Pages of Promise

With an hour to kill the other day I went in to a Barnes and Noble and just browsed through.  I walked each row, waiting for something to jump out at me.  While there were many books I would gladly take home, I left empty handed but satisfied.

New bookstores are great; with their targeted displays, bright lights, comfy chairs and coffee.  But even better is libraries and second hand bookstores.  The books there have more character; more gravitas.  They have been read by hundreds of people and are worn with dogeared corners and marginalia that is often indecipherable.  The people who work at these places are true lovers of books, more often than not found behind their desk nose deep in one.  Ask for a recommendation and their eyes light up as they encounter a kindred spirit.

And it is in these musty old bookstores that the magical possibility remains, of finding a treasure; some forgotten tome yielding incredible powers.  At least that is what I imagined as a kid…

My love of books and bookstores began very early, with my parents.  I was read to as a child, as I read to my kids today.  As I got older the library served as my internet and I would check out a big stack each week; a mix of science fiction and reference.  Some days I would sit at the library and read a full book before taking the rest home on my bike.

My Grandfather was also a bigtime reader of spy and thriller novels, with a large collection housed in a beautiful built in bookshelf.  I would spend Sunday afternoons with him; first mowing the lawn ($5.00!), then doing some woodworking.  Next, we would have lunch and play a few rounds of solitaire. Finally, I would choose a book from his collection for the week.  It was here that I discovered Trevanian and Ludlum, and had read the entire Bourne trilogy twice by the time I was fourteen.

Then there are found books; those books discovered in the back of an airplane seat, or on a chair at the bus stop.  I have left books in these places myself and know that they are not forgotten items, but gifts left by fellow travelers for the next reader.  I actually just found one at a heliport I flew out of – An Officers Duty by Jean Johnson –  and it was excellent.

Working at sea also encourages a lot of reading, especially in the days before ready access to TV or internet that now provides “quality of life”.  The readers would bring four to six books each trip – leaving them in the communal ships library when done.  You read it, then pass it along and take a new one.  The Seafarers Mission would also provide books to sailors free of charge, showing up at the gangway with a box brimming with the promise of adventure.

Stopping at bookstores in different countries was a magical experience.  I’ve purchased books from all over the world; both from famous bookstores and from tiny hole in the wall shops.  I began doing yoga as a result of a how-to book purchased in Bermuda.  I purchased The Moviegoer in New Orleans at a store located at the former residence of William Faulkner.  Everywhere you go, there will be something for you.

When the kindle arrived on the scene it was truly revolutionary.  Now I could travel with as many books as I wanted, minus the added weight in my luggage.  I read almost exclusively on my iPad for years to follow.  But recently I began to take note of a change in reading culture.  Ships no longer have well stocked libraries and the joy of discovering an excellent book totally by chance began to disappear; now you just dial up exactly what you want, when you want it.  In January I began my 12 Months of Modernism reading program for the year and had decided to read hardcopies, which was the best decision I could have made.  It has got me back into the bookstores and the dwindling culture of readers of the paperback novel.

There are still treasures to be found out there but you need to get out and look.  Maybe there will be a resurgence and paperback books will become ironically cool again, much like kids listening to vinyl.  But to me, a life spent with a nose in books is a life well lived, and there is nothing like walking into a store with books stacked to the ceiling, brimming with pages of promise.

The Hygiene of Writing

In 2001 Ray Bradbury gave a keynote speech to a sold out crowd.  Is was at the sixth annual Writer’s Symposium by the Sea, hosted at Point Loma Nazarene University.

Although 81 years old at the time and walking with a came, he came to life when he started to speak.  Passionate about the craft of writing he exclaimed “Writing is joy!  I have never worked a day in my life.”  Driving his points home using stories rich with imagery you get to see a master storyteller at work.  The video can be viewed here.

Over the course of his life Bradbury published over thirty novels, more than six-hundred short stories, and countless poems and essays.  He has won most every prize for writing that there is; from the Pulitzer to the National Medal of Arts.  He even won an Emmy for his work in Hollywood. 1   All this from a poor family man who couldn’t afford to go to college.  Instead, he would spend three to four days every week at the Waukegan Public Library for over ten years, reading and teaching himself to write.

And his focus was clear.  For 2 years he sold newspapers on a street corner in order to provide for his family.  Much like the bricklayer building the cathedral, when asked what he was doing Bradbury would answer “Becoming a writer.”

So when the man speaks, you listen.

During the speech Bradbury shares his thoughts on the “Hygiene of Writing” which is his daily program for improving your skills.  It is a simple program, with only two parts, and could be completed as the bookends for your day.  Part 1 in the morning and part 2 in the evening.  Then repeat for the rest of your life.

