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:

Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash.

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.