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« First Issue of My Revived Newsletter | Main | Most Popular Article This Week »
Saturday
Apr022016

How to Read a Book Once Twice

The benefits of reading something twice are well-known. On a second reading one understands more, remembers more and integrates more. This applies to just about any type of reading apart from the most ephemeral. It also applies to any length of reading from a multi-volume history to a short article or blog post.

There are many experts who say that there are more efficient ways of understanding and remembering written material. These include pre-questioning, note-taking, outlining and various other techniques. I’m not saying they are wrong, but my feeling is that re-reading is easier and less intellectually demanding and therefore more likely to get done. The best method is the one that you actually do.

The problem is that all these methods, including re-reading, take time and this time has to be found from the time you need for all the other books and articles you have to read. So how about if you could read a book for the first and second time in one go?

In fact there is a very simple technique for doing this, which I have found remarkably effective. All you need is two bookmarks (Book Darts are even better) or the electronic equivalent. Here’s how it works using Book Darts with a printed book:

  1. Put both Book Darts at the beginning of the book.
  2. Read for as long as you wish.
  3. Mark the place where you stop with one of the Book Darts.
  4. When you want to read some more, start from the beginning of the book again, read for as long as you wish and mark where you stop with the second Book Dart.
  5. The next time you read, start from the Book Dart which is nearest the beginning of the book, read for as long as you wish, and mark where you stop with that Book Dart.
  6. Continue reading as in 5 until you have got both Book Darts to the end of the book.

Note that it doesn’t matter how far you get in a reading session. It makes no difference whether you stop before or after the leading Book Mark. You always start reading from the Book Dart nearest the beginning of the book. Doing it this way ensures that every bit of the book gets read twice regardless of how long or short your individual reading sessions are.

How much longer does it take to read a book in this way? Not as long as you would think. Your first reading is more relaxed than normal reading because you are not struggling to understand and take in all the meaning in one go. The second reading is also more relaxed because you know what’s coming and your mind has had a bit of time to work on the material.

I’ve used this method to read dense material such as history books, classic novels, scripture, and works in foreign languages. I’ve also used it for instruction books, magazines and individual articles. It seems to work well with all of them.

Reader Comments (17)

Mark

This seems a bit cold for when reading a novel for pleasure although I do often re read novels after a few years. But seems excellent for work/academic reading. Will give it a go.

Also I can't quite see how it translates at the moment but there seems to be the genesis of a time management system in this!
April 2, 2016 at 7:41 | Unregistered Commenterskeg
skeg:

<< This seems a bit cold for when reading a novel for pleasure >>

I'm not suggesting that you have to use it for every book you read, but nevertheless have you never read a novel and got confused about who someone is or missed something that's referred to again so you have to check back?

<< Also I can't quite see how it translates at the moment but there seems to be the genesis of a time management system in this! >>

The same had occurred to me, but my one attempt so far didn't work very well.
April 2, 2016 at 9:53 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
As an experiment, last October I started typing a 557-page novel into excel. Each cell is a line of printed text (I number every fifth line in my printed copy). Column A is the page number, column B is the line number and column C is the line of text. It takes about 10-15 minutes to type and I usually spend another 10 minutes googling names/places, or searching the file for previous appearances by characters etc.

The result has been an extremely high level of comprehension and engagement with the novel, for several reasons:

1. The process of typing forces you to engage with every word at a slower and more careful pace than normal reading.

2. You now have a digital copy of the text, making it easy to look up characters/names etc. Because each cell is a line of text, you can quickly see that a character appeared on page 132/line 17, for example.

3. You're already sitting at a computer, so it is very easy to google anything of interest in the text. It really brings the novel to life to see pictures of streets and restaurants, to find locations/settings on a map, to translate foreign phrases, or even to look up unfamiliar words.

This was originally an experiment after discovering that Hunter S Thompson typed out every word of The Great Gatsby and A Farewell To Arms. It has worked out so well that I plan to type out a few more books of interest. This process would work really well for someone who wants to tackle some of the big classics (Proust, War + Peace etc) over the span of a year or two as a side project without interfering with their regular reading routine.
April 2, 2016 at 15:39 | Unregistered CommenterSimon
Simon:

<< This was originally an experiment after discovering that Hunter S Thompson typed out every word of The Great Gatsby and A Farewell To Arms.>>

Jack London, Robert Louis Stevenson and Benjamin Franklin among other also used this technique (with different books of course) according to this article:

http://www.artofmanliness.com/2014/03/26/want-to-become-a-better-writer-copy-the-work-of-others/

I've copied a little bit of the Great Gatsby myself, but I've used the method more for copying French than English according to Alexander Arguelles' Scriptorium technique.

http://howlearnspanish.com/2010/09/the-scriptorium-method-by-professor-arguelles/

And worth a study is the whole history of copying scripture (of whatever religion) in order not only to have another copy but also to internalize it.

