How to read long, difficult books

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2020/01/09/steelmanning-and-reflecting.html

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Plan B - wait for neural implant technology to develop.

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  1. Have insane amounts of time and energy available to you.
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Not bad advice, though good luck using it to read Finnegan’s Wake!

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This is apparently aimed at college students taking the course, so consider this instructions on how to do your semester long homework assignment. It’s not how I’d approach a work like Gravity’s Rainbow.

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Matushak’s essay gives the time to read difficult books at ~1 minute per page. Of course you can’t digest complicated ideas that fast; I can barely read light novels that fast.
The short answer is just that you have to take the time and effort to really think through the ideas.

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Nobody has read Gravity’s Rainbow!

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In short, read it twice?

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tl;dr

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step 2: get into the mindset of someone the book is oriented at. ::becomes smug about being the type of person who would read Finnegan’s Wake::

(/s, I’m sure it’s a great book but despite liking much of his other writing it’s not for me at this time.)

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I was expecting something helpful until I got to step 3, “Read through the book”.

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Tried like hell, I did.

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Excuse me?

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Right, so my 4 and 7 year olds probably aren’t going to get Piketty, so that leaves my partner. I think I can expect divorce papers in 3-4 weeks.

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The Marx and Smith are LONG books. The Keynes isn’t short. I would bet students aren’t reading these books. At best they’re reading 50% of them. In my experience, professors have some crazy ideas about how students do/can read. I know I was asked on a Tuesday to read The Phenomenology of the Spirit for Thursday’s class. Even as a grad student, what was unreasonable. Books like these take time.

And this “read it twice, once from an accepting and once from a critical perspective” advice is, well, to think that this is somehow new or helpful is just silly.

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That is just cruel, and should be illegal.

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“You take the bus to and from campus every day, right? Well, you’re not doing anything productive at that time, are you?”

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Sounds like advice from one of those scholar-teachers who never bothered to learn much about effective teaching, and instead pitches everything to the best one or two students in class.

Which can be good for those one or two, but the rest? They just feel intimidated or alienated, at best, and certainly not encouraged to do all of the reading, let alone doing it this thoroughly.

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Maybe it was a “semester long homework assignment” or maybe, like my English professors, he assumed you would read them all in the first month and section off the syllabus based on arguments rather than by book. While you had 4 other professors doing the exact same thing such that you actually have literally no time to do anything other than read in September or January.

Another way to put this advice: read a summary of the book elsewhere to situate yourself, skim it, condense its arguments, confirm your condensing to be accurate on a re-skim and/or subject it to a closer reading, force someone else to listen to your condensing, then finally judge whether it’s bullshit.

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To be fair, the three books in question could be read over the course of a semester by themselves, and possibly should be to fully digest them. Smith and Marx especially so, since they are books written a while ago. And Das Kapital is dense, dense reading.

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