How to read long, difficult books

Berkeley economics prof (and former Clinton deputy Treasury secretary) J Bradford DeLong (previously) has written a guide for reading "long, difficult books," in response to Andy Matuschak's "rant" Why Books Don't Work.

DeLong specifically presents his advice for students enrolled in his Econ 105 class, "History of Economic Thought: Do we live in a Smithian, Marxian or Keynesian World?" in which students are expected to read Adam Smith's "An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations," Karl Marx's "Capital," and John Maynard Keynes's "The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money."

DeLong's advice — ten tips in all — is all about "knowing what to do with a book that makes an important, an interesting, but also a flawed argument" and calls on the reader to approach it critically, reading it through twice in two different mindsets, first as "the kind of person with whom the arguments would resonate" and then as "a sympathetic but not credulous" reader.

1. Figure out beforehand what the author is trying to accomplish in the book.

2. Orient yourself by becoming the kind of reader the book is directed at—the kind of person with whom the arguments would resonate.

3. Read through the book actively, taking notes.

4. "Steelman" the argument, reworking it so that you find it as convincing and clear as you can possibly make it.

5. Find someone else—usually a roommate—and bore them to death by making them listen to you set out your "steelmanned" version of the argument.

6. Go back over the book again, giving it a sympathetic but not credulous reading

7. Then you will be in a good position to figure out what the weak points of this strongest-possible argument version might be.

8. Test the major assertions and interpretations against reality: do they actually make sense of and in the context of the world as it truly is?

9. Decide what you think of the whole.

10. Then comes the task of cementing your interpretation, your reading, into your mind so that it becomes part of your intellectual panoply for the future.

A Note on Reading Big, Difficult Books… [Brad DeLong/Brad DeLong's Grasping Reality]

(via Four Short Links)