Gus Cuddy | Essays:

How to learn better, part one: reading

16 November 2018

This is a thing I wrote a while back on how to learn better.

I’m going to turn it into a series because there’s some good stuff here and it’s been sitting on my computer for too long.

I did not finish college, but I consider my “skill” of self-learning to be one of my greatest assets. Education is a lifelong thing. So that’s what this series is about.

Part one is on the most important skill: reading.

How to read more

What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.

–Carl Sagan

You can learn a lot from the internet. It’s a phenomenal resource. Wikipedia is amazing. Google is amazing. The internet is amazing.

But books are the OG educational resource, and still the best. They are the building blocks of education.

Why? Generally, they are better researched, more thorough, better written, and more well-rounded than the internet.

But they also require effort to get the most out of.

Shallow thinking — most, but not all, of the internet — will get you to a certain place. But at a certain point, you need to drain the shallows, and put in the effort to jump in and do the deep work necessary to learn.

So when in doubt, read a book.

Books can’t do it alone. They are just the blocks: you may be able to stack them high, but you need some cement and accessories to make sure they stick and make them into something nice. Lectures, mentors, travel, and other experiences can do that, cementing in that knowledge.

But you start with books. You always start with books.

What follows is some techniques on how to read more, how to choose the books you read, how to read better, how to read faster, and how to learn more.

The First Rule: Thou Shalt Follow Curiosities and Quit Boring Books

It’s a funny thing. As kids, we always follow our curiosity. We look under rocks, ask questions, roll in the mud, make stupid mistakes. There is a roughness to it. At a certain point in our lives, it’s as if we have decided we have learned it all, and there’s no reason to follow our curiosity anymore. (Institutionalized education surely doesn’t help.)

This is bullshit, and a limiting mindset. Instead, we need to re-learn how to follow our curiosities. If a subject looks interesting to you, dive in. Want to learn about a 19th-century painter? Go for it. Stop limiting yourself.

And then there’s the flip side of this, and that’s that you shouldn’t be afraid to quit. Let me explain.

When following our curiosity, we may end up in the middle of something that we just don’t enjoy. Maybe it’s a book or a film. At this point, don’t fall into the sunk cost fallacy. Don’t think that just because you’ve read 100 pages you have to finish it. Just quit.

It’s a really simple concept but it’s absolutely essential for learning. The number one reason people don’t read books is because it feels like a chore. If for some reason you’re not enjoying something, QUIT. This is deep work, but it’s also supposed to be FUN. As your reading skills develop, you may find you’re enjoying more and more things. But that might not be the case in the beginning. Instead, you should priortize momentum. Read what you love until you love to read. As soon as you pause and have even a small mental barrier of picking up a book you’re not particularly finding enjoyable because you have this weird sense of duty, that’s a red flag. It means quit, at least for now. You can always come back to it later.

The Second Rule: Thou Shalt Read Multiple Books at Once

This may be a bit controversial.

Somewhere along the way someone came up with this idea that you should only read one book at a time. This is commonly touted advice on how to read. Don’t read multiple books at the same time, you’ll confuse them!

How condescending. While this may be somewhat true of fiction (I don’t mind juggling a couple long fiction books, though once I get addicted to one I tend to plow through), reading multiple books at once is an excellent way to make serendipitous connections between books and expand your web of knowledge.

Some people may scoff at this. They may think I’m a lunatic. But really, the point is that there are no rules (see the next rule). Don’t let the fear of starting multiple books stop you from picking up an interesting book.

Look at Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution, one of the most voracious readers on the internet. Do you think he’s reading one book at a time? He’s sampling from a whole lot at once.

Naval Ravinkant looks at books like blogs. Since he keeps them on his kindle he actually just will start reading wherever, skim sections, and read what he wants. This is a trick that keeps you reading. There is no “right” way to read a book.

The Third Rule: Thou Shalt Read However the Hell Thou Wants

Break out of the school mindset. Stop thinking of books like things to be read word for word from beginning to end.

If you want to ruin the ending, go for it. If you want to skip a chapter, be my guest. Or if you want to read a book backwards, from the middle, upside down, in the shower…it doesn’t matter.

You like audiobooks instead of regular books? Great. Paper over kindle? That’s fine. There is no one right way.

I like paper books a lot. I like their feel, I like their smell, I like that holding them I feel their inherent value, and I like writing in their margins. But I’m absolutely fine reading on my kindle too, which I also love. When I travel, I exclusively read books on my kindle or even (gasp!) just my phone. The convenience factor cannot be beat. In fact, I actually read like 50% of Infinite Jest on my iPhone, which probably makes many lit-bros cringe. Whatever.

