the classic called How To Read A Book [0]. The rest, these articles, etc. always feel too fluffy and contrived.

[0] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/How_to_Read_a_Book

breckonJuly 28, 2008

I recommend How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler. Everyone laughs when I recommend a book about how to read a book, but it definitely helped me a lot.

cratermoononFeb 26, 2021

> not everything can be learnt from books

I'd argue that you can't actually learn anything from reading. Mortimer Adler argues in "How to Read a Book" that you can only actually learn by action, which means doing something with what you read.

cryoshononJune 25, 2020

"How to Read a Book" is one book that I think every school and university should teach from cover to cover.

it completely changes your approach to learning to be significantly more rigorous, and i can't speak highly enough about it. and of course, it's not just good for reading from books, but any kind of reading you want.

tmariceonFeb 26, 2021

> Longform reading is magic because it's rarer than ever - it's an art now, according to people like this author.

Adler wrote "How to Read a Book" (which this article is about) originally in 1940, I wouldn't call that "now".
HTRAB is a bit dry and over-analytical, but it's definitely practical. It enumerates all questions that you should ask yourself while reading analytically, and while this may sound like an overkill, unless you're paying attention, you'll likely skip some of the steps. I read many great books only to find that they completely evaporated from my head in a week or two.
Isn't it a waste of time to spend months reading Brothers Karamazov, and not be changed by that experience?
Reading for entertainment and information already is easy as breathing for most people, but for reading for understanding to be as easy as breathing, you need to deliberately practice it.

While Adler's advice is valid, it lacks another important component, and that's discussion. A good book club (reading the great books, not whatever's on top of the NYT bestseller list) will change the entire experience and increase knowledge retention.

SirensOfTitanonAug 31, 2019

As others have mentioned, How To Read a Book does a great job educating on the skill of reading.

Most books I just read once fairly rapidly: skipping over parts I don’t get or find uninteresting. Just a few books ever get an ‘analytical’ reread.

I don’t keep a notebook generally to keep reads portable, I instead talk about what I’m reading pretty aggressively as a strategy to memorize and absorb knowledge.

joncamerononMay 28, 2015

"...long writing was necessary only where quick contextualisation was impossible"

Adler and Doren's "How to Read a Book" covers quick contextualization; there were techniques and ideas about this starting in the early 70s, most of which is still very relevant and I've found very useful in my own reading life.

dredmorbiusonSep 11, 2019

Understanding the structure of the book (or realising that it lacks one) helps tremendously.

See Mortimer Adler's How to Read a Book for an excellent guide. Most of the techniques it describes are ones I've long used -- it's been an excercise largely in validation, though with a few additional tricks and bits.

TeMPOraLonNov 20, 2016

Exploration vs exploitation :). It's hard to judge well. Were you to read 30 books 10 times each, you'd probably wonder if you couldn't read more different books instead ;).

I wonder what the perfect number is. For non-fiction, I guess you'll hit diminishing returns with most books in something like 5 iterations. But then again, I want to take a following challenge: pick one good fiction book, and read it 100 times. I've read (in Adler's "How to Read a Book", I think) that the way you understand and feel about a piece of writing will change profoundly after so many read-throughs.

tmalyonAug 11, 2020

I think applying syntopical reading to the subject would help you to fill in the gaps. See the book How to Read a Book by Adler.

smithzaonJune 29, 2020

I recently read "How to Read a Book", the grand encouraging of pencil marking and personalizing books (especially expositions), and have come out on the other side wondering how giving books to friends will ever work moving forward. I just have to fork down more money to the publishers to share great thoughts and gift them.

philwelchonAug 31, 2019

I feel like there's a bootstrapping issue here, though. What do I read in order to learn to read How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler? Or do I merely read that book once, in order to learn the technique, before re-reading it?

breckonJuly 9, 2008

-Black Swan & Fooled by Randomness

-The C Programming Language

-The Non-Designers Design Book

-How to Read a Book

-Never Eat Alone

-Art of War

-Bill Bryson's a History of Everything(~)

gdubsonFeb 12, 2019

My wife and I recently embarked on the 'Great Books' list from "How to read a Book" [1]. It's a nice contrast to the more scattershot reading that happens online.

If you're interested in how technology might cause self-interruptions that make things like sitting down with a book more difficult, I recommend checking out "The Distracted Mind". [2]

1: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/How_to_Read_a_Book

2: http://mitpress.mit.edu/books/distracted-mind

breckonJan 11, 2021

Interesting! Thanks for sharing.

It's not every day that I see the name "Mortimer Adler".

He also wrote a book called "How to Read a Book" that I somehow stumbled upon in high school. That was the start of my love of reading (yes, I got off to a late start!). Not sure if any book changed my life more than that one.

Will have to get Syntopicon.

Here's a web page for the book: https://www.thegreatideas.org/syntopicon.html

At a glance looks like a great start, but works better as a git repo/collaborative ongoing project, and needs someone to take the reigns.

jacques_chesteronJan 11, 2011

Some well-read fellows called Mortimer Adler and Charles van Doren wrote a book called How to Read a Book.

It serves two useful purposes.

1. It provides a framework for thoroughly digesting important books.

2. It is a rich vein of humour for visiting friends to mine when they spot it on your book shelf.


pharkeonApr 14, 2021

“Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few are to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.” -- Francis Bacon

Mortimer Adler's How to Read a Book provides a decent framework for dealing with the variety of books out there. There are also tools like Polar[1] that provide an easy way to do incremental reading[2] which may help when attacking a book piece by relevant piece.

[1] https://getpolarized.io/

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Incremental_reading

mikeceonJune 5, 2018

The timeless classic "How to Read a Book" applies as well to programmers as it does to anyone else. https://amzn.to/2xNQ1rS

tmalyonJune 25, 2020

A lot of this technique seems to overlap with the classic book How to Read a Book by Adler & Doren.

The only part that differs is they approach with trying to get a big picture rather than focusing on the only the parts you need.

I tend to agree with the Surgical Reading on focusing on the parts you need. Time is at such a premium that just in time learning is a great strategy.

guidoismonJan 4, 2020

And as one of your first books take a look at How to Read a Book. I've enjoyed my books much more since then. Especially since I got past my prejudice that made me feel like if I started a book I needed to finish it before trying another. These days I read many books concurrently. If I get bored or need to let my brain churn on an idea in the background I move onto a different book, usually a totally unrelated book.

vo2maxeronJan 4, 2020

From one of the best guides on reading a book:

“....a good book can teach you about the world and about yourself. You learn more than how to read better; you also learn more about life. You become wiser. Not just more knowledgeable - books that provide nothing but information can produce that result. But wiser, in the sense that you are more deeply aware of the great and enduring truths of human life.”

― Mortimer J. Adler, How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading

kriroonOct 17, 2017

I use a customized version of this: http://blizzard.cs.uwaterloo.ca/keshav/home/Papers/data/07/p...

The most important thing for me is to not read it from the beginning to the end (which is hard for me). Abstract->Conclusions, scan headlines. Methods is the most curious section for me. Depending on the paper and what I am working on I read the methods section last or first (even before the abstract). If it's more of a "oh that seems neat" paper I skip the methods section and mostly extract the idea. The book "How to read a book" is also a good source of ideas.

I don't think there's a one size fits all approach. I also find the various papers on writing literature reviews very helpful (for gathering an overview of a topic). Just checked my Zotero and these are the ones I have tagged:

"Using grounded theory as a method for rigorously reviewing literature"

"On being ‘systematic’in literature reviews in IS"

"A hermeneutic approach for conducting literature reviews and literature searches"

"Systematic literature reviews in software engineering–a systematic literature review"

"Writing narrative literature reviews."

Feel free to go as meta as you want ;)

tristanhoonMay 6, 2017

Yes! How to Read a Book is amazing. We spend so much of our lives reading, yet very rarely view it as a skill which we can develop, nor do we have goals for our reading other than to absorb as much information as possible.

One of my favorite ideas from the book is the idea of reading for "enlightenment":

"It is true, of course, that you should be able to remember what the author said as well as know what he meant. Being informed is prerequisite to being enlightened. The point, however, is not to stop at being informed."

You don't just want to memorize what an author said, you want to elevate your level of "understanding" to a point where you understand the topic nearly as well as the author does! With that as a goal, your focus quickly shifts from reading 100 books in a year to properly educating yourself.

BeetleBonDec 4, 2020

> So why every reading guide I've read talks about how to spend even more time on each book increasing investment, instead of how to read from book just the most valuable key points in no time?

The classic "How to Read a Book" kind of recommends this. They recommend skimming the book really quickly (e.g. one or two days) to get an idea of what it's about and the big picture - skipping anything you don't understand. And only then should you ponder whether it's worth a proper detailed read. They imply that most books will not be.

wirthjasononApr 15, 2021

When I was a young college student my professor said “there’s one book, and if you read it, it will change how well you do in college. It’s called ‘How To Read A Book.’”

I was shocked. Of course I know how to read a book. I made it to college after all. Curiosity got me and I checked it out from the library and read it. Turns out, I didn’t know how to read a book. :)

If you’re looking to get back into reading that book is a good start.

breckonFeb 17, 2021

How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler is one of my faves and teaches you how to read at higher levels of thought.

Also, it's a kids book but current book with the 2yo that I really enjoy is "My favorite book in the whole wide world" by Malcom Mitchell.

Thanks for the tip to Illustrated Book Bad Arguments. Looks interesting, just ordered.

ameminatoronJuly 26, 2021

Generally, there is no "all in one" way of doing it. Generally active reading and checking the facts and primary sources will get you far. I don't think there is any substitute for reading lots and from diverse sources.

