On reading books

Francis Bacon’s words on reading books are worth memorising:

Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.

Of course, now the question is which book should fall in which category?

Redefining the notion of a book

Two months of failing to fulfill my reading goals towards the #100bookschallenge has made me rethink the purpose of taking up the challenge

Less than a decade ago, it was easy to recognise a book. It was anything that could be printed, bound and put on shelf of a library or a store. Now, though, things have gotten messy.  There are ebooks, Kindle singles, Atavist originals, Matter stories, and the list goes on.

In many parts of the world, digital has become the primary platform for the written word. The advantages are plenty and this trend towards digital is no surprise. But it disrupts how ideas get shared, and sharing ideas was the main reason for books to come into existence.

While it was with the classical definition of a book that I began my #100bookschallenge, the main reason behind taking up the challenge was to be able to learn about the greatest ideas out there. These are increasingly being communicated not just in books. A lot of the ideas are long conversations that have been running on a blog, or those that appear in longform writing/journalism like the New Yorker or The Economist’s special reports.

Thus I’m revising the definition of a (non-fiction) book that can count towards my challenge of 100 books. Apart from the classical definition, all pieces of writing that will fulfill all the conditions below can be counted towards my target:

  • Longform writing that has a clear-defined message or explores a topic in a significant amount of detail or has a central theme.
  • Has been written by a single author (‘classical’ books may have more than one author).
  • Is more than 10,000 words long as a single piece.
  • A series of blog posts won’t count if at least one of them is not close to 10,000 words long and explains the main idea of the series.
  • The writing should be so dense (full of ideas) that I cannot stop myself from writing a review of what I read.
  • (UPDATE) The work should be not just newsworthy ie it should still relevant and worth reading after, say, many months or sometimes years.

As to why just 10,000 words? Because it’s not too short and it feels like the right length to have a comprehensive look at a topic. I’m open to revising my definition, so please feel free to make suggestions.

Why memorising matters and what I’m doing about it

I hate rote learning as much as anyone can. My high school exams were a nightmare to prepare for. I detested the process of memorising facts, just so to vomit them out on an exam paper. So much so that I did not feature in the top few of my class till class 10. My teachers’ regular complain to my mum on open days at school was: “He has so much potential. He just needs to put in some efforts.”

The Indian education system made the words memorising and learning synonyms. Even during my days at one of the best engineering schools in India, I found that there were many who did much better than me because of their sheer ability to “maro ratta” (commit to memory). Ask them a critical question, one that doesn’t usually feature in an exam paper, and they would be clueless.

The UK school system is much less focused on memorising. A good portion of assessment is based on assignments done through the year. The US system, I get the impression from reading Moonwalking with Einstein, is quite opposed to memorising. I know that open-book university exams are quite common there. In the age of the Internet, it makes sense that rote learning is given as little attention as possible.

But memorising facts has an important role to play in almost all professions. For instance the more writing I do, the more I feel the need to be able to remember all the wonderful things that I read, just so that I am able to either cite them or use their ideas to develop new ones. Invention is a product of inventorying, as Joshua Foer explains.

To that end, I’ve decided that I need to take memorising seriously. So far I’ve been committing to memory without paying attention to how I do it. But as we know, to get good at something requires deliberate practice. So here is how I plan to do it henceforth.

Conceptopedia 

I’ve created my own private version of Wikipedia. It’s a google doc where I store all the information that I know related to a thing or an idea. I call it conceptopedia because, even though it’s mostly full of facts, it is a place where I externalise the memories that helped me understand a concept (hoping of course that in time I will internalise them enough to delete them from there). Example of how an entry looks: 

GM

– Science writer Mark Lynas delivered a speech in which he admitted that he made a mistake by starting the anti-GM movement. Apparently he had changed his mind much prior to the speech. He even wrote a book called The God Species praising GM in 2010.
– 1st traceable genetic modification is that from 10,000 years ago when Turkish farmers mutated the Q gene on chromosome 5A of wheat. (Ridley, WSJ, 2013)
– 50 years ago scientists irradiated the barley to create a high-yielding, low-sodium variety called “Golden Promise”. (Ridley, WSJ, 2013)
– 20 years ago scientists inserted specific sequences into rice plants to create a version that synthesises more vitamin A. They knew what letters to insert but no idea where they went. (Ridley, WSJ, 2013)
– Now precise, multiple editing of DNA is here claims Ridley. And it is being done by a private enterprise. (Ridley, WSJ, 2013)

