Successive Approximations

Improving Reading

I wouldn't call myself a voracious reader, but I try to spend 30 minutes each day doing serious, dedicated reading. Not reading to pass the time while I wait for my food at a restaurant or scrolling through my RSS reader after dinner. Sitting in a comfortable chair, with my phone out of reach, a book in my hand, a notebook within reach, with nothing else to do, for half an houror more.

I am also in a never-ending experiment with different ways to take notes on books in a way that gives me the best understanding and recall of what I read. I have come to hate the feeling of finishing a book and a week later not really remembering what I learned from it. It feels like the time I spent was wasted. So, I'm not trying to create a distilled version of the book, but if I can take away a few useful things from every hundred pages, then I'm happy.

But one other thing I've realized I'm neglecting is the structure of the book. Whether the book has a preface that outlines the sections of the book and then topics of the individual chapters, or a table of contents that at least lays out the general contours, it's hard to imagine that reading those things would not help you better organize your memories of the book.

Memory is, for the most part, not recall of random facts, but an associative web of links. One of the reasons we forget things is that we have no associative access point for the memory. The event is written to our memory, but nothing ever reminds us of it so the memory fades and is eventually overwritten.

So does it help to have the structure laid out up front, so that each page can be slotted into its proper place in your conception of the book? Again, it's hard to imagine it wouldn't.

And yet, I can't help noting that Amazon, the business who has revolutionized reading has, I'm sure, found that skipping the table of contents is good for their metrics. When you open a newly-purchased Kindle book, it jumps to the first page of the book, skipping the boring introductory stuff. I have no doubt their analytics shows that this increases engagement and results in a longer first-session reading time and maybe even a higher completion rate of the entire book.

But without reviewing the table of contents, by being impatient, is the reading giving up some of their long-term recall of the book? As a rule in life, delaying gratification pays the greatest dividends, so if Amazon is helpfully immediafying the gratification for you, is it more pleasant at the time but less productive in the long run?

It's hard to know for sure. But it seems likely.

Ben Berry

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