Write about what you read to internalize texts deeply

If you want to deeply internalize something you’re reading, the best way I know is to write about it:

For deep understanding, it’s not enough to just highlight or write marginalia in books: there isn’t much pressure to synthesize, connect, or to get to the heart of things. And they don’t add up to anything over time as you read more. Instead, write Evergreen notes as you read.

But of course, it doesn’t always make sense to read in this way: much of the time you’re not really trying to internalize the text deeply, and text may not be worthy of that much attention: The best way to read is highly contextual.

Also, it’s worth noting: The most effective readers and thinkers I know don’t take notes when reading. Speaking at least for myself, experience has suggested that I need more support to effectively engage with what I’m reading.

Method

Our broad approach is an alternating cycle:

  1. Collect passages that seem interesting and thoughts that emerge while reading: How to collect observations while reading
  2. Process clusters of those passages and thoughts into lasting notes:How to process reading annotations into evergreen notes

References

Luhmann, N. (1992). Communicating with Slip Boxes. In A. Kieserling (Ed.), & M. Kuehn (Trans.), Universität als Milieu: Kleine Schriften (pp. 53–61). Retrieved from http://luhmann.surge.sh/communicating-with-slip-boxes

It is impossible to think without writing; at least it is impossible in any sophisticated or networked (anschlußfähig) fashion.

Levy, N. (2013). Neuroethics and the Extended Mind. In J. Illes & B. J. Sahakian (Eds.), Oxford Handbook of Neuroethics (pp. 285–294). Oxford University Press.

Notes on paper, or on a computer screen … do not make contemporary physics or other kinds of intellectual endeavour easier, they make it possible.

Understanding requires effortful engagement

If you want to really understand an idea, you have to grapple with it.

You can’t just read something, listen to a lecture, or hear a notion in a conversation. You’ve got to wonder: where does this apply and where does it not? What are the implications? What are the assumptions? Whose view is represented here? What does this refute? etc.

As Stephen Kosslyn notably says,

The first maxim is “Think it through.” The key idea is very simple: the more you think something through, paying attention to what you are doing, the more likely you are to remember it.

This notion is a core idea of #e/constructivism, and it’s why transmissionism doesn’t work.

And Schopenhauer:

When we read, another person thinks for us: we merely repeat his mental process. … For the more one reads the fewer are the traces left of what one has read; the mind is like a tablet that has been written over and over. Hence it is impossible to reflect; and it is only by reflection that one can assimilate what one has read if one reads straight ahead without pondering over it later, what has been read does not take root, but is for the most part lost. Indeed, it is the same with mental as with bodily food: scarcely the fifth part of what a man takes is assimilated; the remainder passes off in evaporation, respiration, and the like.

Grant Sanderson (2019-11-28):

You need to make eye contact with the idea.


References

Kosslyn, S. M. (2017). The Science of Learning: Mechanisms and Principles. In S. M. Kosslyn & B. Nelson (Eds.), Building the Intentional University: Minerva and the Future of Higher Education (1 edition, pp. 149–164). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Schopenhauer, A. (2015). On reading and books. In C. Janaway (Ed.), & A. Del Caro (Trans.), Parerga and Paralipomena: Short Philosophical Essays (Vol. 2). https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781139016889 (Original work published 1851)

Collecting material feels more useful than it usually is

Accumulating tabs, saving PDFs, and making bookmarks feels like progress, but we systematically overrate its value. Understanding requires effortful engagement; you are not likely to draw much understanding from a folder of barely-skimmed PDFs.

We collect material because it’s easy, and because it quells the anxiety that we’ll never find what we’re looking at again. But really, we’re often just making things worse, burying important materials in tons of secondary matter we just “don’t want to lose.” This notion is in contrast to Knowledge work should accrete.

Christian Tietze suggests:

This is a first step to conquer Collector’s Fallacy: to realize that having a text at hand does nothing to increase our knowledge.

Instead, we should Write about what you read to internalize texts deeply, because Evergreen note-writing helps reading efforts accumulate. And to help steer ourselves effectively (contra Note-writing practices provide weak feedback), we should process collected materials in short iteration cycles, rather than letting them pile up for long periods.


References

The Collector’s Fallacy • Zettelkasten Method

Because ‘to know about something’ isn’t the same as ‘knowing something’. Just knowing about a thing is less than superficial since knowing about is merely to be certain of its existence, nothing more. Ultimately, this fake-knowledge is hindering us on our road to true excellence. Until we merge the contents, the information, ideas, and thoughts of other people into our own knowledge, we haven’t really learned a thing. We don’t change ourselves if we don’t learn, so merely filing things away doesn’t lead us anywhere.

Just like photocopying is self-rewarding and addictive, I argue that we fall into the same trap of false comfort when we bookmark web pages and sort the bookmarks into folders or tagged categories. Bookmarking a web page is satisfying because we get rid of the fear of losing access to the information. I get into detail in another post .

This is a first step to conquer Collector’s Fallacy: to realize that having a text at hand does nothing to increase our knowledge. We have to work with it instead. Reading alone won’t suffice: we have to create notes, too, to create real, sustainable knowledge.

Especially when we start to research something new, Eco recommends we read and highlight texts right after we create copies. If we train ourselves to process photocopied texts soon, we get a feeling of how much we can really handle.

Shorter cycles of research, reading, and knowledge assimilation are better than long ones. With every full cycle from research to knowledge assimilation, we learn more about the topic. When we know more, our decisions are more informed, thus our research gets more efficient. If, on the other hand, we take home a big pile of material to read and process, some of it will turn out be useless once we finished parts of the pile.