I've not come across anyone who has persevered and copied a whole book before. So congratulations on your success. I'm particularly interested in your comment that it forces you to engage with every word at a slower and more careful pace than normal reading. Can you say a bit more about the results of doing that?
April 3, 2016 at 10:35 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Hi Mark, well the average person reads about 300 words per minute but their typing speed is considerably slower. So while you type, you're forced to not only "read along" at your (slower) typing speed, but you also have to read every word.

Also, I think the key has been to limit each typing session to 10-15 minutes per day. Then you have enough mental energy left over spend 5-10 minutes looking up anything you didn't understand -- characters, words, places etc -- either by googling or by searching the digital file you are creating. Not only does this clarify what you read, but it also brings the text to life when a google search brings up a streetview of an address mentioned in the text, for example.
April 4, 2016 at 3:20 | Unregistered CommenterSimon
Simon:

<< well the average person reads about 300 words per minute but their typing speed is considerably slower. So while you type, you're forced to not only "read along" at your (slower) typing speed, but you also have to read every word. >>

There's another technique which doesn't involve writing but simply reading the book very slowly. I remember being told "Read it as slowly as the author wrote it". It's commonly used in reading scripture, but I also remember reading "Arabian Sands" by Wilfred Thesiger which was quite an experience.

<< I think the key has been to limit each typing session to 10-15 minutes per day. Then you have enough mental energy left over spend 5-10 minutes looking up anything you didn't understand -- characters, words, places etc >>

So about 15-25 minutes in total?

A rule I've had all my life is that when I don't understand a word or reference I look it up. That's whatever speed I'm reading at and whether I'm reading in English or French. It's much easier now than when I started - when of course you had to look it up in a printed dictionary, encyclopedia or atlas.
April 4, 2016 at 7:53 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Wasn't St Augustine's ability to read without speaking the words aloud considered a bit of a super power at the time?

#ThePresenceOfGreatness
April 4, 2016 at 10:11 | Registered CommenterWill
Will:

<< Wasn't St Augustine's ability to read without speaking the words aloud considered a bit of a super power at the time? >>

If I remember correctly it was St Ambrose, and St Augustine was the one who was amazed at his ability. Which presumably suggests that St Augustine couldn't do it.

However see:

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2006/jul/29/featuresreviews.guardianreview27
April 4, 2016 at 11:03 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Nicole, Chris,

"Funny encountering a fellow go player on this forum!"

Who'd've thought? (Actually, it's a rather shocking 35 years since I last placed a stone in anger...)
April 4, 2016 at 18:53 | Registered CommenterWill
Mark,

Thanks. Always good to have another misconception (however popular) squelched.
April 4, 2016 at 18:58 | Registered CommenterWill
Hi Mark, as a less burdensome alternative to typing, you may want to take a look at DailyLit ( http://www.dailylit.com/ ). They email you an entire book in daily installments that take around 10 minutes to read. Swann's Way is available in 170 installments (https://www.dailylit.com/book/168-swanns-way).

I used the site to read Middlemarch a few years ago. I haven't checked it out in a few years, so there may be other services out there now.
April 5, 2016 at 15:29 | Unregistered CommenterSimon
I am experimenting with an idea for using the Two Book Dart method as part of a no-list time management system. See here:

http://markforster.squarespace.com/forum/post/2588221#post2589150
April 5, 2016 at 16:47 | Registered CommenterSeraphim
Simon:

Yes, I've used DailyLit in the past. Though I'm trying to read Swann's Way in French not English.
April 5, 2016 at 18:31 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Simon, I read the entire Bible pretty much that way a few years ago. Unfortunately, I started it in January, so was reading Revelations over Christmas.
April 24, 2016 at 2:34 | Registered CommenterCricket
Cricket:

<< was reading Revelations over Christmas >>

It must have been quite a party!
April 24, 2016 at 8:45 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Mark, this sounds like an excellent way to read classic works of literature, philosophy, and history, works that are worth reading twice in any case. I'm looking forward to trying it. Much better than speed-reading through Kant's Critique of Pure Reason so you can get on with War and Peace (or Tristram Shandy).

By the way, copying the scores of the masters was a time-honored method for learning to compose in the 18th century at least. J.S. Bach practiced it, at least in his youth.
May 14, 2016 at 17:07 | Unregistered CommenterRichard C
Richard C:

<< By the way, copying the scores of the masters was a time-honored method for learning to compose in the 18th century at least. J.S. Bach practiced it, at least in his youth. >>

It was also the standard way to learn to draw and paint too.
May 14, 2016 at 20:46 | Registered CommenterMark Forster

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