Four books that helped me along the way are:

How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler

The Book of Fallacies by Jeremy Bentham
(alternatively, I enjoyed Logically Fallacious by Bo Bennet, and it fills the same niche)

Trust Me - I'm Lying by Ryan Holiday

Asking the Right Questions by Browne, Keil

I hope that was helpful! Enjoy

starpilotonSep 30, 2010

This is essentially the approach of "How to Read a Book," recommended above. Successive re-readings with increasing focus and slower pace build a deeper impression of the books in mind.

akulbeonFeb 4, 2018

My five year old is a voracious reader. I feel like this is one of the most important educational tools you can give anyone. We stress to her that if you can read, and comprehend, there's nothing you cannot learn. That's why I included the first two on this list.

How to Read a Book - Mortimer Adler

How to Read Slowly - James Sire

The Personal MBA - Josh Kaufman

The Intelligent Investor - Benjamin Graham

Think and Grow Rich - Napoleon Hill

How to Win Friends and Influence People - Dale Carnegie

fakelvisonJune 4, 2012

Instead of debating the merits of reading due to the fact that you can't remember what you read, why not improve how you read to drastically increase how much you remember. Why not (re-)learn how to really read.

Of course, I'm talking of Adler's How to Read a Book.

Admittedly, it's intention was to help in absorbing and analysing The Great Books [2], but I have found it of unbounded usefulness when reading any non-fiction (retention rates went through the roof). Regardless: without using the techniques he discusses (some of you may already, without knowing it) you'll never be able to read or learn from books at your full potential.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/How_to_Read_a_Book

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Great_Books

knight17onJuly 1, 2018

The author mentions writing down a summary after every chapter in the book itself. The final notes are prepared from each chapter's annotations and handwritten summaries. If anyone is interested in reading to retain more, try How to Read a Book [1] by Charles Van Doren and Mortimer J. Adler. Reviews and summaries of the boook [2, 3].

[1] : https://www.amazon.com/How-Read-Book-Classic-Intelligent/dp/...

[2] : https://fourminutebooks.com/how-to-read-a-book-summary/

[3] : http://oxfordtutorials.com/How%20to%20Read%20a%20Book%20Outl...

gyepionApr 7, 2014

I read The Inner Game of Tennis based on Alan Kay's description in a youtube video. It is an excellent book.

I am glad to see Csikszenmihalyi on the list as well. Flow is a very powerful concept; we all know it, but understanding it and using it effectively is a different matter entirely.

After reading The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh, I realized that all three books are actually talking about the same subject from different perspectives.

To this list, I would add:

anything by Robert Grudin, but especially:

Time and the Art of Living and The Grace of Great Things

How to solve it by G. Polya

Conceptual Blockbusting by James Adams

Nice to see the Mortimer Adler recommendation as well, but I think his How to Read a Book should be a prerequisite for serious reading.

As I've gotten older, I've come to the conclusion that true understanding requires the kind of depth that comes from knowing one's self intimately. It's a lot harder than it sounds, especially for a technologist.

antpicniconDec 18, 2009

I suggest reading the classic "How to Read a Book" by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren


submetaonMay 3, 2020

Check these books:

- Ultralearning by Scott Young

- Deep Work by Cal Newport

- Atomic Habits by James Clear

- How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler

- Mindfulness Meditation (many books by Jon Kabat-Zinn

„Ultralearning“ has lots of valuable ideas. For instance: Directly attacking the skill you want to learn. If you want to learn Git versioning, practice doing it.

„Deep Work“ convinced me that I need to spend focused and uninterrupted (large) chunks of time doing the things that I want to make progress with.

Learn Mindfulness Meditation to be able to focus, to deal with inner distractions and a wandering mind.

„How to read a book“ showed me that I was only reading for information at best, but mostly for entertainment. And it taught me how to read for understanding. Reading-ability at this level is one of the most under-valued skills today (in a world full of tutorial videos).

And finally: Make a schedule, block out chunks of time, stick to the plan. Track your progress in an app or on paper. Repeatedly doing something will give you tremendous amounts of progress in that area. (see „Atomic Habits“)

corysamaonJune 21, 2016

I am completely ignorant. So, it's going take a lot more than three books :) How about I blindly guess at my own answer and ask for alternatives?

1) Start with books like: How To Read A Book, Thinking Fast and Slow

2) Then, move on to books like: The Secret of Childhood, Instead of Education, Mindstorms

3) Then, you are ready for: Flow, The Children's Machine

Thanks for coming back to answer more questions.

If you've missed 'Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind', I do recommend it. IMHO, Gladwell's Blink was HBTM with most of the material replaced with funny stories.

elliusonAug 31, 2019

On the other hand, recalling the books and passages that really resonate with you is useful and pleasant. Schopenhauer said, "Any book which is at all important should be re-read immediately." I agree with the recommendations of "How to Read a Book." I also really like Montaigne and Seneca, who advocate not reading in a manic fashion but rather finding the books that speak to you deeply and re-reading them frequently. There will always be more content than you can consume, and while I value curiosity and exploration, there is also a lot of value in absorbing the most important lessons deeply. It also helps you weaken your brain's inborn novelty addiction and encourages prolonged effort towards a goal (deep understanding), which is a better route to satisfaction than vacuuming up every new experience you can find.

aftabhonFeb 26, 2021

I highly recommend that you consult the original book (also referenced in TFA) as your primary source to find answer to your question.

> Let it be understood at once that we are wholly in favour of the proposition that most people ought to be able to read faster than they do. Too often, there are things we have to read that are not really worth spending a lot of time reading; if we cannot read them quickly, it will be a terrible waste of time. It is true enough that many people read some things too slowly, and that they ought to read them faster. But many people also read some things too fast, and they ought to read those things more slowly. A good speed reading course should therefore teach you to read at many different speeds, not just one speed that is faster than anything you can manage now. It should enable you to vary your rate of reading in accordance with the nature and complexity of the material.

> Excerpt From: Mortimer J. Adler. “How to Read a Book.”

groby_bonJuly 2, 2016

And in the second half of his article, Scott forgets to do research again: "How to read a book" by Mortimer Adler is the classic on improving comprehension.

kd5bjoonMay 7, 2020

The book "How to Read a Book" comes up here occasionally, and this is (I think) the second level of their 4-level system, after examining the table of contents and end matter.

awaonJune 26, 2017

I am reading "How to read a book" and the process you described is akin to inspectional reading. The book goes in great detail how to utilize the inspectional reading process and improve it.

It also describes the next step "analytical reading" which comprises of mostly asking questions about the topic in general and about the author's intent.

MathematicalArtonApr 16, 2021

I recommend “How to Read a Book” by Mortimer Adler. In short, not every sentence, paragraph, chapter, or even book is of equal informative importance. To read all literature as if everything is equally important is really a mistake. Once one recognizes this, it is then ideal to read only at the level of detail and focus as is required for the particular work.

What does it mean to have read a book? To read every single word and symbol? To understand the key ideas and points?

Is every book going to be one hundred percent new ideas to you or are there thematic riffs that allow you to shortcut portions of it without loss of understanding of the entire work?

lemonberryonJan 31, 2014

I walked by Mortimer Adler's "How to Read a Book" for years before I realized it was gold. It's discussed in this post and it's well worth reading.

sn9onApr 30, 2017

I feel like a good compromise is to read widely, but when a book strikes you as worthy of greater focus, to reread it at least another two times (in the Mortimer Adler sense as described in How to Read a Book).

Perhaps scheduling rereading in a spaced repetition sort of way, like doubling the interval of time before you reread a text every time, might be useful.

npsimonsonFeb 25, 2014

One of the things I picked up from "How to Read a Book" (where they put forward that speed reading is usually just bringing slow readers up to speed), is that not everything is worth reading. There is so much to read out there, that you can't possibly read it all (relevant: http://what-if.xkcd.com/76/), and you have to pick and choose. One way to weed out what is relevant is to apportion the correct amount of time and attention to each thing you read. Some things deserve none of your time and attention; others may merely require a once through skimming to get everything of value out of it. Other works you may never exhaust (HtRaB's authors posit that only great books fall into this category, by definition). Perhaps much more important than increasing the speed of reading is developing the skill to be discerning in what and how deeply different texts should be read.

npsimonsonJan 16, 2013

Deliberate practice is something that really fascinates me, because it never seems like I have enough time. I've picked up "How to Read a Book", but it will have to wait until I'm done with my current non-fiction book (I try to keep focused on one non-fiction book at a time).

Reflection and deep understanding are important, but the mantra of "good enough" is very powerful as well, and perhaps the fastest way to "ingest" something is by pushing yourself, hard, to do something "impossible", well beyond your limits. Some people would say that if you could do it, it's not "well beyond your limits", but how do you know until you try?

For me, I have a tendency both to get distracted easily, and occasionally focus deeply (perhaps too deep) on highly specialized subjects. C++ is my current obsession, and not necessarily because I like it; there's just so many dark corners. I do need to learn and practice more deliberately, but also push myself, hard, out of my comfort zone.

And sorry to continue the free association (see how I get distracted easily?), but I feel that perhaps rejection therapy wouldn't be needed if people took more challenging opportunities, with the inevitable failures being all the rejection therapy they need.

kieckerjanonJuly 3, 2018

That looks inspired by How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler. One of the few "self-help books" I can wholeheartedly recommend.

veskyonMay 11, 2019

I disagree with you. People have very different styles when it comes to absorbing information. I fully understand why that kid would choose to listen to music instead of random coffee-shop noises. Music it's repetitive and easy to ignore whereas environmental noises might be more distracting. I often find myself able to concentrate easier with music than with random sounds or even silence in some cases. Silence makes my mind wander and stray away from what I'm trying to pay attention to.

