All Reading Is Not Equal or Fast

Four years ago I posted Reading Tips, where I offered some ideas on how to read technical books.

Recently I've received emails and questions via Twitter on the same subject.

In this post I'd like to offer another perspective. Here I will introduce different "types of reading." In other words, I don't see all reading as equal, and what some people might call "reading," I don't consider to be reading at all!

After reading this post you may find you can adopt one or more (or really all) methods in your own knowledge journey.

The key to this post is to recognize that different types of reading exist, and you have to decide how you are going to approach a book, article, or other printed resource.

My list follows.

  • Proofreading is a very intense activity where the reader scrutinizes every aspect of a book. The reader pays attention to technical accuracy, grammar, production value (quality of screen captures, etc.) and all other customer-facing elements. This is usually a paid activity because it can be very demanding and time-consuming!

    I doubt most people find themselves in this situation, but I have been hired in the past to do this sort of work.

  • Reading for correctness is a subset of proofreading where the reader focuses on the accuracy of the written material.

    For example, is the author correct when he says the TCP three way handshake (TWH) is SYN ACK -> SYN ACK -> ACK? Wrong! (True story.) Here the reader is trying to see if the author knows what he is talking about. I usually enter this mode when I smell blood in the water. In other words, when I encountered the wrong TWH in a book years ago, I continued hunting errors until I was mentally exhausted.

    This is an unpleasant form of reading reserved for error-prone books. Once an author proves he or she knows the material I usually don't enter this mode. I only read for correctness as preparation to write a book review of a technically inaccurate book.

  • Memorization is another intense reading form, usually reserved for academic classes. If you've had to study for a biology test, you've probably read for memorization purposes. If reading for memorization, I will likely heavily mark the text and create independent, supplementary materials like flash cards. Yes, on real index cards! The act of writing the material helps activate other areas of the brain to memorize information.

    Thankfully I haven't had to do this sort of reading in years, or at least not regularly. I have had to memorize information for amateur radio license tests, and I like creating flash cards for that information.

  • Reading for learning is one of my common modes. With this approach I mark up a text (generally underlining or bracketing key terms and sections) and add comments or questions in margins.

    You might think the previous (and possibly the subsequent) reading modes are all about learning too, but simple learning for me is a more relaxed endeavor compared to memorization or correctness.

    The goal of learning is to be able to remember a subject, preferably well enough to at least describe it (but not teach it) to a third party.

    Reading for learning is as fast as you are able to absorb material.

  • Reading for practice is closely related to learning, but it involves material that has an operational aspect. For example, reading a programming book for practice, for me, involves trying the code examples, and even better trying the sample exercises.

    Practice is a more active form compared to learning. With learning I might be able to explain a pointer, but with practice I could write a program using one.

    Due to the hands-on manner, this is a slow form of reading.

  • Reading for familiarization is another one of my more common reading forms. Here I am just trying to understand the author without necessarily planning to implement his or her concepts in real life. For example, I plan to read a book on Windows internals in April, but I do not plan to become a Windows kernel programmer.

    Reading for familiarization is probably the fastest way to read a technical book and still derive value from it. I may or may not mark up a book for familiarization purposes.

  • Reading for reference starts to enter the gray area of possible "fake reading." If you only read a few sections or chapters of a book, have you really "read it?" For example, I've relied on the massive book Unix Power Tools, but because I've only referenced parts of it, I've never formally reviewed it.

    In my opinion, unless you heavily reference a book over time, you're not really reading at the level the warrants a review.

  • Sampling is not reading. Top Amazon book reviewer frauds, this means you. Looking at the front cover, back cover, index, table of contents, and a few sample pages doesn't make you qualified to write a book review. The sorts of people who write more than a few book reviews per day are the fakers who consider "sampling" to be "reading."

  • Reading for entertainment is not generally an approach I take with technical books! Sure, I enjoy them, but it's not like reading a classic fiction book. When reading a nontechnical work, I tend to devour pages. I'm not sure if that's good or bad, but it's exceptionally fast since the emotional component engages additional brain components that would allow me to later describe the content should I wish to do so.

How does reading for reviews fit in? In my view, as long as you're not "sampling" or reading for reference, any of the methods above qualify for writing a review. I suggest adding one component to your reading process to assist with review writing: keep a separate notebook and take notes as you read. Be very specific, e.g., "p 121 had this quote... etc." The more notes you take, the easier your review will be to write.

So what does this mean if you want to know "how does Bejtlich read so many books?" The answer is to decide just how you want to read a book. When I read a book on C or Windows Internals in April, I will likely be reading for familiarization. I don't plan to be a C coder or Windows developer, but I do want to be conversant in certain topics. If I get really motivated I will turn to my PC and try some examples. (In fact, I'll probably do that for a book on coding for Windows, since I've never done that before.)

What this means is that I, reading for familiarization, will probably read faster than someone else reading for practice, or memorization, or another time-consuming purpose. It all depends on your goal! On another day I may be reading for practice because I really want to know more about a topic, and then I'll be slower and more engaged.

Incidentally, the more you read, the faster you will likely become. I don't think improving your reading is limited to children, either (although my daughters are pretty scary in terms of speed).

Don't overdo it though. I would not be surprised to learn that chemical reactions are involved with reading, especially the more intense learning modes. In some cases I can feel my ability to absorb material shutting down, and at that point there is really no reason to continue. Take a break.

I also advise against reading in bed, although this is a truly personal opinion. For some people, it works great. I don't make it past five minutes!

If you have questions on this post, please comment here. I have to moderate everything so it may take me a while to notice them. Thank you.


Adel said…
Thanks Richard, It was really useful!
Be safe,
Meller said…

How do you maintain your list of books to read throughout the year? Do you look at upcoming books from specific publishers, books referenced in conferences and presentations, does Amazon offer pre-order recommendations and reviewer copies?

How do you prioritize such a list?

How do you tackle/review books that are only distributed digitally?
Fausto Cepeda said…
Where do you find the time to read the books? After family-time, work time and what time of the day do u read and hoy much time do you invest? I keep trying to read books but I read 2-3 pages per day at night...thanks!
Unknown said…
"unless you heavily reference a book over time, you're not really reading at the level the warrants a review."

that* warrants a review

people who marvel at the number of books you read +1

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