Personally, I do not like audiobooks. I just can never seem the right time to listen to them to give them the focus they need. But I know many people swear by them.

The point is, if it gets you reading then GREAT, do it.

The Fourth Rule: Thou Shalt Read Both Fiction and Non-Fiction and Also Poetry

A lot of people have a bias towards one or more of these genres. Literature snobs might scoff at reading a pop-sci non-fiction book, whereas a lot of weirdo internet people seem to think all you need to read is non-fiction because THAT’S WHERE THE FACTS ARE.

If you want to get the most out of books, you should be reading widely: fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. I’ll admit I don’t read enough poetry as I would like, but whenever I do I am swept away and my life enriched. Fiction has a similar enriching effect, and can give tremendous insight into truths of the human condition in ways that non-fiction cannot. In the same way, reading non-fiction widely will help you be smarter.

Think of your “knowledge” like a beautiful web of trenches. In a way, non-fiction is akin to the digging of these trenches far and wide. But fiction and poetry – that’s what makes the water run through them.

The Fifth Rule: Thou Shalt Always Be Reading

If you want to read more, you need to read a lot.

A lot of people look for a hack. Surely, this speed reading trick that I can learn in 2 minutes will make me read 500% faster!

There is no hack. The hack is read more. The hack is always be reading.

How do you do that? Always carry a book with you. Get a kindle if that’s your style. In free time – even for just a minute – read a book. When you’re waiting in line instead of opening Facebook, open the kindle app. When you’re using the bathroom, read a book. When you’re eating. Instead of watching TV. When you’re bored. In the morning. Before bed. All these times add up. Before you know it, you’re reading for 1-2 hours per day, which is a good goal.

Keep a log of every book you’ve read. It will inspire you. And always have a massive list of books you want to read. This is called an anti-library.

The great thing with reading a lot is that it makes you read even more. Once you get the ball rolling and get some momentum, you won’t be able to stop. You get addicted to reading.

The Sixth Rule: Thou Shalt Read Actively

Okay, I lied. I know I said before that there was no “right” way to read.

That’s only half-true. See, there is a wrong way to read a book. And that’s with complete dis-interest and passivity. (Rule number one is always relevant: quit books that bore you.)

The point of reading is to get something out of it. And in order to do that, you need to put something into it.

Reading is not a passive activity. It is an active one. I think it’s best to be engaging with the text, making connections, re-reading passages, speaking some things out loud, highlighting or taking notes.

Here are my 4 golden rules for active reading:

Four Golden Rules for Active Reading

  1. Get in the zone.
  2. Highlight, take notes, index. Or don’t.
  3. Re-read.
  4. Always make connections. Think wide and deep.

Let’s walk through them.

Get in the Zone

Reading is deep work. Do whatever it takes to get you in the zone. If you’re distracted with your phone buzzing and people talking to you, you’re probably not going to be able to focus n the text. Your eyes will skim over words but you won’t actually be actively reading.

Put on some ambient or classical music, if that helps. Lock yourself in a tiny room. Turn your phone on Do Not Disturb, Airplane mode, or just put it in another room. Go to the library. Get in a comfy chair (not too comfy). Focus on just reading. Block off a period of time where you’re just going to do that and then resist the urge to do anything else.

Highlight, take notes, index. Or don’t.

This is something you’re going to need to discover for yourself. A lot of people have varying opinions on the effectiveness of highlighting books and how to properly engage with the text.

But the point here is to actively engage with the text in whatever way you can. Write in the margins. Underline sentences. Dog-ear pages. Take notes. Write summaries. Whatever works.

Re-read

I will be honest, though: I find highlighting to have limited use for me.

While I used to adamantly keep a commonplace book, I’m not so disciplined about it anymore, as I find it doesn’t provide as much value as the work it takes to keep up. With the internet and kindle books I can often just search for the phrase or quote I am looking for if I need to do that,

What I find is that re-reading is one of the most single most underutilized principles of active reading. I will often re-read just a couple sentences or paragraphs, turning them over in my head. Sometimes I will re-read whole books. Great books deserve to be read and re-read, really devoured.

Make Connections

This is the most important part of active reading. You should always be making connections. How does Dostoevsky tangentially relate to Hayek, or Shakespeare? What do the principles of physics have to do with the principles of Buddhism? What does the fall of the Roman Empire have to do with the rise of Donald Trump?

The best way to get smarter is to always be expanding your web of knowledge through connections.

This is a good tweet storm on this subject, from Patrick O’Shaugnessy. (And some great additional notes on reading a lot.)