How to read a book

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I wish I had read this book before I was 20, or at least during the time I was preparing for competitive exams for my MBA. "How to read a book" is a must read for all those people who are interested to improve their reading skills. I picked this book for the new from my antilibrary to be in pace with my new year resolution to read 25 pages every day and am super glad I started the year with this book. I will summarize the key takeaway. Here are few excerpts, 

There are 4 basic questions a demanding reader should ask a book
  • What is the book about as a whole?
  • What is being said in detail,and how?
  • Is this book True, in Whole or Part?
  • What of it?
I am making a point to ask these questions on all the books I would read hereafter. There are four levels of reading we can do,

  1. Elementary reading
  2. Inspectional reading
  3. Analytical reading
  4. Syntopical reading
Elementary reading, is something which all of pick up from our school on how to read letters, words and sentences and make meaning out of it. Which we pick up as we grow up. Inspectional reading on the other hand is trying to get the maximum info about any piece of article or book in a given time. But the focus of the book was on the higher levels of reading mainly analytical and syntopical reading. Analytical reading is truly a way to become a very demanding reader. Analytical reading can be grouped into 3 stages - structural, interpretive and critical. 
Stage 1 : Structural reading
  • Classify the book according to subject matter
  • State what is the whole book about with utmost brevity
  • Enumerate the major parts in their order and relation and outline these parts as you have outlined the whole
  • Define the problem or problems the author has tried to solve
Stage 2 : Interpretive reading
  • Come to terms with the author by interpreting the key words
  • Grasp the leading propositions by dealing with his most important sentences
  • Know the author's arguments by finding them in or constructing the out of sequence of sentences
  • Determine which of the problem the author has solved and which he has not.
Stage 3: Critical reading
  • Do not begin to criticize before completing the book outline and interpretation
  • Do not disagree disputatiously or contentiously
  • Demonstrate that you recognize the difference between knowledge and mere personal opinion by presenting good reasons for any critical judgement you make
  • How to criticize : Show where in the author is uninformed, mis-informed, illogical and author's analysis is incomplete
The author also covered in detail how to read various types of books starting from practical books, novels, plays, history and philosophy and social science.  On the face of it, it may look philosophical books are the best for analytical reading. But, books of the highest class - the books that seem to have grown with you as you read them are that would require us to read analytically. Poor Charlie Almanack, Anti Fragile by Taleb and Letters to shareholders by Buffet are a few books that I read last year which I would read again analytically. 

The highest level of reading is Syntopical reading. This involves reading multiple relevant books on a same subject to understand various arguments by various authors to improve our understanding. It was so coincidental that I was reading  Gary Taubes book on Good calories and Bad calories later this month. Gary Taubes is one of the finest Syntopical reader who read more than 1000+ books , articles and research papers on food and nutrition to write his book. If you have not read that book, it is a must read.  Here are the steps in syntopical reading, 
Stage 1  Surveying the field / prep work
  1. Create a tentative bibliography
  2. Inspect all of them to ascertain which are germane to your subject and also acquire a clearer idea of the subject
You would do the two steps again and again until you have a good list of reads
Stage 2 : Syntopical reading of the list filtered
  • Inspect the books already identified as relevant to the subject in order to find the relevant passages
  • Bring the authors to terms by constructing neutral terminology of the subject that all or great majority of the authors can be interpreted as employing, whether they actually employ the words or not
  • Establish a set of neutral propositions for all the authors by framing a set of questions to which all or most of the authors can be interpreted as giving answers.
  • Define the issues both major and minor one, by ranging opposing answers by authors to the various questions one side of the an issue or another
  • Analyze the discussion by ordering the questions and issues in a such a way as to throw maximum light on the subject. More general issues should precede less general ones , and relation among issues should be clearly indicated. 
For social science topics, syntopical reading works best and especially if you are someone in the path to multi disciplinary thinking advocated by Charlie Munger, you would appreciate this level of reading the most.  Here is the excerpt from the book that I loved so much, 

