A question about deep reading

by on January 23, 2016 at 12:38 am in Books, Education, History, Philosophy | Permalink

Brad asks:

Prof. Cowen – I’m a longtime MR reader, but just came across an old post on your prolific reading. In the post, you mention:

“But it is not like the old days when I would set aside two months to work through The Inferno, Aeneid, and the like, with multiple secondary sources and multiple translations at hand.  I no longer have the time or the mood, and I miss this.”

I am intrigued by this process of deep reading the canonical classics – have you detailed your method/routine for this anytime on MR?


Here is my preferred method:

1. Read a classic work straight through, noting key problems and ambiguities, but not letting them hold you back.  Plow through as needed, and make finishing a priority.

1b. Mark up the book with bars and questions marks, but don’t bother writing out your still-crummy thoughts.  That will slow you down.

2. After finishing the classic, read a good deal of the secondary literature, keeping in mind that you now are looking for answers to some particular questions.  That will structure and improve your investigation.  But do not read the secondary literature first.  You won’t know what questions will be guiding you, plus it may spoil or bias your impressions of the classic, which is likely richer and deeper than the commentaries on it.

3. Go back and reread said classic, taking as much time as you may need.  If you don’t finish this part of the program, at least you have read the book once and grappled with some of its problems, and taken in some of its commentators.  If you can get through the reread, you’ll then have achieved something.

4. I am an advocate of the “close in time” reread, not the “several years later” reread.  The several years later reread works best when it has been preceded by a close in time reread, otherwise you tend to forget lots, or never to have learned it to begin with, and the later reread may be more akin to starting a new book altogether.

5. If you want to find new things in books you already know and love, opt for new editions, new translations, and new typesettings where you will encounter it as a very different visual and conceptual field.

1 Gabe Atthouse January 23, 2016 at 12:42 am

Wow Tyler, you’re so cool!

2 Mark Thorson January 23, 2016 at 12:56 am

New typesetting? That makes a difference? Maybe you should be using an e-book reader and just change the font size. Or listen to the book on tape. Perhaps re-listening with different readers speaking the book.

3 can duman January 23, 2016 at 3:57 am

Certainly—anything set in Sabon reads like the ultimate truth.

4 Bill January 23, 2016 at 7:40 am

TRUTH. Also, no text can survive Comic Sans.

5 prognostication January 23, 2016 at 11:58 am

There’s a pretty extensive literature on this, and yes. Among other findings, some typefaces are “harder” and/or less pleasant to read than others.

6 Mark Thorson January 23, 2016 at 7:10 pm

Yes, but how does an easy reading vs. a difficult typeface change what you absorb from literature? I don’t see how a liberal or conservative slant (or something) can be imposed by a typeface. Expect perhaps to modulate whether it’s a pleasant or unpleasant experience, in which case maybe you’d get better results by adjusting the thermostat or the ambient light level.

7 jim jones January 23, 2016 at 2:09 am

I wait until the movie comes out

8 Steve Sailer January 23, 2016 at 4:03 am

“I am an advocate of the “close in time” reread, not the “several years later” reread.”

A “several years later reread” can teach you about how you’ve changed.

9 Thursday January 23, 2016 at 4:22 am

There are authors where you benefit a lot from the secondary literature and authors where you don’t. Unless researching specific topics, I wouldn’t bother with the secondary lit on Jane Austen or Charles Dickens, for example.

Some poets are damn near indecipherable without the secondary lit. Much of Hart Crane and Wallace Stevens, for example, should not be attempted without guidance.

You can benefit from reading about cultures from really long ago in which an author lived.

10 Hoosier January 23, 2016 at 4:42 am

Agree about Hart Crane. First read his stuff in an anthology and couldn’t make heads or tails of it. Completely over my head and I got no enjoyment from it whatsoever. Never delved into the secondary lit. because the initial interest was never piqued. May have to give it a try.

11 charlies January 23, 2016 at 12:03 pm

I’ll second this, along with Nadav’s request below.

