Zettelkasten Forum

When to reread a text

I am currently reading Sönke Ahrens' How to take smart notes where he stresses the difference between bibliographic notes, describing the core aspects of a text and Zettels to be used for your own thoughts about the text and more. The goal of the bibliographic notes is to not have to read the text in its entirety again but if future me has any questions about the text, he can work with the bibliographic note (at least that's how I read it).

This basically makes sense to me but at some point future me may have developed insights that allow him to read the text with different eyes and to notice different aspects in the original text that past me didn't see.

Now I wonder what your thoughts on this are. Is this a relevant problem to be aware of or just hogwash?


  • It is a decision you have to make for each book, sooner or later. Most don't lend themselves well for re-reading because they are not very dense. Even when you grow 10 years wiser, spending a couple of days to read a simple technical manual for the second time may not change your perspective enough to warrant the investment.

    Sascha tried to give some advice on the decision-making under the label of The Barbell Method of Reading: https://zettelkasten.de/posts/barbell-method-reading/

    So yeah, you can never really know, but you can apply heuristics like the Barbell Method to maximize the yield of your investment.

    Author at Zettelkasten.de • https://christiantietze.de/

  • I would say this depends strongly on the type of text and your purpose in reading it. For me, it is an issue to be aware of, but only with a small subset of texts and/or topics. If you feel you understand the text as you're reading it, 95% of the time you are probably correct and can rely on your notes in the future.

    I have had the experience of re-reading a text 10 years later and seeing new things in it. But I would say that this occurs infrequently and most commonly with complex theoretical texts.

    Also relevant is the issue of the degree of mastery you require from what you're reading. It matters whether you are trying to understand the conclusion of a text (level 1), understand the conclusion and the argument leading to it (level 2), or understand both as well as understanding it well enough to critique the argument (level 3).

    One issue re: the "barbell method" is that it is not always obvious whether something is useful or not useful. Knowing how frequently a book is cited by other books in the field or whether people you respect value the book are (highly imperfect) heuristics for determining that in addition to your own subjective impression.

  • There is no functional difference between an argument that you made or someone else. Just the reference should be different.

    I am a Zettler

  • I re-read stuff all the time. The text might not have changed, but I will have. I do not regard reading as information processing. I regard it as an interaction between the reader and the text. So you could advance the argument that my previous statement is incorrect, because if I have changed, in a sense the text has changed as well. If my perception of it is different, it is not the same text as it was before. But if we go down that route we get into deep water. And I'm not a good swimmer.

  • As others have mentioned, this definitely depends on the kind of source text.

    From my own experience in the natural sciences working with academic papers, I also find it crucial to re-read again an excerpt within its original context. In fact, I actually prefer to always view a quotation in its context. Reasons are that my own findings and knowledge changes over time, and I may view or interpret the source paper differently. Double checking the original source text also helps to prevent interpretation/citation errors which is crucial in the natural sciences.

    That said, I'm aware that this may vary significantly between disciplines and kinds of texts.

  • Thanks a lot for the feedback everybody and in particular the link to the barbell method, @ctietze. Much appreciated!

  • The main issue with re-reading is the reduced chance for finding something valuable. You can re-read a text and find something new or at least a new perspective on something already processed. But a new text will give you a better chance. It is about the opportunity cost.

    I am a Zettler

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