Reading and Processing

Paul N. Edwards, How to Read a Book, v.5.0,

Happy new year! I hope you had a restful break and feel refreshed.

For my first post of 2020, I decided to discuss a short paper by Paul N. Edwards about effective reading of non-fiction materials. This paper has been sitting on my to-be-read pile since last summer, and the beginning of the new year seems like an excellent time to visit it.

The author briefly outlines 11 reading strategies and techniques for all types of non-fiction works. It is an excellent high-level overview of methods that can be employed by anyone who needs to get some reading done, and they are simple enough that they can be adapted based on personal preferences and goals.

Of the author’s methods, I am a strong believer in the use of what he calls Personal Text Markup Language (PTML). It is a reason that I much prefer to read in print as opposed to on a screen, although, as the author points out, there are plenty of technical advances that make it much easier to annotate an electronic document than there used to be.

That said, nothing beats a pen and a printout for me. I am a fan of circling, cloud-surrounding, box-surrounding, underlining (both straight and squiggly), and margin summarizing. I also love a good margin star if something especially moves me or makes me sit up and take notice.

Why is this markup important? This was clear to me when I looked back at the words and phrases I circled in Edwards’ article:

  • Why
  • How
  • Process
  • Always
  • Words or short phrases
  • Learning and remembering
  • Condensing
  • Fatigue
  • An hour
  • Process
  • Rehearse
  • Practice

Process was so important that I circled it twice!

One of the sentences that included this word particularly struck me: regarding your own version of PTML, “your goal here is to process the material by translating it into your own mental framework (.)” My mental framework, based on this list of circled words, is that I am seeking an action-based methodology for reading that is effective, that I will use consistently, that helps me understand my reading better, and that accommodates inherent limitations in brain processing capacity and energy in general.

If you were to read this article, your framework might be completely different, and that is fine. In my opinion, as long as you are clear about your goals, the framework can be whatever you need it to be to accomplish what you need to accomplish.

A final note about the energy needed for cognitive processing and the idea of taking breaks to let your unconscious mind do some of this work. This method was so important to me that I actually drew a box around the entire section in the article.

I have been thinking a lot lately about busyness, overachieving, energy, and fatigue. I think this comes from getting older (I recently celebrated my 48th birthday), the end of the 2010 decade (it’s over in my mind, don’t @ me), and looking back on everything I managed to accomplish during the last few years. I have been in “can’t stop won’t stop” mode for a very long time, and I am very tired. I am also not able to process and retain information as easily as I used to. I am seeing more and more that I must try to build downtime and breaks into my day. Putting this into practice is a different animal, but it will come with time and patience. Take that break. Let your brain chew on what you have been reading for a while. Not all of the great truths and insights are easily and immediately at hand.

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