How to Make Non-Fiction Reading Productive and Fun

Most people don’t have photographic memories, so we must face it.  Nonfiction books aren’t there to be memorized verbatim.  They’re about concepts, not minute details.

Such details come in countless varieties:  names, dates, places, you name it.  Also, there are forms pertaining to particular fields.  Examples of scientific cases should be treated less seriously than the overall scientific ideas themselves.  For example, in a Britannica article on vision across the animal kingdom, I do my best to extract the key principles, using a Macintosh note taking tool.  Also, tools like highlighters (to be used only on your own printouts/copies!), are of avail.  Unimportant details, just to give examples, are such things as animals that may bear a structure or function to work in their habitat, or mathematical reasoning or equations.  My ultimate goal in researching topics of any kind  is to obtain a “take-home message” (of course, I’m typically already at home, but you most likely get the metaphor).

And some sources are just not for everybody.  Some are too easy for one, others too hard, still others not satisfying.  I typically use Britannica (and is wonderfully sufficient for me), though I am not endorsing nor condemning it and I leave it up to you to decide which are the best resources for you.

In any case, you could tediously memorize an entire unit of text, whether a paragraph, chapter, or entire book.  But I’d prefer just to understand a book or other source of info yielding a take-home message.  While the existing knowledge quantity grows, the capacity of the inquiring mind does not.  So don’t be too tenacious about learning.  It may backfire.

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Why Textbooks Don’t Cut It On Their Own

Since high school, I’ve had a draw to college textbooks of many kinds, especially in the sciences.  Even though a given subject is of interest, the truth is, I’ve never felt confident to finish a text front to back.

Perhaps the main reason for such is the fact that without any instructor, you can’t guarantee your getting the right information.  Even if you can comprehend the writing with no problem, textbook material needs that actual power imparted by the professor in order to know exactly what is going on. This is especially true when you consider a college’s prerequisites for a given subject.  Reading such a book (and usually, thus taking such a class) warrants previous knowledge.

Moreover, especially in the natural sciences, you need labs, field trips, and many other practical exercises to truly learn concepts.  And of course, the lecture is at the center of it all.

Also, the fact that textbooks are constantly updated means inevitably that, as you grow older, you will miss newer material taught long after you graduated.  But again, you should be content with the position you are in now.

Now if you are out of college and wish to use a textbook for additional learning (e.g., when your school didn’t offer  a given class), I don’t see anything wrong with that.  But I’ll have to cross that bridge when I get there, as I would have to test that statement.

So I must resist spending money on texts that have nothing to do with my coursework, and just take “baby steps” toward the goals I may aspire to achieve.  And I’ll leave the choices of texts to the professors.  And ultimately, all of it is in God’s hands.

So until then, just Google things, or if you dare, use Wikipedia.  LOL

Seeing God’s Wonders in Scientific Details

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge;
    fools despise wisdom and instruction
— Prov 1:7, ESV

Right now I am reading an article (obtained from the online Britannica subscription service accessed through Community College of Philadelphia, where I currently attend) about the invertebrate phylum known as annelids, or segmented worms.  I have learned tons of neat facts about these critters, but for the sake of space (and relevance to the real point of this post), I will only mention a few very striking ones.

-Leeches, a class of annelids, known for their “medicinal” species used in centuries past by sucking blood, actually can be a source of a “real” (i.e., chemical) medicine!  Known as hirudin, it is an anticoagulant (blood thinner) that might be a better natural alternative to popular prescription blood thinners like Xarelto and Pradaxa (claimed to cause serious risk, including that of death).  Maybe this natural remedy could be better, but since I’m not a medical doctor, who am I to compare?  But hey, it sure is practical and thought-provoking!

-Some “sedentary” members of a class of annelids known as polychaetes actually make tubes into the ocean floor.  Their skin secretes a substance, which may include components such as mucus and calcium carbonate (known in various common forms such as limestone, marble, and chalk), which binds to marine sediment.  Wow, this is a marriage of the inanimate with the animate!  (I now pronounce it tube and worm.)

-Wait!  You may think a “defecation dilemma” may result from this since the anus is trapped in the tube.  Guess what, no problem, a side groove is the way for the feces to be expelled into the waters.

-Finally, earthworms have minute, perhaps microscopic, eyes all over their body.  Yikes!

So much for the annelids.  Now, reflecting on the Scriptural heading, you really don’t know anything unless you know God.  If you fear God (i.e., worship and have awe for him, out of love, not terror), you will gradually increase in your intimacy with Him.  After all, God created nature, and science is simply its interpretation.  Science is to nature as theology is to Scripture.

