Learning to learn: The hidden value of dense books
February 7, 2018
Whenever I encounter a book that’s particularly dull, long or full of complicated words and concepts, I describe it as “dense.” A lot of textbooks fall under this category, as do most scholarly research articles and one or two sci-fi books (“Dune” by Frank Herbert is reminiscent of a college textbook on politics, and you run the risk of knocking the earth out of orbit if you drop a copy of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” by Douglas Adams).
My reading habits are slightly odd in that it takes a very good reason for me to put down a book. Sometimes I’ll even have a very good reason, and I’ll keep reading simply because I hate leaving a book half-read. As a result, I’ve stubbornly plowed through a decent number of very dense books. Oftentimes I'll only have half an understanding of what I read, but I’ve come to appreciate the hidden value in difficult books.
A lot of important information often becomes encoded in dense reading material. Laws, for instance, are usually very heavy on jargon and difficult to read through if you don’t have extensive schooling in the field. Everyone would probably agree, however, that laws are important things to understand since they govern a large chunk of our lives. I would argue that the average person should be capable of going online to the Wisconsin State Legislature website, looking up a bill and understanding what it means.
I don’t think this is the case, though.
We’ve become used to having things broken down for us by teachers and media outlets into easy-to-digest bites of information coupled with color photos, helpful diagrams and bolded key words. It’s definitely not a bad way to get information, since it’s often extremely effective. However, if we rely too much on letting others break down information for us, we lose the ability to do it for ourselves.
Sometimes we need to understand information that no one else has thought to put into layman’s terms. For instance, you might find yourself with a research paper to write, and the professor requires that you cite five or six scholarly articles to support your essay. To do it right, you would have to understand what those five or six scholarly articles are talking about.
Reading dense books in your free time is a good way to practice for these instances. You can do it at your leisure; my method was to read one or two pages a night before bed (this was great because it doubled as a sleeping aid). As you go, you need not feel obligated to completely understand what you’re reading, but you can move slowly, test your ability to decode the overall meaning and practice looking up words that you don’t understand.
Pro tip: learn to memorize the Greek or Latin roots of prefixes and suffixes like “auto” or “meta.” If you understand the roots of words, you can often decode even the most complicated, terrifying-looking terms without having to look them up.
Learning how to read dense books is all about learning how to learn. If you train yourself to take in complicated information, you will no longer have to rely on others to translate it for you. No information will be beyond your reach, and there’s no telling what you’ll be capable of.
Sophia Koch is a student at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.