Some obvious picks that come to mind are the classic modernist novels by Joyce, Mann, Faulkner etc

12 Nadav January 23, 2016 at 5:00 am

Tyler, which classic work would you say most rewards reading and re-reading? IOW, where the re-read most changes your understanding relative to the first read. Thanks!

13 prior_test January 23, 2016 at 6:12 am

Not trying to speak for Prof. Cowen, but the History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides is truly seminal, and as relevant now as at any point in the last 2500 years.

The following are overviews from the fairly straightfoward wiki introductions –

‘The History of the Peloponnesian War is a historical account of the Peloponnesian War (431–404 BC), which was fought between the Peloponnesian League (led by Sparta) and the Delian League (led by Athens). It was written by Thucydides, an Athenian historian who also happened to serve as an Athenian general during the war. His account of the conflict is widely considered to be a classic and regarded as one of the earliest scholarly works of history. The History is divided into eight books.

Analyses of the History generally occur in one of two camps.[1] On the one hand, some scholars view the work as an objective and scientific piece of history. The judgment of J. B. Bury reflects his traditional interpretation of the work: “[The History is] severe in its detachment, written from a purely intellectual point of view, unencumbered with platitudes and moral judgments, cold and critical.”[2]

On the other hand, in keeping with more recent interpretations that are associated with reader-response criticism, the History can be read as a piece of literature rather than an objective record of the historical events. This view is embodied in the words of W. R. Connor, who describes Thucydides as “an artist who responds to, selects and skillfully arranges his material, and develops its symbolic and emotional potential.”‘ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_Peloponnesian_War (The translations section of the article includes links to public domain translations, including one from a political theorist, from a then fairly minor island nation, called Thomas Hobbes.)

‘Thucydides (/θjuːˈsɪdᵻdiːz/; Greek: Θουκυδίδης, Thoukudídēs, Ancient Greek: [tʰοːkydídɛːs]; c. 460 – c. 400 BC) was an Athenian historian, political philosopher and general. His History of the Peloponnesian War recounts the 5th century BC war between Sparta and Athens to the year 411 BC. Thucydides has been dubbed the father of “scientific history” because of his strict standards of evidence-gathering and analysis of cause and effect without reference to intervention by the gods, as outlined in his introduction to his work.]

He has also been called the father of the school of political realism, which views the political behavior of individuals and the subsequent outcome of relations between states as ultimately mediated by and constructed upon the emotions of fear and self-interest.[3] His text is still studied at both universities and advanced military colleges worldwide.[4] The Melian dialogue remains a seminal work of international relations theory while Pericles’ Funeral Oration is widely studied in political theory, history, and classical studies.

More generally, Thucydides showed an interest in developing an understanding of human nature to explain behaviour in such crises as plague, massacres, as in that of the Melians, and civil war.’ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thucydides

Clearly, those with a more literary bent are likely to prefer other Greek works of drama or epic poetry or philosophy or history, but Thucydides stands apart in the relevance his work continues to have when looking at a world where war and government retain as much importance as at any time in the past two and a half millenia.

14 mkt42 January 23, 2016 at 10:14 pm

Thucydides’ “Pelopennesian Wars” is one of my favorite books ever, and you’ve described its strengths, but you haven’t described what you got out of re-reading it.

I’ve only read it once; I wouldn’t mind reading it again but I’m not sure what the point of reading it again would be; that is I estimate that I’d get more marginal utility by reading a book that I have not yet read but really want to.

I’m more likely to re-read Herodotus; he doesn’t have nearly as many historico-poltical lessons for the reader and his book is probably half myth and at best half fact but he is just so darned fun to read.

15 prior_test January 24, 2016 at 6:19 am

Ah – I tend to reread it maybe every five years, for the last 25 years. What I’ve gotten out of the rereading is a deep appreciation of just how straightforwardly the dissolution of an empire in a generation is described, and as time passes, seeing how several of the seemingly more outlandish personalities and situations are not actually all that outlandish.

