Friday, March 17, 2006

Read and re-read

I'm not reading much these days. I should, and I will, once I get some of this data analysis backlog cleared. I have about a dozen books and a wad of articles lined up for reading. In addition to this new stuff, I am now beginning to realise that I would need to read some of the "old" stuff again...

For the first half a year of my PhD I did nothing else but sat in a library reading (studywise, that is). Books, articles, conference proceedings and review papers (oh, how I love GOOD review papers, you get the essence of dozens of articles and only need to read one - as long as it is a good one, which means it doesn't miss important articles and doesn't misrepresent their findings).

I used to take notes of what I read, since I thought I'd go back to those notes when writing up and would then easily find where this or that piece of information is, who said what and where. Now when I'm doing just that and visiting these old notes, I find that there are only two minor problems: I can't find the right stuff and what I find is useless.

The first problem arises from the fact that my system was "designed" to find the relevant information from the given book, as long as you knew in which book it was. And this is the critical fault. I'd first need to find the word-file with the notes of the correct book, to be able to access my fancy notes about quote x being on page 223. Luckily EndNote (with it's facility to store abstracts as well as references) and Google Desktop search help somewhat in overcoming this problem.

But, the second problem is of a more fundamental nature, and is the reason why I need to start re-reading the books. If I'm lucky to find the right notes, I find them mostly irrelevant. What I thought to be important and interesting 3 years ago, now seems more or less trivial, while the important bits are not at all covered by my notes. My research focus has shifted just enough to
shift the light spots into shade and vice versa. Of course I can also blame the inevitable ignorance of a first year PhD-student for not being able to see the forest from the trees.

Well, I suppose it is rather normal not to remember everything you read 3 years ago, and with a bit of searching and browsing quite a lot can be recovered from the notes I wrote - it definitely was worth the while writing them at the time. But this necessity to re-read seems to work on a shorter time-spans as well. Sometimes I read an article or a text, fail to be impressed, then go back to it from a different perspective, and get completely blown away. The current mind-set has a huge effect. Unlike prose or poetry, scientific texts are always read "with an agenda", there's something you need to know, something you want to find out. That might be the methodology used, the results obtained, or the theoretical framework and references, for example. Therefore you always tend to read these things with different hats and glasses of different shades on. And then either fail or succeed to find significance in the texts.

This mindset- or agenda-effect can be seen clearly in scientific conferences. In any given thematic session, most researchers will have read the same books and articles, and are all quoting the most seminal ones. But they all are "using" them differently. Sometimes the interpretations differ from each other so much, that you start to wonder if there are two completely different editions out there (unlikely if it is an article, more possible with books). This illustrates that it's just a case of "read what you want to read". These events always make me re-read some of the old stuff, just to check which of the presenters got it right and who was wearing the least transparent, self-reflecting glasses when reading it.

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