Chase Your Reading

Hunting has two main modes: searching and chasing.  With searching you look for something to chase. With chasing, in contrast, you have a focus of attention that drives your actions. You may find something else worth chasing along the way, and then switch your focus to a new chase, but you’ll still maintain a focus.

It seems to me that while reading non-fiction, most folks are in searching mode. Most would be more intellectually productive, however, in chasing mode. It helps to have in mind a question, puzzle, or problem, and then read in order to answer your question, explain your puzzle, or solve your problem.

In searching mode, readers tend to be less critical. If a source came recommended, they tend to keep reading along even if they aren’t quite sure what the point is. Since authors tend to be more prestigious than readers, readers tend to feel reluctant to question or judge what they’ve read.  They are more likely to talk about whether they enjoyed the read, than whether the author’s argument works.

In chasing mode, readers are naturally more critical. When you are looking for something particular, it feels less presumptuous to stop reading when your source comes to seem irrelevant. After all, the source might be good for some other purpose, even if not for your purpose.

In chasing mode, you continually ask yourself whether what you are reading is relevant for your quest, or whether the author actually has anything new or interesting to say. You flip around seeking sections that might be more relevant, and you might even look up the references for an especially relevant section.

Also, search-readers often don’t have a good mental place to put each thing they learn. In which case they don’t end up learning much. Chasers, in contrast, always have specific mental places they are trying to fill with what they read, so they better integrate new things they learn with old things they know.

In chasing mode, readers also tend to better interleave reading and thinking. People often hope that search-mode reading will inspire them to new thoughts, and are disappointed to find that it doesn’t. Chase-mode reading, in contrast, requires constant thinking, in order to evaluate how the current source addresses your chosen focus. This tends to make it easier to notice missing holes in the literature, where your new idea can be placed.

So if you read to be intellectually productive, rather than just to fill your time, consider reading while chasing something, anything.  (From a conversation with Heather Macsorley.)

Added 8p: Katja and Andy comment, and dloye offers this quote from Samuel Johnson:

What we read with inclination makes a much stronger impression. If we read without inclination, half the mind is employed in fixing the attention; so there is but one half to be employed on what we read.

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  • William Barghest

    Chasing is just how the problem-set / textbook combination works.
    I think most of my recreational blog reading is searching not chasing.
    I’d swear I’ve learned something, but I’m not sure just what.

    • Buck Farmer

      I always felt I learned less in p-set with textbook combinations.

      This is probably poor problem design, but I often found that the solution could be found by skimming the text lightly for a similarly structured arrangement of words that appear in the problem.

      I can’t tell you how many wave mechanics p-sets I did and how little of that knowledge I retained even the next day.

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  • I guess we should all quit reading your blog then 🙂

  • burger flipper

    excellent post

    but I think one should probably be cautious. Hunting can probably lead to quickly disregarding contrary opinions and evidence (or just looking at the big picture) and promote and appeal to the sort of atomist thinking Cowen often mentions as your own limitation

  • Buck Farmer

    More so than chasing, I find building with acquired knowledge teaches well. If you can use a piece of knowledge as an integral part of some larger construct you are defending against others, then you’ve got to be pretty comfortable with it (or very good at obfuscation).

    It might be helpful to use the old med school, “See it, do it, teach it,” pattern. Readers could accomplish this by committing themselves to writing summaries or reviews of their reading and distributing it to friends or the broader public (such as through a blog).

  • Kenny Evitt

    Are there any references about this? What are the cognitive differences of these two modes?
    This distinction explains why I enjoy reading question-answer sites at work so much – I have specific, bounded criteria for evaluating everything (and I personally enjoy learning).

  • Fnord

    I “chase” from time to time as a result of needing an answer for my work.

    My observation is that chasing is both more taxing and less enjoyable than searching, which explains why I don’t do it more often, except for short and relatively simple questions.

    • noematic

      I do the same in my work and I agree with your point that chasing is more taxing and less enjoyable than searching. However, as a consequence, I think what pleasure is lost in chasing, is balanced by a gain in efficiency. Further, I always find some satisfaction in a logical narrative and chasing seems to better facilitate this.

  • Good blog post.
    I think it could usefully be applied to other nonfiction media, such as lectures. It would be fun to go deeper into the chase/search neuroscience (such as experimental psych, brain imaging, etc.).

