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After the book: how to learn more, faster

Books don’t teach very well. Investing a little time can make your reading pay off more.

In a previous column, I argued that books do not teach us in the way that most people assume. Educator and software expert Andy Matuschak argues that “as a medium, books are surprisingly bad at conveying knowledge, and readers mostly don’t realise it”. Most people, including me, quickly forget what we read, because we don’t do the work to embed it in our minds.

If books often work badly, how should we learn? Matuschak says we must find better ways to encourage people to actively engage with the ideas and evidence being taught. He’s working on technologies to do that, through experiments like his ‘Quantum Computing for the Very Curious”’.

How to learn more, faster

  • Read distilled forms in areas that you want or need to know about – well-edited magazines, blogs and electronic summaries of all types. Long before the web arrived, I loved the magazine format because it forces writers to distil ideas to their most concise form – and to get to the point fast. The best blogs mostly follow this format too.
  • Takes notes on what you read, and review them. For online items that I want to remember, I try to summarise them online, or to excerpt their highlights. (I use the terrific Pinboard bookmarking service, but paper notes could do much of the job.) Then I aim to review those summaries within a few days. Repeated experiments have confirmed that remembering is all about practising recall, especially over the few days after we are first given new information. Recalling what you’ve learned over expanding intervals of time – known as spaced repetition – is the most reliable way to commit anything to long-term memory.
  • Use and even combine multiple media. An enormous number of subjects today have online summaries on YouTube; books generally have not only reviews online but also author interviews in a podcast somewhere. These effectively give you extra spaced repetition on a topic, while engaging different senses.
  • Treat books a little more like TV channels, as blogger Tyler Cowen so neatly puts it. Echoing 19th-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, Cowen advises readers to ruthlessly ditch what you don’t like. Books are not spouses, or puppies. Abandoning bad books will not only save you time, but will let you sample more books. The result: you’ll spend more time on the people with the most to say to you. Cowen finishes no more than one in 10 of the books he starts.

I already read mostly in short forms and ditch what is not speaking to me. Now I’m trying to note better and use various media. I’ve started experimenting with making Voice Notes about books that I can send to an automatic transcription service like Speechnotes or Otter.

If we’re investing time in reading, it seems sensible to invest a fraction more time in improving recall.

The past quarter-century has seen an unparalleled expansion in the availability of knowledge. That gives us all an opportunity which no-one ever had before: the opportunity to winnow through content, find out what works best for each of us, and really absorb it. We should use that opportunity.

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