I've also read Adler's "How to Read a Book" and I don't think it's as useful as you make it out to be. Annotating is good but nowadays you can take notes easily on your phone which I found myself doing for each book I read/listen to. Also one of the advice you find in your example is how truly reading a book means reading it more than once. He mentions that the first read should be superficial and fast in order to prepare you for the second, more thorough read.

lefstathiouonMay 11, 2019

I used to believe this too until I was taught how to read a book, a skill that unfortunately is taken for granted and hasn’t made its way into curriculums.

Reading “thinking fast thinking slow” should not take 8-9 hours... it could easily take 50 (after all, it represents many years and thousands of hours of work by the preeminent thinker on the subject). Scholars have spent a lifetime studying the Inferno.

I am typing this as I stand in line at a coffee shop in nyc as a kid is listening to music while reading “sapiens”. How can you expect to meaningfully absorb this content in a distracted environment, no pen for annotations and your attention span completely under assault?

I believe humanity’s ascension over the past two hundred years is pretty clear proof that books (or the written word) work well as a form of knowledge transfer but they require you to work for it.

“there’s no such thing as free lunch”

Ps a good primer on this, for those who care, is Mortimer Adler’s “How to Read a Book

nooblyonJune 25, 2018

I can recommend the following:

Coursera's course "Learning How to Learn"

Thinking Fast and Slow, Kahneman

How to Read a Book, Adler[0]

The Trivium, Sister Miriam Joseph

How to Solve It, Polya

I'd also recommend others that have already been recommended, such as the Discourse On the Method, the logic course (which I haven't personally taken, but a logic course certainly helps enter the right frame of mind for evaluating arguements with others or yourself, ime) and of course, learning more mathematics.

[0]: There's also an excellent summary here: https://pastebin.com/wGFMM1pZ

kingmanazonSep 6, 2013

If you're not reading these works purely for edification then I assume you are working through a Great Books curriculum (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_books ). Congratulations. The trouble will soon be finding anyone to with which discuss what you've read, especially if you work in technology where ideas are assumed to have a shelf life. Being well read can be alienating.

In terms of increasing reading speed, you may want to try the utility "dictator" for those texts which are electronic. For physical books I would run a finger under text to maintain momentum as Adler suggested in "How To Read a Book". Make notes in the text, being sure to use a custom set of symbols to speed notation. Write concise thoughts in the margin, don't go overboard.

Good luck.

squeaky-cleanonJune 29, 2021

What works best for me is to watch the lecture multiple times with different amounts of intensity/focus. Listening to a lecture while on a walk or doing other errands is a fantastic primer for when I rewind the lecture and watch it again with my pen and notebook in front of me.

I picked this up from Mortimer J. Adler's "How to Read a Book". There's lots of other techniques discussed in it, but the idea of "skim the content first to know what's coming up, so you have an idea of what each chapter (or lecture) is building towards" improved my retention massively and works well for things that aren't just books.

soramimoonMay 12, 2021

I recommend the book "How to read a book" on the very subject (summary in [1]).

In a nutshell the author argues that the goal of reading is to increase one's understanding. For this the writer needs to have a better understanding than the reader. The reader must be able to overcome that inequality in understanding to some degree.

A critical first step is deciding whether the book deserves a detailed reading in the first place. Clearly, this is critical for time efficiency.

Once deemed worthwhile, you can move on to a thorough analytical reading where I think note taking trumps speed. The process of actively reading the book will help digest the author's main points and help you remember them.

Finally, if you're trying to grow your expertise in a particular area, consider reading and contrasting multiple books on the subject (comparative reading).

[1] https://lifeclub.org/books/how-to-read-a-book-mortimer-j-adl...

temo4kaonAug 24, 2019

Consider pre-reading it first. If a book is hard, if it’s over you head, try going through the whole book w/o stopping on things you don’t understand (don’t fixate). In this way you’ll grasp the major points, ideas and themes. Only then read it carefully — you’ll understand better and get more out of the book.

It’s similar to progressive JPEG rendering. Your first pass is pre-processing resulting in fuzzy understanding of the whole that you then refine in the subsequent pass(es). Progressive way is more natural and effective.

I highly recommend reading Adler’s “How to Read a Book” [1]. This exactly the guide you want to read if you want to know how to learn well from books.

1. https://www.amazon.com/How-Read-Book-Classic-Intelligent/dp/...

cryoshononJuly 10, 2016

I'm not going to list all 42, but here are the highlights:

How to Read a Book (Adler)

World Order (Kissinger)

Der Grundrisse (Marx)

The Grand Chessboard (Brzezinski)

Manufacturing Consent (Chomsky)

Gulag Archipelago (Solhenitzyn)

On War (Clausewitz)

The Hidden Persuaders (Packard)

Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking (Dennett)

The Strategy of Desire (Dichter)

Skills acquired: intentional syntopical reading, prediction of geopolitical hinge points, and identification of absent context in media... I'm always looking for another book to read.

jonsenonApr 4, 2010

Isn't it somewhat paradoxically, that a teacher should ask for hack-how-to-learn recommendations?!

No offense meant. Just struck me. Being a teacher myself I know no one really knows the ultimate learning hacks.

Actually I'm in a similar process of brushing up my knowledge. For now I'm doing some meta reading:

How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading


bewe42onDec 29, 2017

Active reading. First scan TOC and headlines. Then read superficially. Grasp the author’s leading propositions by dealing with his most important sentences. Ask questions while reading.

After reading a certain amount of text, close the book and summarize in your own words what you have read. Again ask questions how the key ideas relate to what you already know.

The ultimate exercise is syntopical reading where you compare several books on the same subject with each other.

Best intro: "How to read a book" by Adler.

P.S: I'm very interested in this subject, I'm trying to build an app to support active reading.

Edit: re-reading your question, you seem to want to read faster and consume as many books as possible. As you can guess, my advice is the opposite. Read slow but deep and fewer books (just pick the best out there)

greentimeronAug 25, 2020

"Most experts would agree that clear writing should have an average sentence length of 15 to 20 words."

This quote is so preposterous it almost made me want to stop reading the article. Different types of writing should have different sentence lengths. I'm quite sure the sentence length for a math textbook and a Clorox ad should be different. There's a reason it's not common practice to measure one's average sentence lengths.

Like most material written on language, this article says almost nothing and is basically filler. "Don't be afraid to give instructions". "Use lists where appropriate". Well of course we know we can give instructions! I recently read a famous book called "How to Read a Book" that in a similar vein struggled to find anything non-obvious to say about language. It just comes so naturally to people that it's difficult to comment on. This article is coming from an organization called the Plain English Campaign that's been around since 1979. I wonder what they can have claimed to have accomplished since then.

This article reminded me of arguments I always read in philosophy about tough subjects like radical skepticism where the authors fail to make any points beyond the obvious. Sure, certain knowledge is impossible for humans to attain, but can you say anything else!?

npsimonsonNov 23, 2020

This was my number one motivation for reading "How to Read a Book" (an HN recommendation, I might add). I can plow through texts without even trying (no effort to increase speed), but what's the point if I don't retain anything?

I haven't read Newport's "Deep Work" yet, but I suspect the themes are what I'm aiming for; I like to be a jack of many trades, but mastery of a few (or even serial mastery) is my ultimate goal.

blueyesonJuly 22, 2021

Those looking for a deeper dive might consider Harold Bloom's "How to Read and Why", for literature; and Mortimer J. Adler's "How to Read a Book", for non-fiction.

mateszonFeb 7, 2021

The best thing about reading technical books is that it naturally leads one to get aquainted deeper with the topic at hand.

Usually many ideas spawn out of some brilliant work which is published for a while already and its really worthwhile to try to track down those.

Knowing history makes it easier to understand works which in some way depend on the original, even small bits - something called syntopical reading.

While this is obvious to many I’ve always struggled to get myself
to read those early works.

Now obvious question is what is the best book to read on the topic of reading books?

I think one of the best is “How to read a book” by Mortimer Adler. It is about all books and cannot recommend it highly enough. It is in public domain already unless I’m mistaken so here is a link [1].

[1] https://delong.typepad.com/files/adler-read.pdf

bcbrownonDec 22, 2016

Language in Thought and Action, S.I. Hayakawa

How to Read a Book, Mortimer J. Adler




High Output Management, Andy Grove

Hell's Angels by Hunter S Thompson

Programming Pearls, Jon Bentley

Walden, Thoreau

Autobiography of Red, Anne Carson

Letters from a Stoic, Seneca

Three Body Problem, Cixin Liu

Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein

Tyranny of Words, Stuart Chase

Golden Mean, Annabel Lyon

Disrupted, Dan Lyons

Big Data, Nathan Marz

Practical OO Design in Ruby, Sandi Metz

Brave New World, Aldous Huxley

Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus, Rainier Maria Rilke

Anatomy of a City, Kate Ascher

Language and Thought by Chomsky

Hero of a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell

Language and Responsibility by Chomsky

Magic, Science, Religion by Malinowski

Meditiations by Marcus Aurelius

Oranges by John McPhee

The Dream of the Enlightement, Anthony Gottlieb

Nonexistant Knight/Cloven Viscount, two novellas by Calvino Italo

Deltoid Pumpkin Seed by John McPhee

Infrastructure by Brian Haynes

I'd recommend almost all of them, but especially the first two, and Autobiography of Red(poetry).

nooblyonMar 27, 2018

IME, speed reading is great in the domains where it’s applicable without substantial detriment to comprehension (as in the case of pamphlets, instruction manuals, a first skim of material, etc). What gets my jimmies in a knot is the ‘productivity gurus’ who open up a book and treat finishing it (as quickly as possible of course) as the primary goal. Your primary goal should be to gleam as much as possible from the text, regardless of speed, and I think there is much to be missed at 6 pages a second (arguably, this could also originate from me being a poor speed reader, despite believing in it firmly previously). Mortimer Adler addresses this and more well in his book “How to Read a Book”[0].

