How to read a novel: A guide for mathematicians

Several years ago I read a blog post comparing the difference between reading a novel and reading a mathematics textbook. It humorously imagined what it would be like if a novel was read in the same way a math book should be read. I have since extensively looked for the original blog post, but without success (if you think you know it, please email me). Inspired by it, I am compiling some useful tips in a similar vein.

Reading a novel is very different than reading mathematics. If you have been reading math books or research papers, and are looking to read a novel in the near future, here are some helpful tips to maximize your enjoyment. If you're an expert novel reader looking to read math books, please take the opposite advice.

  • Read cover to cover. Unlike many math texts, the author expects you to read the novel from the beginning all the way to the end. The natural order of the page numbers should be followed. This may seem daunting, but the experience will be much more rewarding this way.

  • No skipping or skimming. If you encounter themes or ideas which you understand (or have read in other books), you should not skip ahead to the more challenging parts. You will miss important parts of the story. The same is true for the difficult portions. If a character or plot becomes complex, and you don't fully understand, you should not skip ahead to see if they are important later and can be glossed over for now. They are important.

  • Don't expect exercises. The chapters will not end with exercises to check your understanding. You are expected to understand the content on the first reading. As a result, you may feel unsure whether or not you have mastered the chapter before moving on, but if you've followed the other tips so far, tackling the next chapter should not be too difficult.

  • Don't fill in missing details. When there is a chronological gap in the timeline, or an incomplete description of a character, you are not expected to work out the missing details on a separate sheet of paper. If you feel that important information is missing, chances are it will be filled in as the story progresses. In fact, you should be able to read the novel in its entirety without needing pencil and paper. As a result, it might feel as though you're flying through the book, but that is completely normal.

  • You won't find definitions, examples, or theorems. When encountering a word you do not understand, don't try to find its definition in the novel. In particular, there is no index at the end for important terms. Instead, look for the difficult word in a dictionary. Another important thing to know is that complicated plot lines are not illuminated with multiple examples. Also, the key results and developments in a chapter are not collected in theorems. This makes it somewhat more difficult, as you are expected to mine them on your own. Although it might seem like this makes the reading unnecessarily difficult, with some practice you'll quickly get the hang of it.

  • Don't expect citations. It may be hard to believe, but the novel is a completely original work by the author, and it will not directly cite any existing works. There will be minimal necessary background literature, unless the novel is a sequel in a series. A great novel, however, will interact with a wider body of literature, but no direct citations will be given. Typically these interactions or connections are left for sophisticated readers to discover, but don't worry about catching them until you have much more experience reading novels.

  • Don't read a summary. The main developments, highlights, and conclusion of the book are meant to be experienced in the twists and turns of the story. You should not read a summary of the novel before reading it, as that will significantly reduced the enjoyment.

Although not exhaustive, this list of tips should enhance your novel reading experience. Happy reading!