The Hygiene of Writing

Step 1.  Write a hell of a lot of short stories.

“If you can write one short story a week—doesn’t matter what the quality is to start, but at least you’re practicing. At the end of the year, you have 52 short stories, and I defy you to write 52 bad ones. Can’t be done.”  After maybe 30 weeks or 50 weeks a gem will appear.

This is the deliberate practice portion of the program.  The 10,000 hours.  If you want to learn to write, then you must write.

Bradbury warns against starting out by writing novels, as you don’t know the craft yet.  Indeed he didn’t produce his own first novel until he was 30 years old; a full 18 years into his writing career.  Instead, he considers short stories to be required training in the following skills:

  1. Compacting Ideas – with a short story you don’t have the space to ramble on.  You need to trim the fat; get to the point.  Your ideas need to be presented clearly and succinctly.
  2. Completion – If you write a short story every week then you complete something every week.  This is a powerful motivating factor and finishing what you start is not a skill that all of us possess.

Can’t think of what to write?  Then you are writing the wrong thing.  Bradbury figures that writers block is your subconscious telling you to do something else.  But if you really aren’t sure where to start he recommends this – Make a list of 10 things you love.  Write about them.  Make a list of 10 things you hate.  Kill them.  That should get you through the summer.

Step 2.  Before bed every night, read the following:

  • One short story
  • One poem
  • One Essay

“Imagine if you do this for 1,000 nights, what kind of stuff will be bouncing around in your head!”

The aim of this reading program is to “cram yourself full of metaphors.”  He argues that to write well you must use metaphor, but to do that you must first be able to recognize them when you see them.  He writes by making new connections between disparate things, so reads wide and deep to fill his head with fodder for his subconscious.  To write something unique you must read a multitude of unique material.  Unique input = unique output.

Short Stories – Bradbury was clear, “Modern short stories have no metaphore.”  He recommends instead to read short stories from the turn of the century, as they are thick with them.  Some of the authors he recommends:

  • Roal Dahl
  • Richard Matheson
  • Nigel Kniel
  • John Collier
  • Catherine Warden
  • John Irving
  • Herman Melville

Poetry – This section was challenging as I’ve never been very poetically minded.  I started to write a few trite phrases on it, but after some reflection I realized that this is exactly the reason Bradbury recommends reading a poem every night; to learn about it and educate yourself.  Starting with the classics of course.

He didn’t elaborate who to read much past Shakespeare and Robert Frost.  I’m going to take Bradbury’s advice and start taking in some poetry.  Some recommendations in the comments would be appreciated!

Essays – This segment gets very interesting very quickly.  A well written essay will teach you something; either  in the broad sense or else a very specific aspect of a subject.  They can be factual or opinion, philosophy or personal experiences.  And, as in everything, Bradbury recommends sticking to the classics.

The essays of George Bernard Shaw in particular are his top recommendation.  In fact, he states that if he were stuck on a dessert island with only three items, these would be one of them (the others being the bible and the works of Shakespeare).  Two other essayists he recommends are:

  • Aldous Huxley
  • Lauren Eisley – starting with “The Fire Apes”

Speaking of Georges; George Orwell was another prolific essayist.  His works can be found for free on Project Gutenberg.

A final, personal recommendation, is the Breaking Smart series by Venkatesh Rao.  These are described as a “bingeworthy collection of essays” and comprise 20 essays totaling over 30,000 words.  They are based on Marc Andreessen’s observation that “software is eating the world.”  Interesting stuff.

Bonus! – While not part of his 3 part reading program, Bradbury also recommends watching old movies.  You could start working through the 100 Greatest Movies of All Time.

But I don’t want to write short stories!

Me neither.  Not my deal.  But I want to write.

I want to learn about communicating clearly and write about it.  I want to write about my personal experiences.  And I love to write about writing.

While Bradbury’s advice is good for any writer, it is skewed towards those who aspire towards fiction.  But what about those of us who want to write non-fiction in the online realm?  Online content and the way we take in media has changed dramatically in the 15 years since he gave this talk.  What if we stuck with the spirit of his program but changed the content to reflect our needs today?

Writing Hygiene for Non-Fiction

Step 1. Write a blog post a week.

This fulfills Bradbury’s requirement of finishing something on a weekly basis, with the added bonus of actually putting it in front of the public.  And yes, a lot of it will still be terrible.  But the credit goes to the person actually in the arena.

Much like Bradbury’s Martian Chronicleseventually you will end up with a large enough word count to consider moving it into book form.

Write.  Publish.  Repeat.

Step 2. The Reading Schedule.