[0]: A summary of the algorithm can be found here: https://pastebin.com/wGFMM1pZ

asharkonApr 9, 2015

Franny and Zooey -- Salinger

Mostly by introducing me to the Stoics (Aurelius especially) and a variety of Eastern, especially Zen Buddhist, works.

Revolutionary Road -- Yates

Yay, mentioned that one in two threads today and it's not even noon yet!

A History of Western Philosophy -- Russell

Vonnegut in general. Bluebeard serves as a good overview of his major themes and ideas, to pick just one book. The part about how people with small talents who were once valued by their communities have been rendered eccentrics of no special value to anyone by easy, cheap, global distribution of media is always near the front of my mind.

How to Read a Book -- Adler

alfonsodevonJan 19, 2017

Cultivating a genuine curiosity for the topic, for me that means be driven by my own questions in the first place. A side project could be a form of a question, don't feel guilty for not finishing those projects, some aspects of the project will answer your question and the other uninteresting parts will be never finished, and it's fine.

Also I used to read books linearly and the whole thing, recently I'm experimenting with these other ways from How to read a Book pdf[1] which I saw posted on HN[2]

[1] http://pne.people.si.umich.edu/PDF/howtoread.pdf

[2] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=12209446

dredmorbiusonMar 16, 2021

"Don't feel compelled to read books cover-to-cover" would be a more useful guide.

Many people do, and feel guilt over setting down books. That serves you poorly.

Approach books as an inquiry or conversation. See Mortimer Adler's How to Read a Book (frequently mentioned on HN). Read with a purpose or goal.

(Entertainment and distraction may be goals or purposes.)

Some books reward a close comprehensive read. They are rare.

ingveonAug 31, 2019

There is an audio book version: How to Read a Book, narrated by Edward Holland [0]

[0] https://www.audible.com/pd/How-to-Read-a-Book-Audiobook/B003...

muzanionNov 2, 2019

I'm a compulsive note taker, as it helps me to organize my thoughts better. I think the book, "How to Read a Book" gives the best advice for this, even for listening.

First, take note of the terms used. Things like "capital markets" or "startup" which may mean very different things to different people. Especially useful for technical talks, where you can get buried in jargon.

Look for the information "pillars". These are the things that support the rest of the content. They are information dense, and thus difficult to understand. They feel like speedbumps. If the speaker spends a lot of time reviewing it, it is likely an information pillar.

You also have to practice dealing with a flood of information. Speed reading helps - learn to convert information into images, or categorize and link it to other information as soon as it arrives. You can practice with anything - articles, Wikipedia, holy books.

I really prefer taking notes electronically because it's easier to swap between a glossary of terms and sort out information in different categories as it arrives. But paper works too if you can split out the space for it.

heckandpuntonJuly 13, 2011

I used to read a lot, but have seen that rate declining steeply over the years.
I spend a lot of time commuting to and from work, anything between 2-3 hours. This year i made a decision to make use of that time for reading. As of yet i've finished 24 books. Hoping to keep up for the rest of the year.

I suppose i can be more effective with reading different books with tailored strategies but haven't been able to find out anything substantial about that yet. Have ordered "How to Read a Book" by Mortimer Adler to see if it can help.

Also, at the beginning of the year, i just jumped in, without much of a definite idea on what to read. The priority for me then, was just to get started. It served the purpose. But right now, i would probably need to revisit that.

I've been doing most of my reading on a Pocketbook 360 and long hours with that, despite the e-Ink screen, feels more fatiguing as opposed to a paper book. I'm looking to alternate more between paper and ebooks.

redelbeeonDec 10, 2020

I agree about counting and knowledge, which was part of the reason I wanted to see how other people think about it. I’ve always read a lot and probably always will, so now it’s all about optimizing what I read.

I hadn’t heard of Great Books of the Western World before but I’ll definitely check it out! I do something similar with movies and “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die” which is also a great resource.

I still can’t bring myself to write in books for some reason, but I did take notes on all the non-fiction books I read last year. I haven’t kept up with that because it didn’t seem to help me with processing, remembering, or using the book much beyond being able to find references more easily. It was useful to find the references more quickly but didn’t seem worth the time invested in note taking. I’ll check out “How to Read a Book” to see if I can get better there.

dredmorbiusonSep 11, 2019

High-speed reading is a technique, and as with all techniques, it has its uses and limitations.

For reading, generally, I strongly recommend Mortimer Adler's classic How to Read a Book, itself an HN perennial, see https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=12209446 (or all: https://hn.algolia.com/?q="how%20to%20read%20a%20book").

If you're trying to determine what to read, or want to rapidly get an overview of a book, or are "visually grepping" for specific content, then the tricks of speed-reading, especially of chunking, skimming paragraph ledes, and not vocalising or subvocalising, help.

If you're reading for deep understanding, you'll want to fully absorb the material (and work through the exercises!), though this can also involve several passes -- for textbooks or nonfiction, I'll scan the ToC, and then the chapter (especially for section/subsection titles), then read through in full.

Treating such reading as an inquiry rather than simply as data transfer helps tremendously.

And of course, if you're reading quality literature or poetry, you'll want to savour the language, words, rhythm, meter, and rhyme. Go slow. You'll appreciate it all the more.

Reading plays or dialogue-rich content is a particular skill -- try reading with different intonation or to sort out what possible alternate meanings might exist. Shakespeare is of course excellent for this, though many other plays (or film screenplays) are as well. Realise just how much latitude the actor or director has in translating from words on the page to those uttered on the stage or screen.

dredmorbiusonJune 9, 2021

I'd have liked to see at least a nodding reference to Mortimer Adler's classic, How to Read a Book. This isn't strictly a study guide, but that itself is a strength, in that Adler explicitly recognises different types of books and different levels of reading.

Records transmit knowledge. Not all human knowlege is equally facilitated by explitic (spoken or written) transmission. Different domains and topics exercise different skills: memorisation in the case of history and a substantial portion of practice lore, structured knowledge in the case of most of the sciences, and what might be considered cerebral skills development in areas such as maths, logic, rhetoric, management, negotiation, sales tactics, and relationship management. These are learnt in different ways, and books play different roles in their education.

Online: https://archive.org/details/howtoreadbook0000adle

Numerous HN submissions: https://hn.algolia.com/?dateRange=all&page=0&prefix=true&que...

Notably: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=12209446 https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=177214 https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1002360

guidoismonAug 31, 2019

Great question! In my fourth decade of life I’m finally figuring out the optimal way to do this myself. I’ve forgotten so so many books over the years that I supposedly read.

Read How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading by Mortimer Adler. (https://www.amazon.com/How-Read-Book-Classic-Intelligent/dp/...)
I’ve given this book to a bunch of people on my teams as it also helps with communicating ideas which is vital as a programmer.

The wikipedia page for it is a good place to get an overview of what it’s about. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/How_to_Read_a_Book

Since reading it I’ve been keeping a notebook, some people might call it a Commonplace Book, with interesting stuff from the book. I find that I get a lot more from books from the act of writing it down and then reading those notes later when I glance at them while looking something else up in the notebook.

One big big big thing I learned from the book is to not read a non-fiction book like it was a novel. There’s nothing wrong with skipping ahead and finding out what happens later, in fact you should absolutely skim the book first. I end up finishing a lot more books by doing this since so many books aren’t actually worth careful reading. I am able to systematically skim a book including the TOC and index and determine if it’s worth reading carefully. A lot of books are so sparse with ideas that you can get most of them through this method. Only the good books are worth going on to the second and third stages and only the great ones the fourth stage.

cryoshononSep 3, 2018

i've done this for years now. it's a great way to maintain attention, single out passages for later read-throughs, and note the weak points of the author for the purposes of composing a response or synthesis understanding.

one practice that i have used to great effect is circling the names of other authors and other texts which the piece that i'm reading mentions. then, if it's relevant, i can later hunt down the other resources easily. you can do some really cool exploration through certain intellectual movements that you'd never otherwise encounter. using that method i've discovered a few of my favorite authors (edward bernays, walter lippmann, etc).

notably, the book that goes into this practice and other scribblings in great detail is the timeless classic, "how to read a book" by adler. there's an entire section describing how to use marginalia to improve your understanding and set the stage for syntopical reading wherein you gain the deepest level of understanding and link-ins with outside information.

there's probably enough utility in pencil-reading to give an entire class on it. i can't praise it enough.

sfotmonJune 25, 2020

What radical new idea did Sapiens introduce? I ended up not liking it as much as I thought I would because I expected it to be little more concentrated on known factors around human evolution, but it ended up providing a lot of conjecture and best-guesses.

I think some people that see online essays and podcasts as a more efficient way to consume information might ironically be the most "orthodox" sort of readers. Most well-written non-fiction books provide a clear index, a table of contents that makes the process of the book clear, and introductory matter in each chapter that summarizes things for you. If you want a certain piece of information, you can go into the book and get out within 5 minutes. You don't owe every book you pick up a cover-to-cover read.

