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How do you read books?

This may be a bit of an odd question; on a blog that often focuses on law and technology, you might reasonably think that when I ask “how do you read books?” I’m asking about whether you read in electronic from — on a tablet or  e-ink reader — or on paper. But that’s not what I’m asking.

Instead, I’m interested in knowing from a practical standpoint how scholars tackle the voluminous amount of worthwhile material that is being published these days (especially books). I am currently reading Julie Cohen’s excellent “Configuring the Networked Self: Law, Code, and the Play of Everyday Practice.” It’s wonderful, with lots to think about, but I have many more books on my list to read just for one project I’m working on (on Cyborgs and Internet regulation; more on that later this year). Other books in my queue are Brett Frischmann’s “Infrastructure: The Social Value of Shared Resources,” Robert Merges’s “Justifying Intellectual Property,” Tim Wu’s “The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires,” N. Katherine Hayles’s “How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics,” and Elias Aboujaoude’s “Virtually You: The Dangerous Powers of the E-Personality.” And I’m wondering: How do I get through them all? Not because I’m time pressured (in some ways I am, but in other ways I’m not), but because I want to. There is certain to be great stuff in all of these books. I want to read them.

That leads to the question: How do you read books? Do you sit down and read them, putting aside other work, class preparation, writing, etc., and just try to get through them one at a time? Do you read late at night, when the “work” of the day is done? Do you grab a minute to read when you can, picking them back up whenever you can grab an in-between moment? Do you take notes, highlight, write in the margins, or otherwise “mark up” as you read? Are you a naturally quick reader (I’m trying to avoid the “speed reading” moniker here)? Did you teach yourself to read quickly? Do you read with depth (ie, slowly, pondering points as they come up), or skim read, pulling the major arguments from each section and moving on?

As I try to improve the efficiency with which I read, while not losing any of the joy and value, I would really appreciate any thoughts on how you read books.

18 thoughts on “How do you read books?”

  1. I rarely read books. They are an incredibly long form of scholarship, and it’s rare when the ideas they elucidate are worth the time. I’m sure I lose something by skipping most books, but it’s just the reality. Eric.

  2. Rob, I appreciate this question as I stare at the pile of books on my bedside table. The short answer is that if its a book I’m reading for a specific research project, I carve out time to read and highlight during the day. If it’s a book that is important but not specifically related to a current project, it’s a night read with few highlights and notes.

  3. About 80% on paper, 20% on screen. The latter number keeps creeping up. No Ipad or Kindle, but Instapapering book parts on iPhone works.

    I guess I have two types of reading: intrinsic and instrumental. The intrinsically important reading helps me understand what’s important to think and write about. The instrumental reading helps me make the points I want to make.

    I use search technologies and shortcuts on the instrumental reading. Sometimes it just feels like I’m ransacking the text.

    The intrinsic reading gets snatches of intense engagement whenever possible…an hour in the morning at home and work, and in the evening. The best thoughts probably are formed (or planted) via engagement with the intrinsic reading.

    For each type of reading, when it has something I need, I email a snippet/page number to one of three email accounts (one on my book, one on health IT, and the other on my classes), sometimes with a tag. Then I can sort the tags later on.

    Many people have pressed productivity software on me, but it always feels too constricting.

    Finally, I really endorse podcasts. Authors are pressed to make their key points compactly and eloquently. I sometimes feel I get a better sense of an argument from an LSE podcast than from the book itself. Some on my feed:

    Jerry Brito, Surprisingly Free
    Russ Roberts, EconTalk (has transcript!)
    WBUR On Point
    Chris Lydon Radio Open Source
    C-Span After Words
    Dave Levine, Hearsay Culture
    Berkman Center (needs more law people)
    U Chicago feed
    Guardian Books podcast
    Behind the News (Doug Henwood)
    Bob McChesney, Media Matters
    Little Atoms
    New Books in…
    Harvard Press podcast

    Finally, and this is key: I have virtually no social life & zero hobbies. In a bad paraphrase of Stuart Hampshire (disputing the Aristotelian ideal of sana mens in sano corpore), sometimes getting a lot read requires one to neglect becoming a “well-rounded person.” I deeply admire the folks who get a lot more done than me and still manage to play instruments, do a lot in the community, serve on boards, etc. I hope they will post on the secrets to their focus and energy!

  4. I always try to keep a book going and work through it usually in a few days depending on length and depth. I probably read more books than law review articles. For both law review articles and books, I first try to get a sense of the argument from perusing intro, conclusion, and table of contents (to get structure and details of argument). Then if I feel I want to go into the work in more depth, I read cover to cover, usually setting aside some time devoted to reading (often right after lunch). I also pay attention to the footnotes/references to get a sense of things I have not read already.

  5. Paper and in large chunks of time, which usually means travel, vacations or the occasional weekend. If it is for a specific project, I might go through smaller portions of the book in shorter time periods instead of starting at the beginning of the book.

  6. So when I have a couple of hours free in a day, I read. If a book is interesting enough, I try to find time to get through it quickly. I can rarely leave much time in between reading sessions and get through an entire book. If after an hour or so a book is not holding my interest, I drop it.

