Saturday, March 03, 2012

What happens when I read a non-fiction book?

A lot happens before I sit down to read in terms of deciding to check this book out but here I am talking about a book that I have already decided is worth reading, for whatever reason.  Therefore I am sitting with this book intending to read it, not just scan through it.

1. To take notes or not
Within a few pages, I know whether this is a book I am going to end up scanning for the overall message or this is a book I am going to take notes on.  Most books will not hold my interest fully to the end.  Somewhere after the mid-point, I start skipping paragraphs that I recognize as fluff based on the pattern established in previous chapters, and I skip them.  I also skip extended descriptions in fiction. 

2. What to capture in notes
Assuming the book is interesting enough for me to take notes, I'll tend to write the chapter title, perhaps a couple of key points per chapter, a quote here and there, and I tend to make a note of other books mentioned in the text.  I know there is usually a list of books and related references in an appendix but I like to make note of the books mentioned in the context within which they were mentioned. 

3. Connecting
Once I'm deep into the book, my mind starts wandering and I start making connections with totally different aspects of my life.  I also start giving myself tasks or action items.  I mark those with an empty check box in my notes.  Of course, I never go back to check them, but it's a way of differentiating a thought from the book from my own thoughts and to do lists.

4. Dissent
Sometimes, I start to get annoyed by the author's argument or recommendations because they suggest something I would never do. I never do exercises.  I know the whole point of the exercise is to act upon newly acquired knowledge but the exercises are not useful to me.  I should rephrase that. Following the exercises in the exact manner they've been laid out is not something I ever do.  However, I don't skip the exercise sections altogether.  I read them and sometimes they inspire me to do something related.  In general, I'd much rather come up with my own follow up activities because they're much more likely to be related to something I NEED to figure out or improve.

5. Useful interruptions
I get interrupted, read something else, and the connections between the two items I've been reading appear.

The idea to reflect a little upon this question, "what happens when I read a non-fiction book?" came from reading Madelyn Blair's Riding the Current: How to Deal with the Daily Deluge of Data. I've read the book quickly.  It wasn't trash reading, but I did skip a lot of the stories and because it is written in a simple, readable style, it is a quick read.    I wanted to get a better handle on the key elements of the framework being presented.  It's actually difficult to get a good handle on them by skipping the stories.  The chapter "lessons" help a little.

I came to this book with a pretty good understanding of my own learning style and having used personal learning plans before.  Therefore, I was looking for ways to revive, re-energize my personal learning practice rather than start from scratch.  One of my first reactions was to realize that in my existing approach, I did not have a practice partner or accompanier.  I also don't have a very "social" approach to personal learning.  Everybody knows that learning is social, so I must be missing a great deal.  Well, the chapter on "Finding the Right Crew" is what started to annoy me.  As an introvert, when I am told that I need to go learn by interviewing people, I am likely to skip the chapter and move on.  While the author acknowledges that some people will be uncomfortable with the approach and she provides some guidance on how to interview people, I think it would have been much more useful to offer alternatives.  The author's bias towards conversations and interactions could be tempered by recognizing that all learning styles are equally valid and there are alternative approaches for introverts.  Here, the useful interruption in my reading happened when I picked up Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, by Susan Cain, and revolted internally against recommendations that appear to assume we're all extroverts (and if we're not we should really make an effort to become extroverts because we're really missing out on some good stuff!).  No, I will not go interview people.  I will find my own way to get relevant information.  I know ME.  An interview will not help me.

So, while I am not going to do the exercises, I did gain some useful insights and will be able to take some action based on 1) a renewed interest in better understanding how I learn best; 2) a sense of mission in terms of finding approaches that would be palatable to introverts.  Last but not least, I noted a half dozen other books that I'd like to check out.

But Madelyn Blair would most likely agree with me that a book, any book, will mean different things to different people.  Some readers will trash read it and others will go all the way and do all the exercises.  I was somewhere in the middle.

Here's my list of follow up actions based on reading Riding the Current:
  • Inventory all the resources and processes I use (or have used in the past) to learn something new.
  • Assess the value added, eliminate what's not working well, think of new approaches that would address the social dimension of learning from an introvert's perspective.
  • Add five books mentioned in Riding the Current to my "to read" list.
  • Consider options for establishing a book group at work focused on the many dimensions of "learning" and connect with the library, human resources staff, and key "friends" of our KM office.
  • Find introvert-appropriate ways to share what I learn. 
  • Strengthen the connection between my learning resources and processes to my long-term professional/career goals.