There is a strange fact about the human mind, a fact that differentiates the mind sharply from the body. The body is limited in ways that the mind is not. One sign of this is that the body does not cotinue indefinitely to grow in strength and develop in skill and grace. By the time most of people are thirty years old, their bodies are as a good as they will ever be; in fact , many persons' body have begun to deteriorate by that time. But there is no limit to the amount of growth and development that the mind can sustain. The mind does not stop growing at any particular age, only when the brain itself loses its vigor, in senescence , does the mind lose its power to increase in skill and understanding.
 This is one of the most remarkable things about human beings and it may actually be the major difference between homo sapiens and the other animals, which do not seem to grow mentally beyond a certain stage in their development. But the great advantage that man possess carries with it a great peril. The mind can atrophy. Like muscles, if its not used. Atrophy of the mental muscles is the penalty that we pay for not taking mental exercise.
 Television, radio and all the sources of amusement and information that surrounds us in our daily lives are also artificial props. They can give us the impression that our minds are active, because we are required to react to stimuli from outside. But the power of those external stimuli to keep us going is limited. They are like drugs. We grow used to them and we continuously need to more and more of them. Eventually , they have little or no effect. Then if we lack resources within our selves, we cease to grow intellectually, morally and spriutually. And wehen we cease to grow, we begin to die. Reading well, which means reading actively , is thus not only a good in itself, nor is it merely a means to advancement in our work or career. It also serves to keep our minds alive and growing.

(Emphasis mine). I started to appreciate reading more when I understood the power of compounding and how our brain works. I would like to continue to my reading journey every day with this goal of at-least 25 pages a day. If you want to learn how to read, do read this book How to read a book by Mortime adler without fail. 

2015 Recap

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I called 2015 as "Best year ever". As I reflect today, it was indeed one of the best years in my life personally and professionally. Before I recap my last year, similar to what I have written in the past, I will call out some big personal milestones that occurred in 2015. Sakthi officially became my better half in January, and we also welcomed our little angel Swara in October.  Became a husband and also father, double promotion in the last one year:). Professionally I made a big career change - after being in human resources for about 5+ years, I moved to a technical product management role in Bing search user experience (Microsoft has a title of Program Managers unlike the industry). It definitely got me to closer to one of my passions- technology. So that sums up some big changes at home and work, among many other things that happened in the last one year.  Now let us review actions in my passionate areas in 2015 and goals for 2016.

Technology :
My Goal for 2015 was to make a shift in my career where I get to work closely with technology.
  • Did some good research and experimentation on streaming services technology in the industry and even wrote a review on various devices available in the market like Roku, Apple TV, Chromecast etc. It is one of the most read posts in my blog ever in the last 10 years. I even got an advertisement sponsor for my blog from one of the streaming channels. Did some good research on prepaid phone plans in the US , which I have reviewed here.
  • Got hooked into researching on the tech business models like, on demand services etc. along with few other friends. This is still in infancy. 
  • Dirtied my hands with Android app programming, by setting up the environment to creating some basic screens. Took a course in Udacity to learn android programming and  open APIs. After many years, dabbled again with programming, leant some new stuff.
  • My job post October got me closer to technology, so have been learning HTML, CSS and JavaScript to better understand how to build awesome user experience. Even revamped my blog theme with a great theme from BlogTipsnTricks.
For 2016, my goals outside of work are : (1) Swift programming (2) Machine learning basics.
Plan : I would try to attend some MOOCs, read few books and build some basic app and some basic classifier or spam filter to deepen my learning in the coming months.

Health & Fitness
2015 goal was to complete STP in a day , and a stretch goal of completing Lake Stevens Ironman 70.3.
  • Completed STP in 18 hours , with a sprained leg and a broken rear derailleur in my bike. Trained well with Asha Seattle biking group and raised close to 600+ USD for the cause of educating kids in India. Checkout my training summary in this video.
  • Could not participate in any other events like lake to lake swim, GrandFondo or Ironman 70.3. My fitness levels varied through the year, beginning of January was my peak level of fitness and gradually deteriorated by the year end. Irregular exercise schedules and erratic (over) eating behaviors due to stress were back last year.
  • By end of the year got back some focus to eating better, tried master cleanse in March and again in December. Those provided some sanity, and some experiments with food and exercise helped me to maintain my vital numbers in the safe range. By December, I switched my diet to eat more real food, and reduced intake of processed foods or grains.
For 2016, my top 3 goals for fitness are  : (1) Get body fat level to below 20% (2) One day finish at STP  (3) Swimming : 300 miles , cycling 1000 miles
Plan : I would stick to the same diet of eating real foods (Veggies, egg, meat , fruits, skip sugar and grains), with intermittent fasting. Regular at swimming (learn flip, dive) and cycling. 

