Reading styles

February 5, 2011

I’ve been involved in an interesting exchange with Cynthia Kurtz on her blog which is worth reading in full. When I got back from the opera late tonight (more on that tomorrow as its an interesting aspect of fusion) I found her latest posting in which she said: I liked many things Max said. I just got stuck on that supremely insulting graph in the first pages of Knowledge Assets where he said hunter-gatherers use little information. Thinking of it still makes my fur bristle. There were also some misunderstandings and distortions of evolutionary theory, and various other ideological differences, all of which led me to look at the rest of what he said with a jaundiced eye. The Max in question was Boisot whose I-Space model inspired the creation of Cynefin and whose questioning has been a key part of my own development from before we met until the present day. Cynthia did not share my admiration for my intellectual mentor of recent years.

In parallel with this I was talking with my son (reading chemistry) and daughter (reading Anthropology) about some of their latest work at University. My son reads a small number of books in great detail, my daughter skims many books and articles, but returns to some to read more deeply. The former is probably more characteristic of science, the latter of the humanities. I certainly remember this from my own University days. My physics was actually maths so reading did not dominate, but philosophy scared the living daylights out of me on the first assignment when I realised how much we had to read, and the density of the text. I learnt to skim and that is still my style. Buy many books, skim them fast, re-read a few marking them in the margins and making notes on those blank pages at the back. I will never Kindle for serious reading!

In skim reading mode, you miss a lot but you are in effect providing a first filter, asking the question is this worth going further?. Even if you re-read you are probably still not getting deep down and you tend to forget to flag references. Cynthia in contrast used to enter a period she called “fattening” in which she read deeply and was not to be interrupted. Of course her academic training was in biology so that may reinforce my suggested science-humanites difference. Of course skim reading is not satisfied by summaries or anthologies, those are the result of some other person’s perceptual filters. Multiple blogs are better, as they are narratives with references which provide a pre-process for the subsequent skim.

One concern I have is the range of reading I see with my children’s contemporaries. Their knowledge of literature is far less than that of my generation, and I was always worried that mine was less than my parents. Television, then the internet may be the cause with the advantage of breadth, but the danger of loosing depth or context. I’m not sure there is any particular lesson in this, more an observation. I am fairly sure that while some of this is a predisposition, most of it is learnt behaviour so surrounding children with books and reading to them remains key. Even if it means reading Jane and the Dragon every night for over a year ….

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

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