For some reasons, I find myself have difficulty with learning from class lessons. It’s not like you have a quick forward or play back button in a class. Following a teacher’s voice sometime might be hard while other time might be dull. So, most of the time I would choose to study my subjects by reading books. In the end, I basically learn most of the stuff by myself. This isn’t an easy task either, but I have the luck to come across many great books that act as a careful teacher for me.
Aside from novels, most of those books are somehow technical relative. Some of them talk about theory or techniques, some others might be zen-like tech books, something like The Art of Unix Programming. Sadly, I don’t have the time to finish reading all of them. For some books, I have only finished a few chapters then drop it, or just skip to the interested part. Also there other books I might finish reading it in a casual way, only for some enjoyment.
From a self-learner’s perspective, studying a subject by simply reading one heavy brick-like book without an instructor is tough. Not only have I need to figure out everything myself by simply digging the text, but also need to choose the right exercises myself. And in most of the time, finding a book that suits myself is even harder. In my experience, some books are designed for self-learners with well formed structure and great clarity while a few others might suck you in a dark hole where you might never see the sun shining again.
Painful to read
Thanks to the search engines, one can always find the “most recommended” book for a special purpose. Luckily, most of these literature are excellent. But there are a few exceptions that I have the sense I might never be able appreciate. There are some books that I failed to dig in and left without considering a second attempt. After some time, I have concluded what kind of books aren’t for me. First are those introduction book written like a menu. Reading these book feels like learning English from a dictionary, exhaustive, and nobody can ever remember anything in the book. This kind of books are what most of the people would like to avoid. Another kind of books share some similarities with the menu-like books. These books contains tons of codes with few explanation, which looks like a code collection with some comments embedded in it. Every time I encountered these kind of books, I got wonder if I were the author, would it be better to set up a Github account and then put the code in it with simply a README file instead of writing a book? A complete different kind is those books written only to show how smart the author is. The whole book is filled with phrases like “it’s easy to see”, “obviously”, “with a little though”. Once I came across one, it took a few pages of calculation to arrive to one of the conclusion that the author believe obvious. Alright, you have more neurons than me, no need to show off.
There are some well disguised book that might hurt you deeply. These sort of books are the real devils. They seem to be fun and easy to read at your first glance. But when you dig deep, you will find it impossible to make sure what the author really mean by his wording. These are the books that try to use natural language to replace mathematical expression. In my point of view, natural language should only be used to help explaining the math expression, not to replace them. Natural language is, naturally vague and redundant. Also from the fact that different people in different time and different occasion may have very different way of thinking. When you are trying to describe something that requires to be exact with natural language, your reader might have a good chance to think otherwise and misunderstand the true meaning, ending up with a grouch. The only way to keep the readers on the right track is using precise language, which is the mathematical language.
However, one might argue that, if an author always try to use mathematical expression instead of plain text to describe the ideas, the readers might find it hard to understand the book and end up believing the author is just trying to show off his or her cleverness. But please don’t forget, in a well written book, I believe, the only reason one doesn’t understand the content should be the lack of underlying knowledge and the reader should notice that immediately when he or she bump into the obstacle . At the very least, the reader won’t be mislead. This is like measuring a quantum state, with some method, you might not be able to distinguish some non-orthogonal states, but you know exactly when you fail and don’t make mistake. This is crucial in self-learning, because if I don’t understand some underlying concept due to the lack of required knowledge, I can just go to ask Google or go searching the library to learn what I am required to know in order to proceed. But if I guess the wrong meaning because the poor clarity in the book, there will be no one to tell me I am wrong, and I can never make anything sure. When finally I find out the guess is wrong, I will have to roll back and try again. What’s worse is that, sometimes I don’t even have a clue for what to guess.
All in all
Luckily, there are always some classic books in most of the fields, which have been filtered out by many other previous readers for me. Thanks to those genius and thoughtful author, these books always express essential ideas in an most precise way with a certain level of elegance. Reading them is a fruitful and joyful experience. A great debt to them, really. If you are trying to study something by yourself, it’s always a safer way to choose a classic book other than taking an adventure to new books or just select the first one from Amazon’s search result. After all, there are so many things to do in life with so little hours, no need to waste your time like that. If you meet one of the above mentioned book, I suggest you to drop it without any regret. And more importantly, if you have the luck to meet a good one, don’t keep it to yourself. Your praise might help that book become a classic one day.