The point of Bradbury’s step 2 is to fill yourself so full of knowledge and ideas that, through the practice of your writing, you produce something unique.  Therefore, before bed every night, read the following:

  • One Blog Post
  • One Chapter
  • One Essay

Blog Post – If you are writing online then you should read what others write online.  Get involved in their comments section and provide feedback.  Subscribe to 7 weekly newsletters and you’ll have something to read every night.

Chapter – When writing non-fiction you need the info and idea’s that come from others who write in your field(s) of interest.  So whip out your kindle and download the classics for your field.  Then read enough every night so that you can finish a book every week.

Do this every night for 1,000 nights and you’ll have read almost 143 books.  Imagine what will be bouncing around in your head!

Essay – For this section Bradbury’s recommendations stand.  You are looking for unique inputs so read essays from the thought leaders of yesterday and today.  Understand different points of view and read on different subjects.

Bonus!  Podcasts and video such as Ted Talks or documentaries.  There is so much interesting and actionable content being hosted online these days that we can quickly learn about anything, no matter how esoteric.  Make use of it.  I do a lot of traveling by car and listen to podcasts while I do so.  I’d recommend Tim Ferriss or the Art of Manliness podcasts to get you started.

Final Thoughts

Bradbury made two additional points during his talk that are worth mentioning briefly:

Fire your friends

Anybody who doesn’t support you, who doesn’t believe in you.  Get them out of your life.  Damn the naysayers and get on with your business.  Good advice for anything, not just writing.

Live in the library, not on your computer 

This one may be a little tougher to pull off these days, but is worth considering nonetheless.  As we become increasingly “connected” we  also become detached in other areas.  Our ability to focus decreases.  Our stress level rises due to the numerous open loops hanging over us, in the form of incoming emails, messages, and other electronic obligations.  If any of this resonates with you then I highly recommend reading Deep Work by Cal Newport.

All you need is a pad of paper, a pencil, and a library card.  With them you can move mountains.  Write every morning and read every evening.  Make Ray proud.

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Military Reading Tactics – SQ3R

In 1946 Francis Pleasant Robinson published his seminal work, Effective Study.  In it he details the reading comprehension technique that he helped develop with the US Military around the end of WWII, then finalized during his tenure at Ohio State University.

Dr. Robinson was an Educational Psychologist with a PHD in Experimental Psychology.  He was in charge of the “How-to-learn” program during his time at OSU from 1937 – 1977.  This program was the outcome of his work with the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP), in which he used data collected on the study habits of soldiers to help develop higher level learning skills.

What is the ASTP?

Developed during WWII, the program was designed to meet the anticipated need for junior Officers and soldiers with higher levels of technical skills than had been required previously.  It got its start on the heels of the Pearl Harbor bombings and was part of the preparations for a planned amphibious assault on the Japanese mainland.

Requirements to the program were high, with applicants needing to score a minimum of 115 on the entrance IQ test.  This was later raised further to 120.  Following acceptance the recruits were then sent to thirteen weeks of basic training.

With basic training complete the soldiers were assigned to a college campus, of which 227 schools around the nation took part.  They were under strict military discipline while on campus and were required to continue with PT, wear their uniforms, and march to class.  The course of study was daunting as the program attempted to compress a four year bachelor degree program into a period of eighteen months.

The program was not universally supported however, with opponents decrying the allocation of troops that could be used elsewhere.  Ultimately three-quarters of the soldiers were pulled from the program in 1944 and transferred to combat units.  Many of these men had given up their non-commissioned rank to attend the program and did not get them reinstated, so were transferred as privates.

While none of the soldiers were able to complete more than two of the three-month terms, it is a testament to the program that four out of five surviving soldiers who were enrolled went on to finish university after the war. 1

The Method

The method developed by Dr. Robinson is a reading strategy for developing superior comprehension of written material in a reduced time frame.  It is widely applicable to a variety of subjects and helps develop retention and recall of the material.

SQ3R is a mnemonic that lays out the steps to be taken: Scan, Question, Read, Recall, Review.  Let’s examine these in turn.

Scanning

The first step to take when presented with new material is to Scan the document.  This means that rather than start reading at page one through to the end, first take some time to familiarize yourself with the work.  See how it is laid out, what the progression is, and what points are being made.

This is done not by reading through the text, but by first looking at a few areas:

  • Table of Contents
  • The Index in the back
  • Glossary, if it has one
  • Chapter headings
  • Sub-headings within chapters
  • Authors note
  • Footnotes and sidebars

By first scanning the book you are getting a feel for what the author is trying to tell you and how their thinking is organized.  You’ll get a broader feel for the work as a whole; a 30,000 foot view of the subject.

