How to Read a Book

I posted this on Fb last night, perhaps a bit intemperately and incompletely, upon publication of this book yesterday, Sept. 28th.

Here’s a slightly expanded and refined version of that post:


You pick up the book, you gauge its heft, you assess the cover design. This one’s is clean but colorful. You look for blurbs, on the inside cover flap, or on the back cover. This one has representative blurbs about the author’s previous eight books.

You glance inside, check for length, gauge the font size. This book has similar heft to the author’s previous two books, but is obviously somewhat shorter, because the font size is a bit larger, but still a decent text: 340 pages before the indexes and other back matter.

You check table of contents, for an overview of the book’s topics (which wasn’t available via Amazon preview until publication date, today). And especially you check the end of the book. Is there an index? Yes. Are there notes? Yes, referenced by page number, some 19 pages. Are there references? Yes, some 28 pages. (Did the author really read all those books and articles, you have to wonder. Or just sourced secondary references?) And you notice there is a useful 2-page “Index of Biases and Fallacies.” Most of these known to you, but perhaps there are new ones.

And you flip through the book itself. Diagrams? Cartoons? Subtitles? Yes, yes, and yes; excellent ways to divide up huge blocks of text.

Finally, you inspect the index for key topics of interest. Some are there, others not. Science? Science fiction? Religion? Homosexuality (or gay or LGTB-etc)? Wilson, E.O.? Dawkins, Richard? Dennett? Shermer? Some yes, some no. You notice some you didn’t expect. Tragedy of the Commons. XKCD cartoons. Huge section about Bayesian reasoning (of course). Trump. Every one of these things that are there or not, because you didn’t expect them or not, means there is something to learn from this book.

Given all this, you dive in.


Update today: I left out at least one key step. At some point while glancing through the table of contents, and perhaps while glancing through the index, you assess the book’s theme so far as you can, and you ask yourself, what questions about this subject would I like this book to answer? What assumptions about this topic do I expect the author to address, and then support or dispute? You don’t really want to read a book that merely supports your conclusions to date; you want to expand or revise your understanding with whatever new perspectives this author has to offer. And if you’re reading any kind of challenging book, there should be something.

Another step missing from this: I didn’t mention reading the dust jacket flap. In this case it wasn’t necessary; I’ve known the author and am familiar with the book’s theme. But when I’m browsing books in a store — something that hasn’t happened very often in the past two years! — that’s actually the first thing I do when seeing a book I’ve never heard about but which, through title or jacket design, looks to be to my interest. I’ll read the dust jacket copy, and see exactly who provides the blurbs on the back cover. A whole essay could be written about that. I imagine publishers have skilled editors who pay much attention to this topic. There are books endorsed by authors I know, which tells me that what I will read is part of an extended understanding of a particular topic. And there are books endorsed by no one I know (like Strevens’ THE KNOWLEDGE MACHINE, reviewed here) but which I’ve bought because it seems to speak directly to a theme of interest to me, and I am curious if the author is an iconoclast or some kind of rebel. All such issues are filters through which the raw text of the book must be understood.


Finally, ironically, I’m not allowed as much time to read as I’d like. I am under long-term care following my heart-transplant, and my schedule is not mine. Thus I might be able to read this book in the next few days, or it might take two or three weeks, in between the demands of others.

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