Personal Finance
I did not set clear goals for 2015, but just called out that I need to act more with changes in my life.
  • With FATCA / FBAR regulations, I completely stopped investing in Indian mutual funds. Switched my residential accounts to NRO/NRE accounts
  • Reworked on the asset allocation of my mother's portfolio and built a comprehensive master document
  • Moved my retirement investing to US index funds completely - Increases 401(K) contributions and started investing in Roth IRA. Aggressively invested in Health savings account, which helped in all the hospital expenses I had last year for my wife's delivery and emergency visits. 
  • Built emergency corpus separately in US , doubled my term insurance coverage with the increase in dependents.
  • Continued to stay away from debt, and focused on savings rate (% of income surplus saved) rather than investment returns as a key metric for improving. Tracked my spending pretty well inspite of high expenses by end of the year with life changing events.
For 2016, my top 2 goals : (1) Increasing the saving rate to move towards financial freedom (2) Continue to stay away from debt
Plan : Do a good risk management, with options to handle unforeseen events. Manage expenses diligently and relook every recurring expenses.

For 2015, I had a goal to improve my reading habit and read more books.
  • I did spend a good amount of time reading about 21 books, and also reviewed them most of the times in this blog. 
  • Taleb became my favorite author, read 3 of his books. Got inspired deeply by Charlie Munger & Warren Buffet's writing.
  • Goodreads gave a good summary of my reads here
  • My major focus areas of reading were Finance, investing, business, randomness & Mathematics
For 2016, my top 2 goals : (1) Read 25 Books at an analytical level (2)  Write about 10 companies
Plan : Read 2 books a month, and increase comprehension by writing regularly. Write analysis of 1 company a month and read 25 pages a day. Write a page every week.

This used to be holding bucket to write about any other thing I spend time like movies, travel, music  etc. So did not write my goals last year. Now I have forked it to Music as an area of focus and reduce my involvement in things like movies.
  • Had been scratchy with my Tabla classes. I almost gave up on learning a musical instrument mid of the year, but luck got me a Mridangam teacher in Seattle.
  • My mom gave me an audio clip of Rudram 7 years ago when I was in XLRI. Have been listening to it almost every other day. But only in the past year I learnt to chant them. Now I am able to chant Lagunyasam, Namakam & Chamkam  along with Purushasuktam. Have got associated with Seattle Rudram chanting group and attended ekadasa Rudram (11 times) chanting every month.
Goals for 2016 : (1) Play Aadi Talam in Mridangam fairly well (2) Memorize Rudram, and sukthams
Plan :  Practice Mridangam at least 2 days a week and attend weekly classes regularly. Memorize one stanza of Rudram a week.

Movies , Travel & More
So there had been no goal are intentional focus in this area always. I used to enjoy watching movies and it was the biggest time killer. I did watch most of the Tamil movies last year, and by end of the year with added responsibilities, could not catch up with new movies. I did travel to a some new places in January after marriage. Visited Singapore, Indonesia (Bali) for our honeymoon.  Short trips to Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Colorado & Vancouver, Canada. The second half of the year with Swara's arrival our travel bags are in the backburner, but pretty excited about our travel to India in March 2016 to visit our extended family.  Wrote at least one post a month in this blog, and hope to write every month next year as well. That is a 2015 summary of productive things I did other than my day job or personal time with family. 2015 was a year with so many changes and I called "Best year ever".

For 2016 , my theme is going to be "Intentional Focus" . Will do a detailed post on this theme, but in brief I would want to reduce distractions and doing too many things without getting deeper in few key things. Intentionally focus on activities that are related to only on (no particular order)  - Improving productivity at work, Spending quality time with my family, Focus on achieving my goals set on Tech, Health & Fitness , Personal Finance, Books (includes writing) & Music

Reflecting and writing about the last year made me think deeply on things I can improve for the next year. The goals and plan should set the stage for the next year. I will also post very short progress report against goals every quarter, which will make me accountable and get serious.

Happy new year every one!