Along with losing my faith that the United States would take centuries (or definitely decades after my death) to fall from its pre-eminent position after saving the Western world from destruction, instead of the decades it is now likely to take, quite possibly within my lifespan. Thucydides, as is generally the case, remains more astute than essentially any contemporary observer when it comes to describing how humans act.

16 Jan January 23, 2016 at 6:06 am

Thanks for this.

Speaking of reading, looks like I’ll be snowed in for about another 24 hours. Does anyone have a rec for an excellent nonfiction book from the past year or so?

17 Bruce Cleaver January 23, 2016 at 6:33 am

“Atomic Accidents” by James Mahaffey:


Accessible to the non-specialist, and has some wild stuff in there! A little earlier than your 1 year window, though.

18 Jan January 23, 2016 at 8:35 am


19 Edward Burke January 23, 2016 at 8:45 am

Straddling both chronology (published 2012) and genre (history of the science of the particular and of imaginary solutions): ‘Pataphysics: A Useless Guide by Andrew Hugill (MIT Press), a fairly comprehensive survey and a fine companion to Alfred Jarry: A Pataphysical Life by Alastair Brotchie (MIT Press, 2011), a thorough biography of the founder or discoverer or first practitioner or earliest known advocate of the science of imaginary solutions and of the particular (as long as you’re willing to discount the contributions of Dr. Faustroll, Ibicrates, and Sophrotatos).

20 Virginia Postrel January 23, 2016 at 4:04 pm

I’m currently reading Steven Silberman’s Neurotribes and highly recommend it. Important story, well-told: http://amzn.to/1OFxooR

21 Ray Lopez January 23, 2016 at 6:35 am

This same technique of re-reading and the like works for chess books and chess improvement too I might add.

22 rayward January 23, 2016 at 8:16 am

I assume that many classics, like the Bible, have versions with apocrypha (i.e., annotations with extensive essays and background as well as a list of sources). As for the Bible, I use The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha (College Edition). I follow Cowen’s advice to reread books, short stories, etc. (no, I won’t claim to reread the “classics”). In school I developed the study habit of reading the assigned material before it was covered in class, then rereading it afterward, and rereading it again before the exam, each time making my own notes in the margins. I did it because I wasn’t as smart as the smart people in the class who had attended much better preparatory schools (I attended public schools), or who were just smarter. Of course, long ago (before bookstores and Amazon) the only libraries were personal libraries. Though some (Jefferson’s) included thousands of volumes, most consisted of (a few) classics, which the owners would read and reread and reread. There’s a reason why Jefferson, Madison (ugh), and the rest were so “smart”: they too followed Cowen’s advice. Who knew Cowen had such influence – before he was even born!

23 mkt42 January 23, 2016 at 10:19 pm

I think that’s the same version of the bible that I got recently, at any rate I did get an Oxford annotated bible. I already had a King James version because I figured that I wanted to read its influential literary style. But the lack of clarity and the poor annotations in that version finally provoked me to get the Oxford annotated bible, which I find to be both easier to read and more educational thanks to the annotations.

24 efim polenov January 26, 2016 at 7:48 pm

The Oxford paperback is probably the cheapest complete Bible with good readable printing commonly found in U.S. bookstores right now. It includes what Anglicans and others call apocrypha (several books translated from Greek, not Hebrew) and has lots of footnotes, but the authors of the footnotes and of the foreword do not seem to believe that the Bible is divinely inspired, and nothing they say, if I remember correctly (I owned the book for several years) leads me to believe they have the qualifications (they are high-ranking academics, but seem to be likable go-with-the -crowd types, rather than scrupulously honest original thinker types) to make the dismissive and negative judgments that they make. The best way to read the Bible is with a concordance and an open heart and a willingness to understand, rather than with the annotations of academic writers.

25 John January 23, 2016 at 9:37 am

I suppose this is assumed but worth stating i think. Somewhere in that process has to be stopping and reflecting on the meaning taken from this deep reading process for one’s daily life and current events in the world. Lacking one or the other it seems this approach might be good for a professor preparing the lecture notes for the upcoming semester/next year’s class or the pure consumption of information without really turning it into personal knowledge.