  7. Wow, thanks for that podcast list, Frank. I, too, think podcasts are great for exposure to new ideas.

    Re books, it is getting increasingly hard to read the ones I know I need to read while managing to move forward on other fronts at the same time. I have plenty of books on my iPad that I read when I have down moments — but the iPad is full of articles and cases too, so the books often wait. Ideally, I prefer to read the paper versions, but that tends to be in bits and pieces — an hour here or there.

    This means that I’ve got plenty of books where I’ve read 1/4 and understood the main points, but fewer where I’ve digested the whole thing in the space of a few days. (I’d much prefer the latter!)

  8. I want to read books, but usually wind up not reading as much as I want. My office has all the books you list – I requested them when they came out. And then…they sit there. I just get distracted with all the other things I have to do. Eventually I read specific chapters and skim for key points – as Eric notes above – books are very long-form scholarship.

    It’s not just academic books – I don’t do as much pleasure reading as I would like – if I can get through a book a month, I’m pretty happy with myself. Alas.

  9. I read in fits and starts, whenever I can. I usually have a book in progress on Kindle (fiction or out-of-area nonfiction); on audiobook (out-of-area nonfiction); in my bag for the part of the commute I can’t use my computer; for exercise; and in the bedroom. I write mini-reviews of the books I read and archive them on LibraryThing, which helps me remember. For in-area books (and occasionally for others) I take notes on specific points of interest, using my computer to do so. I read pretty fast, though I have found myself worrying about skimming too much for in-area works these days.

  10. When I was in grad school we were taught a “skill” one professor called “gutting a book.” I.e., reading it within a couple of hours. Obviously you don’t get every nuance that way, and it might work better for history than law, where there’s a thread of an argument to be followed. But the basic method I came up with was: read the Preface and/or Introduction, and Conclusion in nearly their entirety; the first paragraph of every chapter; and the first sentence of every paragraph.

  11. Thanks, everyone, this was an incredibly useful conversation for me, both to learn about broad approaches (“I don’t read books” or “I read books but don’t do much else”) and specific strategies (podcasts, gutting, skimming). I’ve got some things I’m going to try to get through the stack of books (or digital files) I’ve got lined up. Thanks again!

  12. I’m a lot like Woody and Scott for work-related stuff, and like Rebecca for out-of-area stuff. For fiction, lately I have been downloading library books onto my Kindle, which I read when my brain needs a distraction. But I have to be careful– I get too into books and the whole world goes away. I can no longer read them in airports (I almost missed a flight once, and I was sitting 3 feet from the gate! Didn’t hear a single announcement!)

    For scholarship-related books, I tend to read the intro and skim each chapter (or at least the TOC) for future reference. If there is something that is relevant for a current WIP, I’ll tab it. I’ve tried audiobooks, but I don’t retain the info as well, and I end up relistening to the same segments again and again. I need paper, especially for cases and law review articles. I mark them up too much, and it’s easier to find what I need than when they are in electronic form. And I can usually read them in a single sitting, albeit it may take several hours for some.

  13. I wish I had something more interesting to write here. I read 3-5 science fiction books/month (David Brin’s new book is my next read). That relaxes me and gives me ideas about what will be “obvious” eventually but is not widely known today. Kindle or paper both works. Ride the bike and read. Create quiet space some evenings and read. But I’m not audio/visual much, so no podcasts.

  14. Hearsay Culture forces me to have a reading agenda — which is one of the reasons that I founded the show. Thus, I reserve several hours a week for reading. The time varies, depending on professional and personal schedules, but is often at night between 9-11pm … Otherwise, the reading will never get done. I tend to use my Nook Color for personal reading, and paper for the show. At the moment, I’m reading Robin Winks’ fascinating account of the role of academics in the founding of the OSS, Cloak & Gown. That’s on paper because its unavailable for e-readers… And Brett Frischmann’s book for an interview to be recorded next week. I find books indispensable to my thought process as it affords me precious time to think and reflect. No other medium does that for me, thus, if you feel similarly, as I’m guessing you do, I urge you to find the time!

  15. This probably is redundant of several others’ comments, but the answer is that I get lots of books delivered to my office, start a lot of them, and then read enough to see if it’s worth my time to read it thoroughly. I read those that do seem worth it in fits and starts like Rebecca, though occasionally one will interest me enough that I can tear through it (that’s pretty rare). Mostly I read them on paper, but I will often buy the Kindle version if I know I have travel coming up, so I can read in blocks while in transit.

  16. I read virtually everything in hard copy as it were. I don’t get out much, virtually all of my leisure time is spent reading, largely books, but also book review journals, the LA Times, some magazines, and other stuff. Books occupy most of the space in our home (even, sadly, the dining table). I read on the toilet and off the toilet. I sacrifice many of the other finer things in life to read books. I suppose I could be aptly described as a bibliophile, and a recalcitrant and unapolgetic one at that. It is my foremost vice, and one that depends largely on the income of my spouse. I’m waiting for the symptomatic criteria of bibliophilia to be outlined in the next edition of the DSM.

  17. Most of my pleasure “reading” is done via audiobook (recently, Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin). That’s mostly a carrot to reward myself for exercising.

    If I can get a Kindle or pdf version of a book I’m interested in, I read it on my iPad.

    If I can’t get a digital version, I invariably pack it for plane rides. I don’t read as many books as I should, and find I often use the table of contents and/or index to hone in on arguments in which I’m interested at the time.

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