Knowledge Continuum

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Notes on self-studying a technical book

Disclaimer: This article deals specifically with technical concepts, mainly in the field mathematics and computer science. Readers are advised to not extrapolate it to the general idea of technical concepts, which in popular culture can mean to include everything in the non-fiction genre.

Books might not be the best medium to self-learn technical concepts, for they have the tendency to demand the highest level of attention to even learn medium level concepts. The primary problem with this requirement is that of energy drain and will-power dissolution. With modernity's reduced attention span, this coercive attention-building process can be actually more harmful than helpful. We need people learning at their own pace without being bogged down by the structural inflexibility of already difficult materials. The Internet gets at this very well by atomizing and supplying the information tailored to the individual's requirement, but it still lags behind books in the cohesiveness and comprehensiveness aspect of things. Although to an extent online MOOCs address this limitation of other internet-based learning channels like wikis, blogs, interactive posts etc, they tend to rely heavily on temporal persistence(i.e, the ability to retain data in memory while chaining them together without providing any space for any actual processing), which is also the reason for the failure of most classroom in-person lectures. That said, it must also be noted most people do not find it very difficult to navigate the online space when it comes to knowledge acquisition but dread picking up a technical book to do the same. In fact, to be honest, I completed my undergraduate in computer science with many of the most revered books in the field still wrapped in cover in their pristine form never touched once. Maybe once or twice to make myself feel a little bit more good about owning them, but you get the point. This article is an attempt at reducing this fear and making books a little more accessible.

This is a part of the experiment that I am running to learn mathematical concepts(right now Algebraic Geometry) on my own using various resources, but the most valuable resources in the field still seem to books. So, I'll be constantly updating this guide based on my experience and the feedback loop.

Multipass Reading

Multipass Reading is the best approach we have currently we have to reconcile attention span with will power. The best feature of multipass reading is the completion rate, that is, with multipass reading you get to skim through the entire book at least once which allows you to keep the motivation alive, whereas with one-pass if you are dejected at any given point due to the book's sheer size or the complexity of the content, the chances of you ever picking up and studying it to completion becomes pretty much zero. Also the other advantage is the multipass reading works more like a neural net training mechanism i.e., with multiple epochs comes better clarity.

Pass Duration Stage Description
1 1/2 Hour Skimming Thoroughly examine the table of content. Skim through the chapters that seem familiar to you and get accustomed to the structure. Take note of all the Jargons
2 2 Hours Mapping Read just the prose, take note of the familiar ideas and double down on the connection between the newly learned broad ideas and the familiar ones.
3 3 Hours Re-mapping Study the theorems, proofs, code etc. Take note of the unknown ideas and jargons; and double down on the connection between the unknown and the known
4 2-3 Hours Internalizing Solve the problems, excercises, etc. Tie all the concepts together

Tips to complement Multipass Reading

The Big Book Problem

Initially use big books only as references. Pick books and resources that allow you to digest information in an engaging way, without tiring or unnaturally stretching your attention span. Attention is a contextual commodity, it grows on its own as you gain proficiency. Once you feel even a little bit confident about the topic jump to big books.

Multiple (Re)Sources

Multiple books(resources) on a single topic works very well. For eg. Being a C++ dev, learning category theory from Bartosz’s posts helps, but using Lawvere & Schanuel, Awodey, Seven Sketches, Joy of Cats, nLab just make it so much easier when going back to Bartosz’s posts.

The advantage is this also helps with Multipass reading i.e., you can pace yourself easily and if you are bored or frustrated with the material you can always switch sources and come back to it later.

Or as Nassim Taleb says:

"Be bored with a book, not with the act of reading"
—Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Antifragile

Cycling over completion

Don’t try to forcibly complete a chapter before going on to the next one, especially if it is a large technical book. It helps with the motivation & also sometimes going forward and getting a vague idea of the advanced abstract concepts can make earlier chapters easier to grasp.

Sometimes it can get difficult when you are not making progress or the content is too intimidating, but most people chose to stay put and eventually lose all the motivation instead of de-congesting the traffic-jam. When you go to the more advanced portions of the book it might seem difficult, but even having a very vague idea of a more advanced concept can really help with the "click" when you go back to the chapter in which you were stuck.

The anthology route

Yes, go become a historian of computer science and dig through its history, you will learn more as an amateur historian digging through the rusty old papers than as a computer science undergrad.

From Notes on how to read betterNotes on how to read better
This is going to be a prescriptive post about reading, as most of these are either from my own experiences or from having benefited from reading interesting books that directly/indirectly hint at c...

I do not know if this needs any futher explanation, but for what it is worth, the benefit is you have a temporal consistency that helps you mature along with the material. I have seen this help me so much with my research and understanding in it allows you form a mental model without the need for solving assignments, that is, if you read all of leibniz's work in its chronological order, you will realize that there is this wavelength that you strike with him in that you stumble upon calculus just about in the same fashion that he did. Thus allowing you to have a more naturalistic understanding of the ideas and the concepts without going through the unpleasant route of having to solve some made up problems that is forced upon you by the author of a calculus textbook…

Publish or publish

I can't insist more on the benefits of sharing your work with others in a structured manner. Write a blog post or a tweet storm about monads if that's your thing, but do it. Helps as a feed-forward loop, which in turn helps with the motivation to study more and dig deeper.

Note: Will keep updating this post as I go about studying some advanced concepts in Algebraic Geometry.


[1] Descartes on the matter:

[2] How to study UBUffalo

[3] How to read UMichigan

[4] Math Learn Topology