Highly recommend "How to Read a Book". It calls the author's process of "surgical reading" "syntopical reading", though they might have slightly different meanings in reality.

sbonJuly 24, 2011

While I agree with your suggestion of reading books (which is IMHO in general a good advice), I have to sort of disagree with your description of a PhD: The goal of getting a PhD at least in science, technology, engineering and mathematics is to autonomously advance the state-of-the-art of any chosen field, to contribute new knowledge to humanity without a supervisor giving directions.

Now, the process of advancing the state-of-the-art is unusually hard and there exists a good deal of very good write-ups of the intricacies involved (such as "So long and thanks for the PhD") which requires people to be driven and focused. But, at the same time, before actually starting the research that gets them their PhDs, gradute students spend time in advanced courses and later on read lots of research papers and additional textbooks. This is an invaluable process of unsupervised learning (hence the first paragraph), and I think that getting a PhD also gives you the abilities and experience to autonomously go from zero knowledge in an area to contributing new knowledge by reading. Of course, studying at a university saves you a lot of time, because somebody else--the professor--who is already very knowledgeable in the target area has already broken down his knowledge in edible--and ideally pedagogically-sound--pieces ready to be sucked up. But if time is not of the essence, and since you are already a driven and focused person, you should be able to do it by yourself.

So this was (quite unexpectedly) rather long, a more detailed discussion and probably a very good book to read for anybody can be found in: Mortimer Jerome Adler's wonderful "How to read a book". A brief summary for tl;dr reasons: I love and totally support your reading advice, but since the PhD experience enables you to work your way through literature in unknown territory, it might very well be worth the effort.

awaonNov 19, 2017

OT: The book "How to read a book" drives home the importance of skimming a book and how to do it well.

spjpgrdonJune 22, 2016

It depends on your definition of
"reading a book."

Wait, what?

I've been reading a book called,
I kid you not, "How to Read a Book:
The Classic Guide to Intelligent

Adler and Doren identify four levels
of reading:

1. Elementary: "What does the sentence say?"
This is where speed can be gained

2. Inspectional: "What is the book about?"
Best and most complete reading given a limited time.
Not necessarily reading a book from front to back.
Essentially systematic skimming.

3. Analytical:
Best and most complete reading given unlimited time.
For the sake of understanding.

4. Synoptical:
Reading many books of the same subject at once,
placing them in relation to one another, and
constructing an analysis that may not be found
in any of the books.

Amazon link for those interested:

dorchadasonSep 12, 2020

I'd definitely recommend How to Read a Book if you want to go into deeper reading. I haven't implemented it fully, though I'd really like to (need to buy a copy of How to Read a Book to be able to do that, so I can keep referencing it), but it's definitely made me do some short summaries of fluff books, which solidifies the concepts I needed to get out of them. It was useful for that, and I'd love to apply it in more depth.

philwelchonJuly 3, 2018

But how do you read "How To Read a Book" by Mortimer Adler?

mbrockonMar 23, 2019

I like to kind of live with books rather than read them linearly. So I might go and read a chapter from a book. I consider them resources. That’s why I deeply appreciate a good table of contents; they were better in the past.

Check out “How to Read a Book”, too. It presents book reading in quite a different way than you might be used to. The book as an object that you investigate almost like a strange beetle or a transistor radio—to learn how it works.

Most nonfiction books “do something” in the way that a program does something. There’s a main purpose and a lot of subroutines and maybe some boilerplate and repetition. It’s not as linear as you might think either. And they’re embedded in a web of references. It’s very interesting to think about how you actually use a book in your life...

goodlifeodysseyonAug 10, 2021

It seems like passive consumption, be it of books or tiktok, is unlikely to improve someone very much. You may learn some new facts but I doubt you’ll be able to revise any of your deep assumptions about the world.

That being said, it’s much more natural to actively read than to actively watch TikTok. Thus, in practice, reading is often a better activity than watching TikTok. The first chapter or Robert Adler’s “How to Read a Book” talks about active reading in more detail; he has a few more arguments too.

Side note: unless you are a relativist and think everyone’s view about art is equally correct no matter what, the person who studies art is probably “more correct” than the Instagramer; a lot of art requires cultural context (e.g, familiarity with the Bible and Ovid) to understand. If you are a relativist, then why does nearly everyone agree some art belongs in a museum and a lot of art is garbage that nobody cares about?

JoelMcCrackenonMar 29, 2010

"How to Read a Book", by Mortimer J. Adler.

This book was very important for me, as it gave me a new way of approaching both books and almost everything in life. It also gives a rather thorough collection of the most important books of western culture, ordered by authors then dates.

If you ever wanted to know how to read more effectively, this book is it. It teaches you how to mark up a book in such a way that you'll be able to remember what you need from it after a few minutes of review. I highly recommend it. My life would have been much poorer without having read it.

edpichleronNov 26, 2016

Trust me, you need this "How to read a book", on Amazon: http://amzn.to/2gxEsbQ

hoodwinkonSep 2, 2016

+1 for How To Read a Book by Mortimer Adler. I wish I had found this at a younger age.

nekopaonOct 12, 2016

I read incredibly fast. Reading a book a night is no problem for me. I think it is genetic, as my mother could read at a pace that astounded even me, and she could recall everything from the book too. A 500 page novel would take her about 2-3 hours to get through, then she could recite the book back to you - scenery, dialogs the works.

Now this is talking about novels. If I'm reading to learn then you have to I must interact with the book, stop and think, go back and make connections, try something out etc.

This is where I like the statement in the book "How to read a book" about reading as fast as is necessary to complete the task you want to accomplish - fast for a quick read through maybe, then slower on another read through for making notes.

So I can read a novel a night, or a pop Sci book in a day, but I've been going through a math book for the last 2 months, and of course, I've been reading the first chapter of TAOCP for about 15 years (hence the math books now :)

oldsklgdfthonAug 26, 2019

How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler

npsimonsonSep 1, 2015

The sad fact of the matter is that this boils down to: you will never live long enough to read even all the good books, for almost any value of "good" [1]. While the OP may be responding to another writer whom he deems "troll", the other author is just pointing out "look, I'm not going to live forever, and I've determined I don't like this author, so I'm not reading his works." albeit in a trollish way.

This old chestnut has been trod out so many times it's becoming a dead horse. Not that it doesn't have a point, but I can remember a discussion here a while back (https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=8492659) where we went over a very similar topic, although with not as deep connections to culture in general.

Suffice to say, everyone selects, and usually from ignorance, unfortunately. The best you can do is force yourself to look at things you wouldn't normally, get out of your comfort zone, consider expert advice like that given in "How to Read a Book". And I say this as someone who has read Pratchett, enjoyed some of it, didn't enjoy other parts, and I will (probably) never read the twilight series as I consider it garbage (and no, I've never even looked at it).

[1] - https://what-if.xkcd.com/76/

dbulonMay 27, 2009

How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler may be useful if anyone is thinking of actually doing this.

MrDeltaonOct 17, 2019

Hey mate. Dunno if you recall, but some time ago you recommended How to Read a Book: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=20847508

Would you like us to share notes on the book itself? I've practiced its teachings for the last 3 years or so, and I'd like to chat with someone about it.

Sorry if this comment is a bit irrelevant, but HN doesn't really have a DM system. /shrug

lowdownonSep 30, 2010

the book "How to Read a Book" describes the technique in his conclusion in excellent detail. It is essentially about owning the information you are consuming.

Personally I think this applies to non-fiction works only. At least in my personal reading. My brain doesn't need to store the details of fictional works. It seems like it actively discards "entertainment" items in favor of knowledge I need to pay the mortgage and feed the kids. I am much more deliberate with that information.

nimnioonAug 5, 2016

Did you click the link? This isn't "How to Read a Book" by Adler.

garden_hermitonDec 4, 2020

Building on this advice, I highy recommend the essay titled "How to Read a Book" by Paul Edwards:


Edwards is an academic historian of science who write incredibly long and dense books drawing on hundreds of sources. If anyone knows how to read, its him, and his advice was truly useful for my own reading.

fchuonMay 12, 2020

This is precisely what Mortimer Adler suggests in his book "How to Read a Book", to read above your current levels this is only how you grow your mind.

Strong advice but I feel it's much harder nowadays to go down that route when there are distractions like YouTube videos that are easy to watch and make you feel you're learning when really it's scratching a superficial curiosity itch with no depth.

That said, to answer OP's question, I got Mortimer's book called "Great Treasury of Western Thought" that has compiled quotes from Western classics into key themes (the human condition, love, religions, etc), and it provided the missing link between getting meaty samples of key concepts, versus actually reading ALL the classics (the book started as the the index or 'syntopicon' of the 'Great Books of the Western World', a full compilation of Western works)

csnewbonSep 6, 2018

To improve information retention you should exercise your "information retrieval". Basically, take a sheet of paper, write down the name of a topic you're learning or a book you're reading, and then write down as much information as you can remember about it. Compare your notes against your previous attempts to identify what you need to focus on studying/remembering more. Repeat this exercise until you can comfortably recall all the main ideas.

Two books I highly recommend that can help you with improving reading and learning skills:
1) "Make It Stick" by Peter C. Brown
2) "How To Read A Book" by Mortimer J. Adler.

Good luck!

npsimonsonJuly 9, 2013

This kind of discussion fascinates me; along with regularly participating in online "tests" that flat out claim you've mastered something after demonstrating minimal proficiency, I've also been contemplating depth of understanding, provoked by reading such things as "How to Read a Book".

Should test scores be curved? Or does that defeat the whole point of tests (ie, to verify proficiency)? What even denotes proficiency? Getting the answer right once? Ten times in a row? 100 times separated by other different questions?