Wherever possible, they are hyperlinked to where I got that piece of information from if I need to refer to it again. I know that this is going to be an exercise that might take quite a bit of my time, and I’m trying to build tools to make it easy. One way is to use Evernote’s Clipper add-on in Chrome (there is even an iPhone app, EverClip) to save important pieces of information with the right tags. Then once a week or so I go through the clipped bits and add them to the conceptopedia.

Mind maps

I chose to read Moonwalking with Einstein early on in my #100bookschallenge for a good reason. I want to ensure that I retain a lot more than I usually do from reading these fantastic 100 books. Normally, after a few months, I only have a vague idea of what the book was about. This time it has to be better than that.

As I wrote in the review of the book, the book gave me tools on how to remember to-do lists, phone numbers and the order in cards in a deck. Whereas what I was looking for was how to remember ideas. Foer subtly mentions that things that you often remember are things that you paid really careful attention to. If some fact blew your hat off, then you will remember it. You will also want to share it with someone which will only reinforce that memory.

mindmap

But not all facts are that amazing. So the alternative is to build mind maps. These can really work if done well, and I plan to find ways of making the most effective mind maps. The plan is to make a mind map of every article I write before writing it and of every book as I go along reading it. And of course I am planning to review each one, so that should help me synthesise that information in my head too.

What do you think about memorising? Are there any techniques you use to commit things to memory? Are there any tools for managing your notes that you would recommend?

Image from here.

 

Ten books in one month

100 books

I hadn’t heard about Aaron Swartz before his demise on January 11th. He was a brilliant chap: master computer programmer, co-founder of Reddit, activist for open data and much more. He was also just 26 years old.

After the news of his suicide, the web exploded with eulogies. Much was said about bullying by US prosecutors, openness of data and difficulties of dealing with depression, all of which contributed in someway to his suicide. But what stood out for me came mostly through Aaron’s own words. (His blog Raw Thought is a treasure trove and a great way of learning about him.)

One thing in particular stuck with me: his ability to read more than 100 books every year. (He dropped out of high school and that’s how he taught himself.) I want to do this. And I know managing that with a full-time job and my other writing work is going to be a hard thing to do. So I’ve decided to start by setting a goal of reading 10 books in the next 4 weeks. (This is a little more than the 2 books per week needed to make up 100 books per year.)

At first glance this seems like a difficult task given that previously I averaged about 1 or 2 books per month. But some simple calculations show that this is not a ridiculous aim. At an average size of 300 pages (70,000 words), I’m aiming to read 25,000 words per day. This means at an average reading speed of 200 words per minute, I will need just over two hours of reading time. Allowing for sometime for note-taking and breaks will make it 2.5-3 hours every day.

If I cut out watching TV and I read only the most essential things online, I should be able to do this. If I can do 10 books before February 24th and manage the rest of my life properly, I’ll extend this challenge to 100 books before January 27th, 2014.

With help of friends on Twitter and Facebook and my own reading list, I’ve compiled a list of 10 books that I am planning to read in the next four weeks:

  1. Breakout Nations by Ruchir Sharma
  2. The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean
  3. Erwin Schrödinger and the Quantum Revolution by John Gribbin
  4. The End of Science by John Horgan
  5. Genome by Matt Ridley
  6. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  7. Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer
  8. Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
  9. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
  10. Fabric of Reality by David Deutsch

If I find the book not worth my time, I will replace it with another one and update the list here. Although I doubt that this list of 10 will need any replacing. I will post a review of the book once I’ve read it (here and on Amazon). If you are keen to support me in this endeavour, you can buy me one of the books above. At present I only first 5 of them. Here is my Amazon wish list. (PS: email me if you need my address).

The #100bookschallenge starts now.

PS: I’m taking the average word count of a book as 70,000 because I am planning to read more non-fiction than fiction. Image from here.