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- Honesty about reading
By Holden Karnofsky 3 min read

Honesty about reading

Skimming is necessary, even good. Writers should accommodate it, readers should own it.

There’s way too much to read.

If I want to really understand a (nonfiction) book, I usually need to spend a lot of time with it. I generally spend at least as much time writing about it, and rereading it as I’m trying to summarize and dialogue with it, as I spend reading it in the first place. If I just moved my eyes over the words, I probably wouldn’t remember much other than the title.

I can’t do this for, say, a book a week. I need to be selective about what I’m reading carefully, which means skimming most things to look for what’s worthwhile, and often carefully reading part of a piece instead of more quickly reading it all.

At the same time, I feel soft pressures in the other direction. There seem to be vague social norms that "reading" lots of things is a great virtue. And I rarely see someone saying "I really enjoyed skimming ___ " or "Based on reading a few sections of ___ , I think ..."

It seems that a lot of people report reading enormous numbers of books - and also, that people often don’t seem to know much about a book they’ve “read” other than the title.

(I think similar points apply to articles and blog posts. From here I’ll lump nonfiction books, articles and blog posts together as “pieces.”)

I’d like to see a different norm:

  • It should be normal and expected that people often do not read an entire piece, even when the piece is important to what they are saying.
  • People should (a) try to find the parts of a piece that are most directly relevant to what they are interested in, and read those parts carefully; (b) get a lot of their information about a piece from critical reviews of and reactions to the piece (I believe this is a very efficient way to pinpoint the key debates around a piece and understand which parts are broadly accepted vs. disputed); (c) be open about what they’re doing. That is, they should say things like “According to [piece], ___ . Note that I haven’t read all of [piece]; I read sections ___ and ___ as well as critical reviews ___ and ___ .”
  • People should, by default, frame their critiques of a piece as “things I think the piece does wrong, but I’m not sure since I haven’t carefully digested the whole thing.” Rather than as “Smackdowns of the piece.” This is a natural complement to admitting one hasn’t digested an entire piece, but I also think it would be a welcome adjustment across the board, since even people who have carefully read an entire piece can still easily miss key parts of it.
  • And complementarily, authors should try to make life easy for readers who do not want to carefully read every word of their piece (at least, assuming it is more than a couple thousand words or so).
    • They should have easy-to-find sections of their piece that summarize and/or outline their arguments, with clear directions for which parts of the piece will give more detail on each point.
    • They shouldn’t force or expect readers to wade through all their prose to find a TL;DR on what they are arguing, what their main evidence is, why it matters, and what their responses to key objections are.
    • When someone says “You have to read this piece, it really shows that ___ ,” and I find myself unable to see where and how the piece shows ___ without embarking on a 10,000-word journey, I close the tab and forget about the argument, and this seems like the right thing to do.

I will try to follow these principles on this blog, both as a reader and writer. We’ll see how it goes.

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