how to become a more efficient reader

Ahh… Yes. The bottom line. (Watch the stats go through the roof on this one. No-one wants to know how to become a moral moral reader and only a few think it’d be worthwhile becoming less anxious. But more efficient? Bring it on!)

reading

This time it was a Political Science lecturer who inducted me into the deep mystery of efficient reading. And here it is — just between you and me: the best place to begin reading is … at the end.

If what you’re reading is written well (and having just put together a sustained 15000 word argument, that’s a big ‘if’), then you should be able to rip out the guts of it by reading the conclusion — and then working backward, picking up the first sentence in each paragraph. It’s all about finding the main thread of through the text and pulling.

I guarantee this strategy will make you a much more efficient reader.

But isn’t this pure pragmatism? Aren’t I betraying my own principles by suggesting that you read like this?

Well, I guess maybe I am. Although, I’m not sure that this approach necessarily rules out the strategies for respecting the text’s otherness that I’ve already suggested. For example, I can imagine hitting some puzzling or unexpected turn in an argument as I’m reading this way, stopping to take some time over it, but not getting so hung up on figuring out this detail that I start anxiously trying to wring out every last drop of meaning.

You see, the intuition underwriting this reading strategy is the (charitable) assumption that the text has a logic and coherence and is more or less effective at sustaining its argument from beginning to end. And this need not compete with the intuitions underlying the other strategies. They can coexist — even if they demand some effort to hold them in the appropriate tension…

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12 comments

  1. so do you do start at the end, and after you’ve done that read it through from the beginning?

    Why don’t authors just write their books backwards then, so we don’t have to start at the last page in order to understand it better…

    I have to say I’m mildly confused, and can’t tell whether or not you’re serious about picking up a book and starting from the conclusion. Have I read you correctly?

    1. Thanks for making me clarify. Yes, I am serious. I think starting with the conclusion is often a good way to go — then picking up the first sentence of every paragraph on the way through.

      Why don’t people start with the conclusion? Sometimes I suspect it’s because they think it might spoil the mystery. Although it’s often because they’re trying to persuade you of their conclusions, which you may not ‘buy’ without seeing the evidence.

      (Of course, good writers will often tell you at the start what they’re going to argue towards. But they’re rarely able to put the flesh on it that they can by the end — qualifying it properly or drawing out its more incisive implications)

  2. In science, press reporting and a lot of business material this is the norm. In science that conclusion up the front is called an abstract, when writing for the press journos typically structure the importance of the paragraphs so that each one is less important than the last (that’s why so many of us only read the first few paragraphs of most articles) and in business they often refer to writing ‘pyramid’ structured documents.

    Personally I think that the ‘pyramid’ structure works as each layer of the pyramid should reveal a little more information than the last – i.e. you should start with the pointy bit up the front and then add more details as you go down. Of course this is done because every senior manager has some ADD and you need to make sure that they get the gist of what you’re saying in the 10-15 minutes they spend on the document that you took a month to write.

    Finally, was it meant to be ironic that the your best summary paragraph is in the middle of this article (“If what you’re reading is well written …”)

  3. Can I just say that I’m a good blog reader but not so good at commenting. I don’t think I know you Chris, but I know many others who sometimes read or comment on your blog. I often read but fail to comment, and I’m glad that you don’t stop writing because of a lack of comments. Thanks for your blog. I once found Sire’s “How To Read Slowly” helpful.

  4. Chris

    T. David Gordon just wrote a book on why this kind of strategy is exactly the reason modern preaching is so boring, disappointing and ineffective. Modern books are written this way, so your post is very helpful, but ancient texts, lime Shakespeare, aren’t.

    I have some posts on this that you might find interesting:

    http://www.bullartistry.com.au/wp/2009/07/08/why-johnny-cant-preach/
    http://www.bullartistry.com.au/wp/2009/10/07/threshing-the-text/
    http://www.bullartistry.com.au/wp/2009/07/13/communist-theology/
    http://www.bullartistry.com.au/wp/2009/10/30/exploiting-nehemiah/

    Cheers,
    Mike Bull, Katoomba

    1. Thanks for sharing those thoughts, Mike. Interesting.

      But I’d like to just push back a little. I guess I was making two distinct but related points:

      On the one hand, I was sharing a reading ‘survival strategy’ I’d found helpful with academic arguments — start at the end and pick up the ‘main line’ on the way through. Doubtless, this recommendation reflects something about the (modern, post-Enlightenment) object of attention it was developed to deal with.

      On the other hand, and more deeply, I think it expresses a charitable assumption about the text to which you’re attending — ie. that it has a logic. Obviously, there are different kinds of ‘logic’ (I just finished writing a project emphasising Calvin’s dependence on narrative logic). Crediting the text you’re reading with some kind of logic — even if you don’t find it particularly clear or compelling — I’m suggesting is just as much of an ethical imperative as paying attention to its surprises and perplexities.

  5. Re: Nat
    Our daughter does too… I caught her reading (or perhaps tearing pages out of) The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God. Good to see her starting with the easy Carson…

  6. Chris

    Yes – I read your previous post on being a less anxious reader after this one. When it comes to more “crafted” texts I think your approach there is very helpful.

    With academic works, yeah, boil em down to the essentials! Bones to lime.

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