Many readers think many substantial detail in scientific discussions can be overwhelming, trivial, technical, unnecessary, whatever.  Or as the old cliché goes, they could be “gory.”  (Quite a strong word, isn’t it?)  While I am by no means pushing memorization of the entire material (very few people have truly photographic memories, and I doubt, IMHO, I would even qualify).  But they shape a piece of writing (fact or fiction), and give substance to it.  And when detailed to a substantial (though often not excessive) degree, instead of dismissing the ins-and-outs, an interested reader should appreciate God’s creative power therein, to the best of his ability.  One’s awe and recognition for God will increase, regardless of the information’s practicality, or lack thereof.

Yes, atheist Stephen Hawking can go on and on about his knowledge and insights on astrophysics, but he (most likely) may just be hoarding knowledge to impress.  Or some other motive.  But as a fellow human, it’s not my prerogative to judge him.  Only God knows his motives.  Ditto for secular scientists dead and alive, like Darwin, Haeckel, Svante Arrhenius, Linus Pauling, Ernst Mayr, Richard Dawkins, the list goes on and on.

Incidentally, as for the second part of my verse, atheists, according to the Bible, are cited as “fools” (Ps 14:1).  Fools would rather act as “know-it-alls.”  Whether instructed directly by another person, or indirectly from written material (which can often be posthumous!), a believer will appreciate it more than an unbeliever.

So, no matter what your brain capacity or “tolerance” for details in a written work, make the most out of those that you can.  Always jump “in and out” of whatever you read!

Examples of Focusing on the Main Points

While all facts are true (or at least should be), not all are relevant to all people.  Everyone has different emphases on what’s important to them.  Here are several examples:

  •  A very common example is emphasis of different details in a news story.  For instance, one may discuss a story with a friend about a crime near where they live.  One person may remember the exact location (for it is nearby a store he patronizes), the other may focus on the time (since it may have woken him up, given it was overnight.)  Both perspectives emphasize different elements, but the same core story.
  • Non-fiction books I read, including certain scientific (and other) books, e.g., the Scientific American Library series, have details that stand out from the rest of the content.  What these actually are depends on the individual.  These things are more worth keeping in mind, and therefore more likely to stick.  Depending on individual interest, understanding, etc., this can vary from person to person.
  • A little adaptation of this principle concerns fiction works, wherein all details can be eventually be rolled up into a main plot.

Also, one thing I resolve to do now is not to try to pick up all details when reading non-fiction.  After all, since when do people really want to “cram” things (except maybe before a test)?  Again, a book may very well serve its purpose in what it communicates, to any level of detail, as well as to many different audiences.

For example, recently, I bought a geomorphology text through Amazon.  While an interesting subject, certain topics, especially math-intensive ones, seemed quite specialized and not relevant (at least right now).  Textbooks of any kind work best under a professor’s instruction anyway.  The book was geared toward juniors and seniors in college, as well as graduate students, so it would have little relevance to me anyway right now.  (I did sell it, by the way, at a local used bookstore, probably with the best revenue ever).  Also, if possible, I might add a double major at the university (one year into enrollment) of geology to the primary biology major, but we’ll take it a step at a time.  Let’s just concentrate on finishing CCP first.  I have our finals for both courses this Monday.

You’re not a camera, so don’t strive for a photographic memory!

Reading For the Concepts Amidst the Details

Today (which includes the wee hours of this morning) I was reading through a section of a layman-level book in the Scientific American Library book, Life Processes of Plants (which is really a review for me).  I also took notes based on this material, in a summarizing fashion.  This part of that chapter was about the best time to flower and for seeds to germinate.  However, the skill I really want to convey in this post is getting the bottom line amidst the body of writing and not holding an idolatrous “verbatim bondage” to the text.  (By the way, in this post, the focus is on secular non-fiction.)

So, people may think I have a photographic memory (of sorts).  Well, I deny that, especially since claiming that is arrogant and in fact deceitful when my memory is only sub-par to such.  This is especially the case over time, for as usual, details within text tend to fade (just like the average person).  Also, excessive focus on retention and review of past readings, again, shows that bondage to memorization.  From my conscience, this can be idolatry because can potentially displace adoration to God onto secular reading material.

This thereby may put me in the dilemma of “to keep or not to keep.”  Well, here’s my take on it:

  1. When considering investigating into a topic, judge the worth of a topic and see if it is really necessary for your purposes.  Of course, you should show interest in it as well.  Our days are numbered (cf. Ps 90) and should not be wasted.
  2. Get the main points of a book, website, or any informative material.  Remember, details of anything are the elements of “who, what, when, where, why, and how.”  They shape a written work, but are not the work itself.
  3. When you are done with the book, just let it fly!  After all, if that weren’t the case, we wouldn’t check out books from libraries.  You read something, you comprehend it, and just move on!  There’s a whole world of information to explore than that tiny corner of knowledge you might get preoccupied with.
  4. Finally, last but not least, seek God’s wisdom, especially through prayer and Scriptural reading.