26 Stefan Constantinescu January 23, 2016 at 10:55 am

When I was in school, this is how I got around the whole “read the book” problem.

Instead of plowing through 700 pages of prose, I’d read 10 or more five page papers written about said material so I could understand just about every angle of the text, without actually having to have read said text.

Cheating? You tell me!

27 Aidan January 23, 2016 at 11:13 am

Sounds fine: if you’re trying to pass a test. And if you define reading an entire book as a “problem”. That said, to someone who actually enjoys reading books your strategy makes as much sense as reading a bunch of film reviews to avoid going to see a movie would.

28 James Kabala January 23, 2016 at 10:07 pm
29 mkt42 January 23, 2016 at 10:40 pm

Excellent movie, _Metropolitan_. It lacks the tragic figure of Jay Gatsby, but it’s like seeing a prequel of _The Great Gatsby_ with teenage future Nick Carraways, Tom and Daisy Buchanans, Jordan Bakers, etc. trying to figure out what life is about and what their futures should be.

30 rayward January 23, 2016 at 11:44 am

Cowen is exploring something deeper than just how to read classics: he is questioning why some people are drawn to particular ideologies, whether it’s religion (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) or ideology (communism, conservatism, liberalism, or libertarianism). Being born into a particular tribe is a big influence, but so is the depth in which people who join a particular tribe read the controlling texts. Of course, members of every tribe believe they have a deep understanding of the controlling texts. But they seldom do. Why not? Because once joining a tribe there’s no incentive (for the member or those who define it) for a deep understanding: too much knowledge can be a dangerous thing. And apostates are lonely people.

31 efim polenov January 23, 2016 at 11:56 am

Great advice, although number 4 (close-in-time rereading) and 1b (strategies for writing in books ) seem more like personal preference than 1a, 2, 3, and 5. I must be less of a re-reader than most commenters here; I spend much time I would have spent re-reading a classic novel rereading short excerpts and also looking at related or semi-related artworks (e.g., Isaak Levitan for Chekhov and Bunin, Finnish and French mythopoeic painters for Tolkien and Lewis, Google Images for posterized inspirational quotes from the various chapters of the Book of Revelation – the book is about a lot more than dragons). Also, nearly every classic novelist can be matched with a like-minded poet or two who has written many lines pre-explaining or memorably recalling multiple themes and details from the novels (e.g., Pushkin / Blok for Tolstoy and Bunin, Polonsky/Tyutchev for more Dickensian Russians).

32 dearieme January 23, 2016 at 1:43 pm

Always read books in the original language – translations are for tyros. Or Tyrones.

33 Cass1an January 24, 2016 at 5:00 am

That’s unnecessarily harsh (unless “try to read” was omitted). Why should you avoid the jewels of Old Norse or Old Chinese literatures only because they had quite complicated languages? Surely, the advice to learn languages and read literature in original language is a solid one, but restrictions here are unfruitful.

34 Kent Guida January 23, 2016 at 2:51 pm

Avoid commentaries, “secondary literature,” until you have finished your second, closer, reading. That’s my modification of Tyler’s method.

I agree about reading it straight through the first time,and noting the apparently important passages, but then you should immediately go back the beginning and make notes as you go — outlining the argument or the important turns in a work of fiction. One practical definition of a great book is one that deserves this treatment.

At that point you will be ready to engage in a dialogue with other readers such as commentators and be able to uphold your end of the conversation. Otherwise the secondary will replace the primary and all that will stick is what some commentator had to say. This is also why studying any work of great literature in the usual academic setting is so often counterproductive. You remember what the teacher said, not what the author wrote.

One more thing: always avoid introductions, unless they are written by the author. They just interfere with your direct encounter with the author and often make it impossible for you to approach the work with an open mind.

35 Bradley Gardner January 25, 2016 at 9:50 am

The, “read the original before the secondary literature” argument I think sums up my thoughts on why Christians struggle with the depth of the Bible.

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