Note that you can also do a mini-scan each time you pick up the book, in order to reacquaint yourself with the material that you are about to read, and to get back into the same mindset as where you left off.

Question

Now that you’ve scanned the text and have a better feel for what it is about and where the author is coming from, it is time to start forming Questions.  This is a key part of thinking critically and you should be challenging the author to prove their argument rather than just accepting it at face value.  You want to be asking questions both on the work as a whole and specific questions on the contents of each chapter.

For the Global View of the complete work think to yourself:

  • What is the authors purpose?
  • What is their motivation for writing this piece of work?
  • Do they have a hidden agenda?

If you already have some familiarity on the subject you can ask questions of yourself such as:

  • What do I already know about this?
  • Does this agree with what I’ve read previously?
  • How does this authors position differ from what I already know?
  • What are they bringing to the table that is new?

As you prepare to read an individual chapter the advice given by Dr. Robinson is to turn the chapter title and the headings in the chapter into questions.  As headings describe what will be discussed next, if you turn it into a question then the answer should follow shortly thereafter.

Note that it will be very useful to you in the future if you write your questions down, especially later for the Recall and Review stages.  I recommend doing your reading on a Kindle as it can be a powerful study tool, especially with some of the new features.  Highlight the chapter heading and attach your questions to it as notes, or make up flashcards with your questions then attach your answers as you find them.

If you are examining a work that is not divided up using headings or sub-sections, such as an essay or piece of fiction, then your task is a little harder.  In this case it can be better to first read through the chapter non-stop, so as not to interrupt the narrative drive, ask your questions once finished, then go back for a second pass to find the answers.

In examining fiction there is no greater resource than The Story Grid, by Shawn Coyne.

Reading

If Scanning and Questioning is the preparatory work, Reading is the execution.

You must read through the piece actively, with the questions you have about it firmly in mind.  Don’t let the words just slip over you.  Examine them for the answers to what you are asking.

It is important to separate the details from the main ideas.  Modern non-fiction books are often chocked full of examples and anecdotes supporting each main idea.  These can be entertaining and enlightening, but you must focus on the main idea presented as it is the structure that holds the full thesis together.  Otherwise you may get bogged down by the details until they overwhelm your understanding.

Always keep the Global View in mind and be asking how this individual piece (chapter) relates to that view as a cohesive unit.

Recall

This is where the retention of what you have discovered will be strengthened.  It is also where having your questions written down will come in handy.

You should perform this step at the end of each section completed, then again for every section once you’ve finished the entire work.  Your Recall can be done orally, with you talking to yourself about it, or it can be written.

The primary objective of the recall session is to identify the major points that were covered and to review the answers to the questions you asked.  If you’ve found those answers during the Reading step then this will be your second time examining them, which will help to solidify them in your mind.

When recalling your answers it is very important that you put them into your own words.  By paraphrasing the information you’ll create stronger associations which will help you recall the info easier in the future.

Review

This is the final stage and it doesn’t necessarily take place immediately after finishing the book.

An important tactic to use when trying to learn something new is Spaced Repetition.  This technique incorporates increasing intervals of time between Reviews to leverage the psychological spacing effect of learning.  Put simply, reviewing information spaced out over time makes it easier to learn.

Coming back to your question and answer sheet, or note cards if using the Kindle Technique, after a period of not looking at it will strengthen the associations and make it progressively easier to recall the information.  During your review you’ll want to self-test by using your questions as a prompt and attempting to answer them on your own.

Associating key phrases with the main ideas is another outcome you should be working towards.  This helps you grasp the Global View of the ideas, especially when re-stated in your own words.

How often should you perform these repetitions?  It’s hard to say as there are a number of factors involved.  Is it time bound for an actual exam you are taking, or is this for personal knowledge only?  Do you already have good mental retention of information or do you require more repetition?

A good starting point is to let the thing sit for a day or two after you first complete it, then perform your first review.  Do another at the end of the week.  Review your previous book after you finish your next book.  Review everything you read once every 3 months.  Find the spacing that works for you.

Takeaway

SQ3R is a slower way to read but a quicker way to learn.

Dr. Robinson and the Army Specialized Training Program knew what they were doing and have given us a great technique for rapid knowledge acquisition.  The effectiveness is proven by it’s list of alumni, including:

  • Kurt Vonnegut
  • Gore Vidal
  • Ed Koch
  • Henry Kissinger
  • Bob Dole
  • Mel Brooks

If you are using reading as escapism then you probably aren’t interested (and probably didn’t read this far anyway!).  But if you’ve made it here then it is a good sign that you read for self improvement.  And if that’s the case then this will help you reach your goals faster and with less wasted effort by using a more methodical system for retention.