I’ve realized recently that I have some pretty big advantages in a lot of areas just because I read books from the library. I’m not much smarter than anybody else, but I can know a lot about a specific topic and make informed, intentional decisions about things if I educate myself first. So I read a book on dog training before we got a dog, a book on human fertility while we were trying to get pregnant, and many books on pregnancy, childbirth, and early parenting. I’ve found these books so immensely useful that I’ve decided to write…
Lauren’s Guide to Self-Education
Read a book.
Yes, I know it’s out of fashion. Yes, I am biased towards books because I write them. Nevertheless, while reading articles on the internet is useful, I find reading an entire book on a subject gives me a greater breadth of understanding than reading an equivalent number of words on the internet. Maybe because the author of a book is put through more of a screening process than one on the internet, maybe because a single author will delve deeper in one book than a bunch of authors will do in a shorter format. Books are easy to get because we have a great library system. You can request books online and have them sent to your nearest library and they will e-mail you when it’s time to pick them up. You can renew them via e-mail and you will get reminder e-mails when they’re due. You can’t beat that for the price, which is free.
Read a book you like.
You’re not going to keep reading a book unless it’s interesting or enjoyable, preferably both. If you start reading a book on a topic and you’re bored to tears put the book down. Get a different book on the same topic, one that’s more engaging and interesting. Trying to force yourself to read a book you hate will have two results. First, it will take forever to read it because you will find other things to do during reading time. Second, you won’t retain very much of the information, because instead of soaking up all the facts, your brain was busy keeping your eyelids upright.
Don’t believe everything you read.
If the book you are reading frequently says things like, “my friend Joe tried such-and-such a thing, and the result was…” that’s called anecdotal evidence, and it’s very bad. While a real life story seems like hard evidence to the author’s point, it fails to mention that there are a thousand different factors that could lead Joe to that result. When reading for information, especially information you’re going to actually use, look for phrases like “so-and-so did a study, with this many test groups, the control group had this result, and it was published in this journal.”
Really, don’t believe everything you read.
Even if you see all the phrases I mentioned above, still be suspicious of the conclusions they draw. Expect a person who runs a study to want that study to mean something dramatically significant. Not everything is dramatically significant, even if it is true. For example, a study done on breast milk found one element that’s used to produce jet fuel in the milk. If the author goes on to ask, “so how does jet fuel find it’s way into breast milk?” pause for a minute. One element used in jet fuel is water. Another good example is an article I read on how letting babies cry produces cortisol, the stress hormone, in their brains. It said nothing about the effect cortisol has on baby brains, it just made it sound like it might be really bad. I want to see something like, “babies with higher levels of cortisol scored 30% lower on an IQ test when they reached the age of five” or something. I made that fact up, just for the record.
Everyone has a bias.
Every book is written from a particular perspective, and is usually trying to prove or persuade you to something. Don’t stop reading a book because it’s biased, and don’t assume you’ve found a book that isn’t biased. Find the bias, identify what it is, and remember what the bias is when you’re considering the information they’re giving you. A book on raising organic vegetables is going to make villains of all chemicals. When that book tells me that a particular chemical is really awful, unless they offer some concrete evidence with it (see the two points above), I remember that this book is biased against chemical treatments and I reserve judgment.
The proof is in the pudding.
If you read something in a book, and you try it, and it does not work, stop doing it. This requires some forethought. What does “work” mean? What are you trying to accomplish? This is very interesting when you look at books about sleep training babies. Some books are trying to find the way of sleep training that creates the gentlest and least invasive situation for the baby. Other books are trying to find the way of sleep training that creates the longest stretches of sleep for the parents. These are both noble goals, but you need to know what you’re aiming for before you try something. Then you can tell if you hit it or not. If you don’t hit it, either take what you’ve learned from your attempt and do something else, or read a different book.
Talk to people.
You can save yourself some misery by chatting casually about the book you’re reading with some friends in a similar life situation. Chatting about dog training with other dog owners gives me an idea about what might work, what I might be inclined to do, and a few catch phrases that will help me find a book that’s helpful for me. If I know the phrase “positive dog training” or “alpha leader,” I will know what I’m looking at when I pick a book. Not to mention, I can get myself in some majorly twisted worldviews if I never check mine against someone else’s.
Don’t go nuts.
You don’t have to read every book on everything you ever do. Reading just one book on a topic will give you a very solid reference point for making decisions. Reading two will practically make you an expert in that area. Read three and you can bet that people will be calling you for advice on it. When you see that there are 800 books on prenatal nutrition, don’t freak out and relax with a cheeseburger. Pick one that you like and read the whole thing.
Add your own stuff to this list, object to a point, tell me what you think.