I found Bret Victor’s essay “Explorable Explanations” to be really inspiring. It’s a topic I’ve wrestled with often, especially during undergrad where my studies were basically doing a lot of reading and writing. Encouraging active reading, and challenging writers to aspire to this kind of writing, is a challenge that is only becoming more and more critical in this technological age.
I really appreciated Victor’s proposition that active reading is in some ways a form of play. In our own lives, we often use play as a way of understanding and testing assumptions and ideas we come across. When we want to know if we can afford that new iPhone, we might look at our finances and “play with the numbers,” as they say. My landlord would say this whenever we asked him not to raise our rent (‘gotta love Chicago). We know from child development that play is a key tool children use to grow and learn.
“In reading, one should notice and fondle details. There is nothing wrong about the moonshine of generalization when it comes after the sunny trifles of the book have been lovingly collected.” – Vladimir Nabokov, from his essay Good Readers and Good Writers
The Nabokov quotation above adds another side to active reading (and the expectation of good writing). Play requires a certain amount of affection, or dare I say love, for details. We explore a new thing (whether it be a dataset, an idea, a physical object) by first taking in its finer points. Our brain may construct a broad sense of the thing without us realizing it, but in order to truly know something, benefit from it, or use it, we often hold it in our real or proverbial hand, and take in its details. We fondle it. Sorry. The process of collecting the details is what reading is. Generalizing, making sense of it, organizing it, categorizing it–these all come after reading! These things are not reading.