I guess it ultimately comes down to measuring what you care about, but I think that tests and teaching in general could use a lot more discussion and analysis, and at least to me it's fascinating, from many angles (eg, as you mention, student attitudes and the best way to motivate people to truly learn).

dmos62onDec 2, 2018

There's a classical book titled "How to Read a Book" by Mortimer Adler. It's about reading texts for information, arguments, etc., but not pleasure. The heart of it is to not read the book linearly from cover to cover. Ideally you'd do multiple passes, often non-linearly, at different speeds, skipping different parts, concentrating on different parts. You'd start with parts that are known to have most information, like introductions and conclusions, the table of contents. Then introducing and concluding paragraphs, then introducing and concluding sentences. All the meanwhile, you'll be getting a top-down view of the material and you'll be naturally honing in on the parts that are pertaining to you.

Reading mathematics has a whole series of additional challenges. In my limited experience with reading those: nurturing comfort in incomprehension is important; it's often better to skip a part than get stuck on it; look for multiple accounts of the same concept.

jonsenonApr 4, 2010

I find How to Read a Book really promising. It seems like it will provide a solid framework for reading for really deep learning.

I found so far, that I'm not a bad reader. Apparently I already master several of the techniques described. But anyway I find it very valuable to become much more consciously aware of my own reading abilities. And I definitely expect to improve my abilities from the study of the book.

Also I find the arguments and supporting explanations in the book so far of distinct value.

npsimonsonFeb 14, 2020

> I've been considering skimming through the whole things to get kind of a big picture of what the thing is and where I'm going and then going back a second time to catch then the details and experiment.

This is what they recommend in "How to Read a Book". First one is called "inspectional reading" and can be anything from a fifteen minute pre-reading to decide if it's the correct book to read, to a read-through without stopping to look things up, but make notes (especially of questions).

Second one is called analytical reading, and is much more focused on asking oneself questions about the book and how it covers it's topic. Very active reading.

I've often found it is helpful to go in the order they recommend, as you can often get all you need out of a book with an inspectional superficial reading. Sometimes you can eliminate a book via the pre-reading, but the ones that are valuable enough to justify an analytical reading are well worth it. In particular, I class books with questions or exercises very highly, as I retain much more information when I have to work through problems.

tannerbrockwellonJan 29, 2018

Pound's ABC of Reading[0] has been popular since its publication. I would inlcude Adler's How to Read a Book[1] as well. While these focus on literature, I think that there is a lot of overlap in technical and CS based writing. The primary disctinction would be that the later would be repeatable or implemented by the reader.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ABC_of_Reading
[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/How_to_Read_a_Book

0klonDec 16, 2019

I plan to reread a couple core works for myself. Of that list the ones that I’d recommend for others are:
Aurelius (trans. Martin Hammond)
Fear and Trembling
Man’s Search for Meaning
Tolstoy’s Confessions
Kundera’s The Art of the Novel

After doing a thorough reading of “How to Read a Book” I decided to try rereading a few books to pull more out of them.

I can’t recommend “How to Read a Book” enough - despite its anachronisms and glaring faults, it’s the only book I’ve found that has genuinely made me feel that I’ve not really read a single book in my life.

michaelmachineonSep 20, 2015

Check out How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler.

dredmorbiusonSep 1, 2019

I largely read nonfiction, largely to gain an understanding of questions or problems or methods. I'll read fiction for pleasure occasionally, and certainly have in the past. That's almost always far easier.

I read actively, and am a fan of Mortimer Adler's How to Read a Book, mentioned by others. The methods it describes are much as I'd developed on my own, though I've picked up a few pointers.

I consider books resources to aid in an inquiry. I've an idea of the questions I'm interested in, and exploring the development, presentation, and explorations of those questions guides what I read.

My "to read" pile is ... unmanageable. I've collected thousands of books and articles, which I consider not an obligation to read, but a pre-vetted resource to dig into in more depth. Bibliographies, footnotes, annotations, and references within works are very useful at turning up other works. Generally, my highest priority is on foundational works within a field, or revolutionary works which either break new ground or synthesize existing ideas into a new whole. As I've studied, I've found myself generally less interested in the most recent material -- it's often far less substantive than earlier works, much rehashes older concepts (with or without credit or reference), though sometimes in the context of some contemporary crisis or issue. (Much of HN's submissions and discussion fall into this class.)

Cultivating my own discipline to work through material I've alreday surfaced is difficult, though I've at least skimmed through a reasonably large share. Tools for organising and managing a large personal research library are sadly lacking, and progress toward realising the dream outlined by Vannevar Bush in his Memex, or Ted Nelson's Project Xanadu, has been sadly disappointing.

I'm actively looking for tips at improving my tools and methods. Reducing the reading pile being a principle objective.

01aac5fcf3c89onDec 27, 2018

> You were trying to flip through multiple pages quickly-- as in you went in with an intent to 'surf the web capriciously' and not with an intent of really reading the book. I'm sorry that initial mindset to glance through headlines quickly will have a significant impact on your overall reading experience when it comes to books.

If you are going to design e-readers, you should read Mortimer Adler's How to Read a Book. Leafing through a book and jumping back in forth is a very important part starting to get into a book, and it is the only way to accurately decide whether you actually want to read a book or not.

TeMPOraLonAug 2, 2013

> But I think we're talking past each other because you want to make a pedantic point.

I guess that's true.

The flavour of "code vs. data" discussion in this thread was one of representation formats. You could argue that when looking at works of art from past centuries one should immediately say "data!" [0]. But in case of JSON, a format suspiciously almost identical to Lisp in structure, one needs to be careful in saying "it's for data, not for code".

Actually, I'm not sure what kind of point I'm trying to make, as the more I think of it, the more examples of things that are borderline code/data come to my mind. Cooking recipes is the obvious candidate, but think about e.g. music notation - it clearly feels more like "code" than "data".

I feel that you could define a kind of difference between "code" and "data" other than in intent, something that could put bitmaps into the "data" category, and a typical function into "code" category, but I can't really articulate it. Maybe there's some mathematical way to describe it, but it's definitely a blurry criterion. But when we're discussing technology, I think it's harmful to pretend that there's a real difference. Between configuration files looking like half-baked Lisp listings and "declarative style" C++ that looks like datasets with superfluous curly braces, I think it's wrong to even try to draw a line.

[0] - there's a caveat though. "How to Read a Book" by Mortimer Adler[1] discussess briefly how the task of a poet is to carefully chose words that evoke particular emotional reactions in readers. It very much sounds like scripting the emotional side of the human brain.

[1] - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/How_to_Read_a_Book

dredmorbiusonJan 15, 2020

That problem, and the problem of finding quality information, is precisely what's driven multiple information rationalisers.

It's a sentiment I first had on entering my uni library and its 3 million or so volumes, recognising I'd never be able to access more than a tiny fraction of them. The limits of human information processing are formidable.

Mortimer Adler's How to Read a Book inspires me, perhaps, to try to attempt "How to Read 10,000 books", that being a sustained rate of 150 books a year over about 65 years, or one every two days or so. The answer would have to involve not reading much of them, as well as other techniques.

You can find the sentiments in Ecclesiastes ("Much study is a weariness of the flesh, and of the making of books there is no end."), Seneca, Diderot (his commentary on information overload is a classic), Schopenhauer, and many more.

The notion that a better bibliographic control can solve the problem is a compelling and attractive one, but also ... at odds with actual experience. It's a possiblity I'm pursuing myself (how I happened to come across Otlet), though the problems he encountered, of creating, maintaining, sustaining, and using the index, seem formidable.

With the rise of the World Wide Web and search engines, the approach has generally been toward full-text search combined with a measure of reputational assessment, rather than topical or semantic assessment, though multiple (mostly abortive) attempts at a semantic Web have been made.

My thought is that a hybrid approach combining elements, but not obsessing over the purity of any one method, might be an improvement.

dredmorbiusonOct 21, 2019

The concept here shares much (and probably pales next to) Mortimer Adler's How to Read a Book:


If you're going through a lot of material, the ability to rapidly assess quality vs. unrewarding content, and then rapidly extract as much value from that quality content as possible, is extremely useful.

An HN perennial, FWIW: https://hn.algolia.com/?q="how%20to%20read%20a%20book" See particularly discussion here: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=12209446

And yes, there's the notion of reading simply for pleasure, in which case, for quality writing, time is its own reward.

arstinonAug 3, 2017

Yea it can be. But really depends on both the book and the reader. And what you're trying to get out of it.

Some readers are excruciatingly slow, so 1.25 just makes them sound normal. Other readers speed along, so 1x is like 1.5x on other books.

Some books need to be played at 1x if you're gonna follow the intricacies. Others with neither dense logical argument or thick, nuanced soul, like bestseller nonfictions where you have a sequence of little stories to illustrate "what studies have shown", can profitably be listened to quite fast, especially when also allaying their boringness with a Geometry Wars or Kingdom Rush addiction. (You might say, why read them then? Personally: as an excuse to play Kingdom Rush.)

If I'm not too into a part I'll even go faster than 2x to pick up the gist unto it catches my interest again.

Really, it's just like normal reading. Any displined reader has different speeds depending on the how much time the material is worth (Adler's How to Read a Book gives a nice model).

karatestomponMay 12, 2020

> That sounds a lot like a post-facto apologist slant.

Uh, no. Lots of them definitely rely on knowing who the monks are, their reputations, and their relationships to one another. And other facts about the world in which they occur ("Three pounds of flax!"). One is not even going to get at the interesting parts of them without that. Lots will come off as gibberish or as confusing in ways that they are not intended to be without that context.

