How to read technical books & papers
Reproducing notes from well-read people
This post is an amalgamation of notes from different sources that have been extremely helpful in figuring out how to read books and papers effectively: a skill I’m still working on.
The primary sources are worth engaging with directly:
How to Read a Book by M. Adler and C. V. Doren
How to Read a Book by Paul Edwards
How to Read Research Papers by Andrew Ng
How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read by Pierre Bayard
Smushing together what I’ve learned from all of these sources:
Engage with books on my terms: Instead of treating books as a tour managed by the author — which can be remarkably fun, if not fast — be clear about what I want from the book and read it on those terms.
Generally, this translates into
establishing how much time I’m willing to spend up front
being able to answer what the book is about, if it’s true;
and how it fits into the universe of my knowledge
Multiple passes at each book: Read the book in increasing levels of detail; if it makes sense to after the first few passes. Start with the densest parts:
the book: index, diagrams, summaries, pull-outs/highlights
the paper: diagrams, abstract, conclusion
and work through the details with additional passes.
Syntopical reading: Read about a topic by skimming several resources in parallel, and then diving into the ones that seem the most valuable. This works across papers and books.
Active reading: This is a commonly known classic — “read with a pencil in my hand”; this translates to taking notes, making quick summaries on the side of the page, solving exercises, and actively having a dialogue with the contents of the book.
Use it: Finally, writing about what I learned in my own words, or even better: building something with the knowledge; if it works I can be confident about understanding the underlying material.