April 25, 2019
Fiction and Lies
July 9, 2019

Reading in the Modern World

Photo by Ivan Obolensky

Part of my bookshelf

I read for two reasons. I love stories, and second, I am curious about most everything. Many people have asked me how I manage to read as much as I do, so I thought I would give my readers some tips.

I classify my reading into three categories: General Nonfiction, Science, and Fiction. Each requires its own reading methods.


Nonfiction means that there is not much of a story, although that has changed over the years. That trend started with Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Rather than a straight account of the murders, he placed the reader in the scene based on the evidence he accumulated. Today, a nonfiction book starts with a story to interest the reader. It’s a good technique, but that goes out the window when the book has the title Quantum Field Theory for the Gifted Amateur.

I differentiate between Nonfiction and Science. Science texts are a different species of nonfiction.

General Nonfiction is usually fact-specific and may require some specialized knowledge, but usually not.

Scientific texts, journals, and articles, on the other hand, often require prior specialized knowledge.


Many people don’t like math. This I understand, although I am sorry for it. I found out early on that if I wanted to know almost any of the sciences at a more than cursory level, I had to study mathematics.

The subject can be overwhelming, but I came up with some hacks.

I don’t study math texts written by a mathematician for mathematicians. Math texts for engineers are better for me because they skip the theory. K. A. Stroud’s Engineering Mathematics and Advanced Engineering Mathematics are excellent because they showed me what to do, and how to do it. The two volumes start with arithmetic and go up through the math needed for Quantum Physics.

The single best math volume I ever came across was one I studied in the UK. I took an extra year between high school and university at Lancing College. I was so deficient in the subject that I was sent down to study with the ninth graders. They used a small book with the most unlikely title of Calculus Made Easy: being a very-simplest introduction to those beautiful methods of reckoning called by the terrifying names of the Differential Calculus and the Integral Calculus by Silvanus P. Thompson, F.R.S. It is still the best I’ve found to jumpstart a gentle understanding of calculus up to the more advanced levels. It is also a comment on where even the best of American education was at compared to that of England in the 1970s.

I never purchase a mathematics book on Kindle, or try to get through one using electronic media. I once attempted to follow a complex set of calculations on a Kindle. I had missed the presence of a tiny minus sign in a complex expression because I couldn’t see it. I purchased a hardcover edition, and there it was clear as a bell. I made it a rule after that to always buy hardcover editions of science books that have lots of math, but even then there are mistakes in the printing. Textbooks can be wrong, and you can be right. Surprising, at least to me, but true.

With science texts and articles for professionals, which is where I eventually end up, I always have an iPad and Google handy to help me get an idea of what is being written about. They can be that opaque. Secondly, even if I am researching a particularly intriguing microbe, or some new study on Artificial Intelligence, mathematics will feature prominently. The reason is that many research papers are written for publication in scientific journals, and they require heavy mathematics almost as a prerequisite for submission.

General Nonfiction

With general nonfiction, I use a Kindle and the free sample feature to get an idea of whether the author goes into the detail I want before buying. For example, do I really need to know that the second cousin of the King’s herald was actually named Reed? Some are too detailed, some not enough. The sample gives me a good idea of what to expect.

Lastly, my nonfiction reading often requires that I go down numerous rabbit holes to find a definition or some detail. How far do I go? Far enough to get the gist of what is being covered and no more.


Fiction has a story. Modern fiction tends to be faster paced in terms of action than older fiction. This can be a barrier for me, because the plot can be lost in the details of the descriptions older writers used. As a modern reader, I have less patience. I found that older texts, like Jane Austen, Hawthorne, Wharton, Tolstoy, Proust and others required more effort to read because the pacing seems slow. They are often long by today’s standards. I read them because they are the foundations for modern writing and are often surprisingly good. I stopped worrying that there were several hundred pages to go when I was halfway through. I will likely still be reading Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time five years from now. I can pick it up and put it down frequently because not much has changed in the story. Besides sentences can extend for pages at a time. Plots of that period were slower, but I find I can get into the pace with practice.

I often read several books at once for that reason. There is no law that says I must read one book at a time, nor one that states that I must finish each I start. For me, some books just don’t cut it. I never fret about that. I simply pick up another.

Ray Bradbury never went to college. He couldn’t afford it. He went to the library and studied for years. He would grab six book off the shelf, look them over, and then pick up and read the one that looked the best. He was a very educated man, and if that worked for him, I figured it would work for me.

I read everywhere. I have a waterproof kindle, a great acquisition ever since I dropped one into a tub of water and shorted it out. Mine is just about bulletproof. Waiting in line? I pull out the Kindle. Waiting for anything, I pull out the Kindle.

Some people say they only listen to audiobooks since they commute. I can think with that, but audiobooks are not the same as reading. I can’t research while I listen, and even with simple books there will be terms, places, people mentioned that I don’t know. If I don’t look them up, my knowledge base does not expand. Reading for me is a cumulative undertaking. The more I read, the more I know. The more I know, the more context I have. The more context I have, the greater the number of patterns I see. The more patterns, the more connections, and by connecting the parts, I see new things and gain an understanding of the world.

If I’m not sure of a title, I get a sample. If I don’t like it, I read another sample until I find one that clicks.

I’ve learned to compartmentalize. A book can be picked up and put down fifty times a day, but that is how I read in sufficient volume. Reading, for me, is a choice. There are thousands of moments when I have time to read, but if I choose to do something else, then that is the choice I make.

My final piece of advice to you is to be curious always. For me it is what I don’t know that I don’t know that often contains the answers to my many questions.

Curiosity and persistence are likely the greatest attributes a person can have. I’m pretty sure that every conceivable barrier will fall before those two things. Even Durant’s entire The Story of Civilization can be read if you do it one page at a time. I read the first volume on a treadmill while training for a triathlon.

I was not always smart, painfully so, but I always believed that I could become smart eventually by reading as much as I could. I still believe that.



  1. craig says:

    Great advice. Thanks!

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