How I Read

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I have a daily habit of reading for 30 minutes. That does not mean that reading is a simple activity. In this short essay, I will explain how my reading framework works and offer some tips to how the reader improve their reading process.

Before 15, I hated reading English books. The only books that I enjoyed reading were Chinese literature and English comic books. I was remarkably bad in English and extremely proficient in Chinese. My laziness contributed to the problem. Something happened during the second year of my high school. I came across a scientific book that changed my life. “A Brief History of Time” by Stephen Hawking inspired me to work towards being a theoretical physicist. I worked backwards and figured out that I need better grades in English as a first step such that I will eventually study my PhD in physics with Cambridge University, UK. As a result, I transitioned from an absolute slacker who often read Marvel and DC comic books, Chinese literature and fantasy & science fiction stories to an avid reader of English books. Within two years, I scored a distinction in English literature with the aid of a very inspiring teacher in St Joseph’s Institution. Eventually, the distinction for general paper was reached in 4 years when I studied in college.  

There are three parts to how I have trained my reading competency after working on that proficiency about 7 years before I started my studies in the university. The goal is to always be better and it helps me to strive for being more competent after reading each book. The purpose is to dive deeper and shift past the superficial popular accounts of scientific literature.

The first part is to learn how to read a book properly. I will recommend Mortimer J Adler and Charles Van Doren’s book “How to read a book”. I lamented the fact that If I have read this book first (and till my first year in my doctorate studies), it will have halved the amount of time to achieve the reading proficiency quickly. The tools offered by Adler and Van Doren have helped me to scan and dissect the different types of books: fiction, non-fiction and academic literature involving science and mathematics. That greatly enhances the speed of reading for me. One of my friends like to comment that I burn through books but it takes a considerable amount of time to get there, and my advice to the earnest reader: be patient.

The second part is to understand that reading as an activity consists of different levels. Anyone can read a book but not everyone can understand a book. It is broken into three stages: classification, analysis and criticism of the book. First, you classify the book into a set of categories which you have pre-determined and then pigeonhole the book into where it might fit into your reading habits. As you are reading the book, you start to analyse the book, determining the key messages from the author and at the same time, breaking down the arguments and perspectives from his point of view. Last but not least, you need to define your own point of view, in what you agree and disagree with the author. I do not agree with all the authors who I have read. For example, I have a strong opinion against postmodernism philosophy, but I have sieved out the tools of analysis from postmodernism and apply them towards my thinking tool box. Consequently, I am not drawn towards one point of view, but am able to see a larger set of solutions within the problem that I seek to solve. The second and third stages will take more time out from the reader. It comes with relative ease as you build out a relatively robust framework to how you decide on a position over an issue. Tools in thinking and understanding bias systems from philosophy will be useful to acquire in the process.  

The last part is to find a great mentor. I have the fortune of meeting Dr Chong Siew Meng, a day time pathology professor but a night time astrophysics and mathematics specialist. He was my first mentor and I would credit my success in getting to Cambridge with his mentorship. A lot of people assumed that he has taught me in depth. What he taught me surprisingly is to learn how to read. I will often ask him a question, and he will lay out the title of a book relevant to the subject. As part of the exercise, I will finish the book and figure out a few more questions in the process. I will go back to him in less than 2 weeks, and he will push three more books towards me to read. In the process, I find some answers but I ended up with more questions. Till I started my doctoral studies, I have reached independence and started searching my own sources to further my knowledge. For academic training, it is remarkably useful because I started to read the original references where the knowledge from the books are derived. If I summarize what he really taught me in one sentence, it is just “he taught me to read, understand and criticize any subject better”. Reading creates a type of thinking muscle for me. 

Here’s how I have evolved in reading over the years:

  • Focusing on one subject area and read everything on that area in one go: As I dived deeper in a subject, I will go to the expert in the subject areas and ask for the five most important books to read, and using the bibliography to search for the next set of references to read. In that process, I can learn a subject matter quickly. You can apply the same strategy to fiction, where I spent two summers during my doctoral studies doing the chronology of Hugo and Nebula prize winners and started reading the first fiction book winner till 2003. When I read on a subject, I do not include periodicals, magazines, Wikipedia entries or internet articles as part of the reading suite. It has to be books, academic journals and periodicals and high valued magazines such as Harvard Business Review or The Economist. 
  • Non-linear approach to reading: I have a specific approach to how I read now as compared when I first started. When I read a paper, I start by figuring the key messages, and removed the details from the start. Yes, I am skimming the contents quickly to find where the common points are. Then I will go back to the book when I want to specifically understand a particularly theory or point and the anecdotes, evidence and examples that back that thesis. I don’t read one book at a time but about 4-5 books at a time. It will take me 4 weeks to read a good book but three days to a week to read a great book. The most excruciating books I have ever read that took me at least nine months to read: Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” and Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”.
  • Taking a position against the author: In reading a book, you are being treated to a point of view. The author is constantly trying to convince you that he is “right” on the subject and his ideas on the subject matter matters. Actually, that’s what he has set out to do. I often take an adversarial perspective against the author from the start, and look for positions that differ from his or her reasoning. It’s not easy to do because reading has that little effect of prodding you towards a particular point of view. Unlike television or podcasts, it’s more detached. When in doubt on a subject, I reduce to reading as the ground state to understand a subject. 

I urge everyone here to think about your reading because it does indicate how you will look at a subject matter review. I don’t think that I have reached that depth yet as a reader. Like everything I do, I feel that I am really at the start of a tall mountain.

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Bernard Leong

A Pragmatic Idealist