I often wondered during my time at St. John’s how my reading patterns would change after graduation. What kinds of books would I read, and why? How many books, and how often? I worried that I might read less, and not read enough Great Books; I hoped that I might read more, and a wider variety of books. While I thought my relationship to books and reading might grow or deteriorate, wax and wane, I didn’t even imagine that it could change substantially. And yet, a little over six months after graduating, it has changed substantially, and it seems possible and likely that it will continue to change.
The reason for this is based in something I began to experiment with at St. John’s: Anki and Spaced Repetition. If you have no idea what that is, I recommend reading this really interesting Wired article on Piotr Wozniak, guru-granddaddy of spaced repetition. There are really good posts about SRS on Wozniak’s site, Supermemo, as well as gwern.net. After that, download and use Anki, an open source implementation of SRS.
You may remember that I used Anki and SRS for Ancient Greek, and wrote about it for Mindhacker. However, my understanding of spaced repetition’s practical usage and almost unreal potential was minimal at that point. My cards were somewhat poorly constructed, and I only used it for Ancient Greek and English vocabulary.
What caused the change? First of all, I have a new computer (running Arch Linux), and I decided to get Anki set up again. Second, I remembered that the Wired article talked about incremental reading, and that I had seen a basic implementation of it for Anki. I decided to check it out.
As it turns out, there have been three iterations of development of an Incremental Reading implementation for Anki. The most recent one (and an additional, required extension, is a functional, relatively stable one. It has some bugs, and the developer has been away from the project for a bit, but it gets the job done, and there is a fair amount of interest in it.
But what do you do with it?
Incremental Reading allows you to use spaced repetition software not just to remember material, but also to learn it. Incremental Reading is for efficiently reading, learning, memorizing, and reviewing fact-based material. You start with HTML websites (too bad .PDFs are the most common document for this kind of thing!) with fact-based material that you are interested in learning and remembering. Then you create cards in Anki (using a specific “model,” with fields for title, text, and source, as well as the usual tags), which you put into Incremental Reading deck. The extension treats this deck and its cards in a special way. When you review the cards, you read the material, and use shortcuts (that you create) to create cards based on the material as you go. These cards go into your normal decks, and you can review them every day with spaced repetition as usual.
The other dimension of Incremental Reading is that you can read many, many articles, on many different topics. I am currently incrementally reading books and articles on programming, Linux, spoken languages, psychology, and science. I read a little bit or a lot, make cards as I go, and go on to the next article. The normal part of Anki handles my cards, so I review those each day, and will remember it a lot better than I would otherwise. Hence, my tweet:
Incremental Reading has me feeling like Neo, training… “I [will incrementally] know kung fu”— Michael Fogleman (@mwfogleman) November 26, 2013
When I was first realizing how powerful this process is, and how much it was going to change my life, I toyed with the idea of following Wozniak, and focusing most of my reading energy on Incremental Reading. However, because incremental reading is best for fact-based material, that means I wouldn’t read things like novels or philosophy, which I love. That would mean almost completely abandoning the books I came to love at St. John’s, as well as my practical-egocentric streak of completing challenges on Goodreads.
I realized I was tending towards extreme thinking—I will either only use IR, and only read fact-based material, or only read Great Books—and decided to think of a more moderate approach.
When I matriculated at St. John’s College, President Nelson centered his commencement speech around the thesis that books are our friends. He told us that at St. John’s, the books are common friends, and that the authors and characters would be our friends. He specifically mentioned Socrates and Don Quixote, two of my best book-friends, and relied heavily on Plato’s Phaedrus, which I wrote my Senior Essay on.
As I (poorly) remember it (mostly from others allusions), Aristotle says that there are three categories of friends: utility, pleasure, and virtue, as well as various sub-combinations. If books are our friends, then maybe these categories apply, too. Fact-based material corresponds to friends of utility. It is useful and beneficial to read this material, and to read it well. Incremental Reading helps me to do that.
However, there are also friends of pleasure and virtue. I should know when I want to read a book that I will enjoy, simply for the pleasure of reading it. This is probably literature: a novel, short story, poem, or well-written non-fiction essay.
There are also books of virtue: books which have ἀρετή, goodness or excellence. These correspond quite neatly to the Great Books. The Great Books can be fun to read, and even useful, but most of all, they are excellent. Their acquaintance serves to remind us of our own potential for ἀρετή.
Incremental Reading has changed the way I think about reading. I’ve remembered that books can be useful, and now I have a way to maximize that utility. Fittingly, adapting Aristotle’s model of friendship to books has helped me to strive for moderation and the mean with my own reading habits, even in a time of change. And since the things of friends are common, perhaps you, too, will find this model fitting, and even decide to use spaced repetition and incremental reading.