> Sure you can 'explain them' but everybody hears them where their mind is at now.

It's not about explaining them, it's about the coming-to-terms phase of reading from How to Read a Book. Even smart folks would probably have a bad time approaching a graduate-level math text book without a little context so they get where it's even starting from and understand the references and vocabulary that the book was written assuming the reader would already have.

dredmorbiusonMay 22, 2019

There is information which is readily transmitted through non-experiential means: tacit knowledge. Books, lectures, conversations.

There is information that must be experienced, drilled, and committed to habit and muscle memory: tacit knowledge. Drill, practice, experiment, coaching. Often 1:1 or at least 1:few.

It's highly arguable that individual knowledge does not become cultural knowledge until a means of transmitting it from one generation to the next becomes both established on institutionalised. It need not be a large institution, but it must have persistence.

Within any knowledge domain, the explicit knowledge transmits more readily than the tacit. With time and complexity, I suspect a situation much analogous to Amdahl's law is reached, in which generational knowledge transfer comes to be dominated by the tacit component -- it is harder, slower, and more expensive to transmit, and tends to irreducibility.

Technical cultures which become or incorporate a tradition of shared stories and lore, as Unix and Linux have done, seem to achieve this better than others.

And that neglects issues of semantic and cultural drift which affect written texts.

Though I'd come to this conclusion some years ago, I'm finding reading Mortimer J. Adler's How to Read a Book that this is a significant theme of that work.


npsimonsonFeb 25, 2013

It's funny this comes up here and now, as I am working through "How to Read a Book", which was in one of the recommended reading threads on HN recently. In HtRaB, they talk a little about speed reading, but dismiss it as mainly something that can help bring someone up to speed, ie, it is mainly helpful in a remedial sense. I think the commentary with comprehension is quite cogent (it's precisely why I'm reading HtRaB), and so therefore the discussion should turn to what to read, since time is limited. Again, I am grateful to previous threads on HN for pointing out good reads, and feel that a more considered approach to how time is spent (both in what is chosen to be done and how well it is done), rather than in how quickly something is done is most beneficial.

absconditusonJune 19, 2009

You may want to read How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren.


criddellonDec 16, 2019

How to Read a Book has been on my list for the longest time. I might have to finally give it a go. Is the book very dense? I think one of the reasons I've held off is because I have a suspicion that it could probably be distilled down to the length of a magazine article...

I read a decent amount and enjoy it, but I feel in the end I don't get much from it. The time doesn't feel well spent. FWIW, I try to alternate fiction with non-fiction.

ludwigvanonSep 30, 2010

For the brave enough who wants to get better at reading, I can recommend (see Disclaimer below) Mortimer Adlers' "How to Read a Book" ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/How_to_Read_a_Book ). In the book, he talks about how to read a book properly (in summary, as suggested in the article, read TOC first, take notes, become active etc.) and the books one should read from the Western culture. Britannica sells the compilation with the title "Great Books of the Western World". (I am not in US, so excuse me if this is just common knowledge there, and many houses in US are filled with this collection.)

Disclaimer: Unfortunately, although I liked the book, I have been unable to apply the methods he suggested, due basically to "leaning".

eswatonAug 15, 2016

I haven’t fully read How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler, which is likely to be referenced in another comment, but I do something that’s referenced in that book: syntopical reading.

When I read stuff I usually grab a few books on the same subject and read through them, using a mix of ebooks, physical books and audiobooks, so I can fill in dead time in different contexts with reading something on the same topic. I’m able to compare the ideas of the books and that seems to collate them better in my head.

Other than that I’ve given up and consciously trying speed reading tricks like using peripheral vision to read or reading stuff one word at a time. I’m sure there’s more gains for those techniques but I just don’t have the patience to put them in muscle memory at this point.

temo4kaonAug 31, 2019

It has been already mentioned in comments, Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book is the book for you. It treats reading as learning and the authors’ goal is to teach you how to read expository works with the aim of understanding by actively /and/ skillfully engaging with the material.

You’ll learn how to discover, interpret and judge books, and how to not waste time on poorly written books or those that don’t contain much substance. The core of the book is part 2: the rules of analytical reading, which are general rules applicable to expository works. Part 3 then discusses their modifications for particular types of literature: practical books, history, philosophy, science, social science, fiction.

Highly recommend it. You don’t want to miss it if you’re serious about reading, that is thinking, growing, educating and enriching yourself.

shannifinonSep 9, 2020

I'm not sure the article's title quite reflects its point, which is that the amount one reads is not by itself a very useful measure of anything; better to focus on what you're reading, why you're reading, and how you're reading. A better title might be: "The amount you read doesn't matter... as much as other factors" ... or something.

Some random thoughts:

1) Indeed many nonfiction books are full of fluff and filler. While there's a completionist in me that wants to read every word and finish all books started, I'm now in the more useful habit of skimming and reading the few chapters that interest me. I've been intrigued to see services like Blinklist that summarize the main points, and sometimes I think even those have too much fluff. Sometimes I grab my notebook to take notes only to find there's not much to take note of. But I confess, perhaps up to 95% of the nonfiction I read is ends up being forgotten because it's just not all that useful to me (more useful is just knowing where I can find the info later if needed).

(Although there are quite a few books, like Taleb's books, that have changed the way I think about and see the world, but I don't remember the details and wouldn't be great at giving a worthy summary of them; I'd just recommend the book.)

2) This topic reminds me of Mortimer Adler's book "How to Read a Book"; although I don't remember all his specific syntax, it really encouraged me to be more self-conscious about my reasons for reading.

goostavosonSep 22, 2020

How To Read A Book is just crazy good. It's on the very small list of books that had a distinct "before and after" effect on my thinking. I read it in my early 20s and it is still at the top of my mind while I read a decade later.

Only update I'd make to those suggestions is moving writing from the margins to external notes. I'd lose so many notes, interesting quotes, or "to look into" things to the margins once I closed the book. Centralizing everything makes it much easier to search for past notes, find related ones, or just completely retrace the skeleton of a book at a glance.

Also, if you read that book in public, get ready for a deluge of strangers making the exact same joke about reading a book about how to read a book.

kieckerjanonMay 28, 2021

By this standard I am a terribly unsophisticated reader. The majority of the books in my home I did not finish. I used to feel terribly guilty about it. Still do sometimes, but two things helped to ease my unease.

Firstly, I started reading short stories more than novels. A short story can usually be read in one sitting and no-one thinks a collection should be read cover to cover.

Secondly, I realized that most non-fiction is (a) badly written and (b) can be read in a non-linear fashion. Just scan the table of contents and dip into the chapters that catch your attention. Skim first and read closely only if convinced. Use the index for cross referencing. Take notes for extra points.

Oh, and read How To Read A Book, by Mortimer J. Adler.

asharkonNov 20, 2016

For most technical, scientific, and mathematic topics, it's usually very easy to find the next best book to read with a google search or two. Starting on or strengthening long-forgotten Calculus? Probably get Spivak. Et c. This might get tougher as you approach a field's state-of-the-art, but by then "what to read next" will often come from a journal, not a book.

Literature and verse? Harold Bloom's western canon list, whatever its faults, is pretty damn good and could keep one busy for a lifetime. If you want to mix in more works by e.g. women or more asian works or whatever, there are very good lists for that, too:


(above includes Bloom's list)

Want to learn science and math from classics? The list from How to Read a Book should help, and St. John's College's reading list is public: https://www.sjc.edu

For a given topic, there's often a subreddit with a decent reading list in the FAQ.

Which topic(s) are you having trouble with?

boneitisonDec 29, 2019

Just got done reading Adler's How to Read a Book a few days ago.

Recommend: Ward Farnsworth.

Apparently some law school dean who has written some books on law, none of which I have read. I personally just picture him more as a classicist.

His grasp on English writing knocks me off my feet. It is seriously something to behold.

His book on explaining chess tactics (also available online free[0]) is an absolutely amazing display of effective communication in writing.

In another writing style, he has three books[1][2][3] and apparently an upcoming fourth[4] where he presents an idea/concept, cites meaningful examples in the wild of their use, and provides his own commentary to touch up on his chosen topics. They make for delightful reading.

[0]: chesstactics.org
[1]: Farnsworth's Classical English Rhetoric
[2]: Farnsworth's Classical English Metaphor
[3]: The Practicing Stoic: A Philosophical User's Manual
[4]: Farnsworth's Classical English Style

nekopaonApr 26, 2010

I am definitely an info addict, but I have been working on turning that into being a knowledge addict instead. I've been trying for ~2 months, and so far here is what I am doing:

First I have set up an intense learning regime for myself, my first 'semester' is on the basics in a lot of different subjects. (math, physics, nutrition, fitness, programming theory, gardening, writing, photography, chemistry, taoism, buddhism, carpentry and a few others)

Second I have worked up a basic triage system for dealing with all of the information that I have flowing to me: 1st off is it of interest or not, is yes then why? For entertainment or for knowledge? If it is for entertainment then I will read it if I have accomplished my learning goals for the day, if not, oh well, into the trash. If its for knowledge then does it apply to one of my learning topics? If not, then bookmarked for a rainy day or another semester.

For the stuff that applies to one of my current learning topics I apply the methodology from "How to read a book" (recommended to me by someone here, and I strongly recommend it to anyone who wants to read to go from "understanding less to understanding more") and scan it to see if and where it has a place in my learning network/schedule, then put it into my learning tracking database for integration into this or a later semester depending on how it fits.

