In many college classes and in the knowledge-work industry, you will be required to learn new material from a book. Very likely you will be assigned some reading on the topic, and this reading will probably be from an eminent and respectable tome. When people see you carrying around that tome, or reading it on the tube, they will be quite impressed by your powerful brain. But there’s one large drawback.
I. Textual Density and Inacessibility
That tome will be utterly unhelpful, written in a language of dense jargon, and of the expectation that you will read the accursed thing from cover to cover in its entirety and with a perfect memory, because the vital concept in chapter 8 was defined exactly once, four hundred pages ago, in chapter 1. Furthermore the location of that definition is not mentioned in chapter 8. Such books are peerless when you already understand the topic and aim to deepen your comprehension. But they are the curse of unproductive death for the novice. The paradigmatic example of this is Gleason and Gordon’s Applied Calculus, which is often assigned to undergraduates in a calculus course for students who are not mathematics majors. These students would do overwhelmingly better to ignore the (needlessly and insultingly expensive) Gleason and Gordon and instead pick up a text written in natural language for a non-specialist audience. In this case, the best answer is something like The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Calculus.
II. The General Social Other and Unprestigious Texts
Nobody will be impressed in the slightest when they see you carrying that around. In fact, you’ll likely be mocked. For this reason, your manager will never hand you a For Dummies or similar title after asking you to figure out a new topic—it would imply that his company is filled with wankers. Not one professor in all of academia has ever assigned a Complete Idiot’s Guide. But these books are often the most valuable introductory material available anywhere. They assume no prior domain knowledge, tend to treat each chapter as a discrete unit that could be learned alone, are written with many concrete examples, and often include bits of levity to ease the burden of the material’s density.
Most students feel guilty for ignoring the assigned course text. I hereby give you permission to ignore bad academic material and to make your own decisions about how to optimize learning outcomes. Next time you’re assigned some dense reading, check to see if you can find a more accessible treatment at one of the following locations or elsewhere:
- For Dummies, written in a cutesy tone but often quite valuable
- Complete Idiot’s guide, similarly cutesy, often with groan-inducing humor
- Better Explained, which is pure gold
- The Very Short Introduction Series, written in a more academic style but generally quite accessible
- George M. Dallas, who covers only a handful of technical topics, but does so masterfully.
III. Oh Ye Theoreticians
Caveat: This advice is for the mere mortals who are getting by on elbow grease and long hours. Obviously this does not apply if you’re a top-5% theoretical thinker. You know who you are. Why are you reading this blog? Go forth and conquer that special topics seminar in differential geometry.