Of course, the details of a written work have their purpose, such as reference, or as discussed above, to steer the course of reading the work.

The Bible is a possible exception to this rule, since it can spiritually shape you along your earthly journey in different ways, perhaps using the same scriptures. But the Bible is meant to transform, not merely to inform.

In a nutshell, summarization is as important for non-fiction as it is for fiction.  (Pun intended.)

So, willing to drop everything and read, and do it again and again and again?

Why I Often Like “Heavy Reading” Material

If I was to just consult a “popular” or other summarized source, the writers decide what details go in and what gets cut out.  But if you do the summarizing from something “heavier” (like a textbook, peer-reviewed journal, etc.), you get to summarize whatever you want, and get your own product.

Of course, both the heavy stuff (which needs to be summarized by your own effort for full understanding) and “light” or “popular” sources can work as a team, as all good research includes.  Using a cooking analogy (since I love to cook), it’s kind of like mixing natural and processed foods.  Natural foods (which we’ll compare to the “heavy” reading) can be mixed with those “processed” foods that have been around the block, just like a summary.  Processing includes all the added and modified ingredients and the, yes, processes used together.  Combining them can turn into a meal.  Summarizing (and its typical complement, paraphrasing, or changing the wording) is a process on writing.  Light and heavy materials can be used together in personal understanding of a topic.

And don’t get trapped into thinking that something is simply “over your head” and thus dismissing it as a source.  Reading is an exercise of the mind, so if it isn’t over your head, it’s probably too easy.  As you perform these mental calisthenics, you improve your capacity of intake and take it to new heights.  (This very logic is from the book called “How to Read a Book,” by Mortimer J. Adler).  And technical terms and concepts, in this information age, thanks to Google, are just a click away from their description.

Probably the biggest barrier is math, found often in science articles.  But this phobia is merely caused by first glances, if you learn the appropriate level of math (and the knowledge needed is usually theoretical and rarely, if ever, computational), an equation will feel more like a “puzzle,” just like crosswords, word searches, jigsaw, and Sudoku.  The pain (or at least fear) thereof can potentially turn into a pleasure, hopefully.

I would still advise people who use this strategy, nifty as it is, not to publish it to mass audiences (except if they are truly expert).  This may compromise accuracy, since after all, you are most likely not a professional in that field.  You can share it orally or otherwise personally as much as you like, though.

So, ready to climb Mt. Reader?

Wee Hours of Bisquick, Biology, and the Bible

Who says the overnight hours need be depressing?
Who says the overnight hours need be depressing?  This selfie (taken circa 5:30am tells the contrary)

He made the moon to mark the seasons; the sun knows its time for setting.  You make darkness, and it is night, when all the beasts of the forest creep about.  The young lions roar for their prey, seeking their food from God. When the sun rises, they steal away and lie down in their dens.  Man goes out to his work and to his labor until the evening. (Psalm 104:19-23)

Okay, so I got up a little before two.  And I thought there was no point in returning to sleep.  So, I read my Bible, from which I quoted above, except the focus was Jeremiah.  (Of course, in modern society, you can’t strictly go by a sunset-to-sunrise sleep cycle, because we have, yes, clocks!  Though as we all know, mankind’s modern waking hours lean in the “PM” direction.)  Yet the scripture, as always, does give godly counsel.

So anyway, on a more temporal note (pun intended), I also read two Scientific American Library books, a long discontinued series I get used from Amazon.  One I started yesterday evening and completed about one-fifth through (again, it’s little over 200 pages.)  This was on the biochemical topic of enzymes, a form of protein.  The other, with only little that I haven’t read intently, concerns microbial organisms.

The Bible and these two popular-level books (from the Scientific American Library) kept me company overnight.
The Bible and these two popular-level books (from the Scientific American Library) kept me company overnight.

A little after 4 am I decided hey, why not make breakfast.  Little did I know I had the alternative of making something different than oatmeal or eggs/omelets.  The verdict?  Pancakes.  (The “Bisquick” in the title, mind you).

Mmm...Pancakes and Authentic Maple Syrup. (I actually made/ate this breakfast about an hour before, namely, a little before 4:30am)
Mmm…Pancakes and Authentic Maple Syrup. (I actually made/ate this breakfast about an hour before, namely, a little before 4:30am, and deliberately posed this as such.)

Yep, not Mrs. Butterworth’s, Aunt Jemimah, or Log Cabin, but something where quality trumps quantity:  real maple syrup.

So, to conclude, while it’s not good to be up half the night (ask a doctor for details), the super early wake-up was (and is usually) due to leaving my overhead light on, a habit I must stop.

As this post went to press, the sun is now up, and the night is now over.  (I’ll bet I’ll crash soon).