Its been an interesting couple of months, and I will start blogging about how this process is coming along. After a bit of a wobbly start, and a hard time finding good resources on how to make self-guided learning more efficient I am starting to see good progress in my learning, feel more comfortable with my online consumption and am really starting to make some progress on my start-up ideas and just my life in general.

colechristensenonApr 2, 2018

The Audible client has a speed factor built in to it's client. The problems you describe easily go away at about 1.3x for me, and I can listen considerably faster if I'm not interested in 100% retention (some books are worth skimming, others worth reading, and a select few are worth studying)

As an aside I highly recommend reading "How to Read a Book". I don't recommend studying every detail, there is a lot in there I don't think is particularly valuable, but some of it really shifted how I thought about and approached reading.

oldsklgdfthonMay 10, 2021

If you want to get the most out of the books you read, even partially read, it might worth examining a specific strategy.

Specifically, How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler describes how one should approach reading a book. I find that even the Wikipedia entry is useful.


JachonMay 19, 2011

Go read How to Read a Book. The second level of reading is about skimming, picking up the general point of something, then deciding if it's worth a careful, analytical (and perhaps synoptic) reading. I don't think this article deserves it, so I didn't give it the full time to read everything, and since I've read other stuff in this area before, I think the bullet points really do sum it up.

deregulateMedonJuly 6, 2021

Thinking of Mortimer Adler's How To Read A Book...

Self Help is either a How To book or Philosophy?

Both have quite a bit of value to the individual. Even as the author describes this as feeding the business machine, both self help and philosophy can make you aware when this is happening.

I read these genres and can see clearly why my boss was told to repeat company statements. I sit back and witness corporate propaganda/marketing and am aware they are coming for my brain.

Without self help and philosophy, would I be hacked into mindless compliance?

npsimonsonApr 7, 2014

It's been said before[1] and I'll say it again: some things aren't worth your full reading attention. Heck, even if they were, you don't have enough time to read everything[2].

That being said, I am a little worried that people (at least myself) aren't getting as "deep" into topics as they might have used to. I try to solve this by (very carefully!) picking books that I can slowly digest, over multiple readings. If nothing else, just reading them at the inspectional and superficial levels can help me decide whether I need to go back for more.

[1] - See "How to Read a Book"

[2] - https://what-if.xkcd.com/76/

lemonberryonJune 25, 2020

Good article.

He mentions the book "How to Read a Book". I've read Mortimer Adler's version several times. It really changed how I read and learn from books. It's well worth the investment. I haven't read the Mortimer & Van Doren version.

I've found that doing the inspectional reading really helps. I've described it to friends as "giving me something to hang my hat on" while reading. Having the high level overview acts as a conceptual glue while reading a book through for the first time.

I think it was Naval Ravikant on an episode of Tim Ferriss' podcast that described reading as the "meta skill". If you can read you can learn just about anything.

Back to "How to Read a Book": Adler makes a distinction between able to read, e.g., "See Jack run", and learning from reading. I believe he describes 4 levels. The first, the ability to read, leading to the last, reading from multiple sources to learn. It's unfortunate that our ( U.S. ) educational system doesn't emphasize this much, or at all.

billswiftonJan 12, 2011

It depends on why the book is hard. Sometimes it's just sloppy thinking and writing; sometimes it is an inherently hard subject. It isn't always clear when starting which it is so it is useful, if you start having trouble to compare the one you are reading with another on the same subject.

For reading that is inherently difficult, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren give some very helpful information in How to Read a Book. Unfortunately it is not an easy read itself.

Another book I found helpful was A Time to Learn by Phillip Bandt, Naomi Meara, and Lyle Schmidt. It has some really good ideas on diagramming complex work to help you understand them, especially how their ideas fit together.

tmalyonOct 28, 2020

I really like writing down summaries of key items I extract from the book in a short form that is easy to review.

There are several articles I have seen on HN over the last few months that may be helpful


I prefer to use 3 sheets of paper over an app in this case. But I think it would be useful to digitize your notes.


I like this method, it reminds me of the classic book How to Read a Book

mklonMar 22, 2015

> Try to comprehend something on every read through - it doesn't have to be big, just something - whether it is the sample makeup or part of the methodology or the conclusions etc. You don't need to understand these in any particular order, but ensure to revise your understanding as you become more familiar with the paper.

Lately I've been reading "How to Read a Book" by Adler and van Doren [1], which systematises this. It applies to papers just as well as books. Get the 1972 edition, as the 1940 edition is quite a bit less readable.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/How_to_Read_a_Book

josephkernonMar 20, 2013

> There was an actual book called How to Read a Book published in the 1940s. It focused almost entirely on non-fiction and encouraged the reader to analyze everything ad nauseam. In case you hadn't guessed, this essay is exclusively about fiction (never let mere accuracy get in the way of a good title) and advocates entirely the opposite approach.

No it advocates the entirely SAME approach.

I think if the OP had actually read "How to Read a Book", the OP might have found that there are some excellent techniques presented, and the authors make a very clear definition between reading for enjoyment and reading for education.

It is one thing to read a single novel for pleasure, quite another to survey all available literature on a subject and to figure out what has not yet been written.

Perhaps if the OP had actually read the book ...

npsimonsonJune 2, 2013

I try to do this with any technical book I read, and summarize things in an org-mode outline in Emacs while I read. It helps to have a bookstand (the BookGem is nice). Combine this with advice from "How to Read a Book" and follow the guidelines from "Pragmatic Programmer" of at least one technical book every three months, and it makes for a wealth of handy notes and better retention.

Another big helper (which works well when you're already in Emacs), is to type in and test code examples, and force yourself to solve/work all the exercises/problems given.

A couple of last things to look up: the PQ4R strategy and SQ3R strategy. I've heard these are taught in England; I really wish they would teach it here in the states early in public school.

absconditusonJune 18, 2009

While I agree with your opinion of the submitted list, I feel your list is a bit unbalanced. Why only math, science and economics?

A few random suggestions:

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius


How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren


Building a Bridge to the 18th Century by Neil Postman


smalltownguyonDec 27, 2009

Mortimer Adler's "How to Read a Book" is worth reading. I used to laugh at it, but I could have used it before going to college.

Of course, there is the irony of having to read it. Plop down at a local Barnes and Noble or Borders and read the introduction. If they don't have a copy have them order it for you. There's no requirement to buy.

afarrellonMar 19, 2019

> “How to Read a Book

I’d seen that book a while ago but not picked it up. I’m now going to. Thanks!

> formulating hypotheses and questions

I think this reduces to “how do you keep those hypotheses organized?” which sounds kinda like the problem of “How do I write an outline?”

> Compare and contrast a similar project

This makes sense to me for web apps. Less so for a package manager.

I suppose that means the questions splits off into lots of domain-specific quesions like, “what should I pay attention to when reading a RESTful service?” “What should I pay attention to when reading a package manager?” Etc.


For a RESTful service, I would recommend first getting and idea of the core models from the API docs and then from reading structure.sql or models.py or whatever holds the relationships among tables. Draw an entity-relationship diagram on a big piece of paper of the important models.

Then, try and trace the path of a web request from the outside in through middlewares to the controller then to rendering and back out again.

jonnybgoodonMay 6, 2017

The game changer for me was actually learning how to read a book. I no longer approach books the same way after having read How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler [1]. Once you have a method down, you can go through books rather quickly and retain knowledge. My biggest epiphany is that you don't need to read a book in its entirety to know all that it has to say.

[1] https://www.amazon.com/How-Read-Book-Intelligent-Touchstone/...

jkkrameronDec 23, 2008

I would be more inclined to do this if the book is non-technical. When you commit to reading a technical book, you're committing yourself to more than just the time spent reading: you're committing yourself to the time spent applying and fully understanding what you read -- installing tools, tinkering with syntax, coding, and so on. I've got enough of that now.

With non-technical books (literature, history, quality-of-life), most of the time will be invested into actual reading, with a bit of pondering and maybe discussing. We can have a conversation right away, and there's still knowledge and insight to be gained.

Here are some non-technical books I'd like to read:

* How to Read a Book - http://amazon.com/dp/0671212095

* Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion - http://amazon.com/dp/006124189X

* Liar's Poker - http://amazon.com/dp/0140143459

* Growing a Business - http://amazon.com/dp/0671671642

tygoriusonAug 16, 2010

Your thesis seems rather a reach to me. Socratic dialogues are a sequential form -- earlier points lay the groundwork for later ones, for example.

I'm not an expert on the ancient Greeks, but the last I heard there wasn't much evidence of a written language during the Greek Dark Ages. But to jump from what we know of Greek culture from written remnants (plays and poetry) it would seem to place a great deal of emphasis on "linearity".

Take the Method of Loci used to, ahem, memorize the "linear" points of a speech or argument. While it's true that you can access points at random, that doesn't take away from the fact that they are staged and memorized in a specific order for presentation.

Bottom line, I think you're accepting the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis uncritically. It seems so reasonable, but when you get down to specifics -- like the actual number of words for snow in English and Innuit -- it just doesn't pan out. Similarly, I think anyone who's read Adler and Van Doren's pre-Internet "How to Read a Book" would scoff at Carr's notion that books can't be an interactive medium. People can be mentally lazy using any media.

agigaoonJuly 13, 2018

Going through:

* Faust - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

* How To Read a Book - Mortimer J. Adler

* Python Machine Learning 2nd Edition - Sebastian Raschka

* Economics 19e - Samuelson/Nordhaus

Next in line:

* The Sleepwalkers - Hermann Broch

* The Will to Power - Friedrich Nietzsche

* Oxford Handbook of Business and Government - David Coen(and other dozens of lecturers)

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