I used to like Harry Potter. There was something magical about an abused kid getting swept away by a stranger that lets him know that he’s actually a wizard.
Over the past few years, I’ve been thinking about the books, how it’s influenced me as a kid, and how Hermione just didn’t seem quite right. There was something about her — her ability to learn, to read books, to absorb information and just know how to do things. Yes. She’s supposed to be brilliantly talented but I couldn’t put my finger on it until recently.
It was the books.
The stupidly large books she always seemed to carry around — not so much in the movies but in the original text and in my head, there was always a door stopper sized thing from the library. If she’s not carrying it, then it’s in her bag.
The death of the pocketbook
Something I’ve noticed over the years is that volumes published within the past decade seem to be thicker than what they used to be back in the 90s and 80s. Even books that didn’t make the word count that would result in bulking up the thickness were formatted in a way to increase the final page count.
It might just be the versions I encountered but I remember flicking through a volume and thought — this doesn’t have to be double spaced at 18pt font with only about 8 words per line. 14pt would have been alright and maybe 1.5 spacing.
The book came in at a standard 320 pages rather than the 225 pages it would have been. Somewhere in our physical print journey, printing blank space became a thing.
While there’s nothing wrong with formatting itself, sometimes adding those extra pages to justify the price of the actual book isn’t a good reason. It’s like they’re trying to hide the truth about the book — that what it lacks in substance makes up for its sheer size.
You can’t exactly put them into pocket anymore — not like how the Dickens periodicals and short volumes like the Alchemist, Animal Farm, and Earthsea series are.
Expensive lessons about learning
Then there are the books that are so densely packaged with information that you get lost in the sea of words from squinting.
It’s like they’re trying to weed out the undedicated people.
For me, they often came in the form of textbooks. Most of the time, I don’t get past the second chapter and often struggle to stay focus. Most of the time, it just feels like I’m not making as much progress as I want to.
I have nothing against books.
What I have is our relationship and perception of how they’re supposed to be consumed. Somewhere, we took on the idea that books had to be read from front to back, at a consistent rate, and in order of arranged chapters.
Maybe for a novel but not so much for when it comes to non-fiction books.
There’s a mental block that physically stops me from moving forward in a large volume — and perhaps that’s what publishers are trying to do with their formatting nowadays — to give the reader a sense that they’re making progress on something substantial.
Because the size of a book is often associated with the intensity of knowledge it holds.
Perhaps that’s why textbooks are so big and bulky.
In memory of the dead trees that sit in the corner of my house
I went through a phase of buying programming books because I was under the impression that you needed them in order to learn how to code.
I probably spent more on books that are now outdated and obsolete than what I just recently spent on buying my iPad.
Maybe it’s a preference thing but I’m sure no one really reads programming books from cover to cover in one sitting. In part, it’s because the books themselves don’t allow for such an act of rapid information absorption to occur.
I tried on multiple occasions but it just didn’t work out.
Yet, the physicality and sheer size of them gave me the appearance being knowledgeable. Now they’re just dead trees sitting in the corner of my house, reminding me of the time I spent a fortune but never really made use of it.
I thought they were an investment — but now I just know that it’s a sunk cost, a physical reminder of the times I failed spectacularly in the act of playing the smart and studious student troupe.
And perhaps that’s the real issue and reason why I bought those books — because that was the message conveyed to me as a kid that to learn anything, you had to sit still long enough to read and absorb the knowledge. It came through the novels I read, and the shows I watched.
Someone somewhere was always sitting with their heads bent over a large book.
But that’s not how real learning works — especially not today.
Learning to learn
Learning isn’t about how much to read or rote memorization. It’s about what you actually understand and what you can do with that understanding.
Perhaps that’s why I didn’t really do much ‘studying’ when I was supposed to back in University. I hated memorization but I had a good memory for the things I actually understood. While a lot of my friends were fretting about exams, I’m off procrastinating in the library reading some random chapter from the history section.
The point of learning is so that you can use and synthesize what you know into new ideas, and that’s what tests are trying to gauge (well, the ones I took anyway back in school).
It’s especially true for programming ideas. You can’t just parrot a concept back and hope that your application works. You have to apply your understanding and synthesize solutions based on a myriad of knowledge points.
Learning isn’t about grade points. No one really cares about your grades, maybe in your first job, but not so much after that. Perhaps I learned this too much later in life, but it turns out that grades are only part of the measure. Rather, it’s your skills as a person who can look at a problem and come up with effective solutions that ultimately matters.
I might read a page or two but that’s as far as I get with thick volumes because I’m off in a different space testing out the knowledge that I just acquired. The books, especially programming books, are one dimensional by design. But programming is more than just ideas — it’s the application of ideas.
Every now and then there would be a scene in a movie, series, or kid’s show that presents a person studying intensely, their heads bent over a book of some sort with a dimly lit warm light desk lamp.
It’s the modern equivalent of studying by candlelight.
And it’s the worst way to study — unless that’s how you actually learn things.
A lot of people think that’s how I learn but in reality, it’s far from the truth.
I’m a tactile learner. I learn by doing. I need to turn the passiveness of reading into something active in order to make it stick. I need to lift the ideas of the pages, turn them over like slime in my fingers, make new shapes, add glitter, in addition to figuring out how it breaks and why it breaks.
That’s what I do when I study and why I never actually finished reading any of my towers of programming books.