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  • Eric Falkenstein

    Great metaphor, really. To stretch it, what then, is farming? After all, organized agriculture is really necessary to generate sufficient capital and productivity to allow for the division of labor and productivity growth. So, farming would be like working within a coalitions, depending on the rate of exchange of your specialized output with the outside world, subject to the vagaries of the intellectual or industrial climate?

    • Farming is hard f***ing work. The best equivalent is studying – concentrated work on memorization and working through exercises.

  • R. Pointer

    As a graduate student, 50 percent of my time should really be searching. Then every so often I sit down and try to write a paper and collect my thoughts on a topic.

    Russ Roberts had Ed Leamer on a few weeks back and he said something that really hit home with me. Leamer said that convincing people with your research is somewhat pointless. Really your research is a personal understanding path. That each thing that your research adds to your own understanding but is unlikely to make a significant influence on others. It rings true to me but then I always come back to Hanson’s point that if we all shared the same priors we should reason to the same conclusions, save for our biases.

  • “Hunting has two main modes: searching and chasing.”

    Personally, I often read in Search and Destroy mode.

  • I think one downside to chase style reading is that it’s less good at taking in a broad picture at once. While you search out one answer you page past a lot of information – which is usually fine, but if it’s actually a good book at some point you will want to look for every other sentence in it, so you may as well do so in the given order, at the mercy of the author.

  • Rasmus Bergstrøm

    This is an interesting topic, and one that has several sub-topics embedded.

    What is the best way of learning?

    What is the best way of finding an answer?

    What is the most pleasurable way of reading?

    And these are all subjective values. The best way of learning or reading will not be the same for every person, and the questions themselves are then not nearly as relevant as initially believed. The optimal value is gained when those question become introspective and one ask oneself – What is my best way of learning etc.

    Personally i learn little from chasing. This is because of a lifelong philosophy of mine that my mind should be spent remembering information i can easily attain. If the hunt for an answer is relatively short, and it is not an answer i use often, i simply forget it on purpose.

    Also, when chasing something you will discard mountains of informations – because those informations does not meed the specified end-goal of your search. This does lead to you learning what has started the chase, but only that.

    Reading something while searching on the other hand – your mind does not have an end goal and thud no reference by which to discard information. As a result much more is retained at the expense of speed.

    Personally i have learned a lot from Stumbling ( and have read some of the most interesting things in that way like the fact that children at the age of 6 months have a natural moral and understanding of right/wrong.

  • blink

    At least over short periods, chase-mode seems more enjoyable, too, probably for biological reasons behind the analogy. This reminds me of Cowen’s advise for enjoying a museum visit — look for a painting you would like to steal — and explains why it works.

  • JSE

    So if you read to be intellectually productive, rather than just to fill your time

    Good lord, are these my only two choices?

  • James

    I think we can distinguish three types of learning that are relevant here.

    One is learning factual material, chasing down facts and memorizing them. That is one benefit of chase mode.

    The second is similar but deeper, chasing not facts but understanding of an issue. The third type of learning would be taking the perspective of the author and seeing the world as he does.

    This third type of learning I believe would be impaired by the chase-mode approach. As you say, it is more critical and thus perhaps more close-minded, less willing to accept the author’s viewpoint. Being critical is good, but being close-minded is not. This could lead to less learning rather than more.

    I am in agreement that nonfiction should use many more concept-mapping tools such as bulleted lists, hyperlinks, indexes, formal line-by-line arguments, modular construction, etc. Too often prose is used to obscure poor argument structure. It also leads to a lot of repetition.

  • Lord

    Searching allows you to create the boxes that chasing can fill in the first place.

  • Sayantani


    It was a new perspective that this article provided. However, I will beg to point a few things out:

    1. The very first thing, that is, comparing the activities of Reading and Hunting – gives me an uncomfortable feeling. In my childhood, (and thankfully, still now) I sometimes read purely for the Pleasure of Reading, in neither “Search” nor “Chase” mode. If you know what I mean, you also must have had this feeling sometime in your life, specially if you are a book-bug. Those lazy library afternoons, or those winter evenings inside your blanket, with you favorite book in hand. I go to the book-almirah, pick up a book completely at random, and start reading. If I find it to be a mystery novel, I mould my mood into it. If it is a popular science book, nothing better. If it is a fairy tales, I go back to my childhood. If it is a lecture by Feinman, I adjust my specs and start my Physics class.
    So, initially, I am not starting to read with the one-and-only perceived aim of “knowledge”… May be I will forget what I read today, and later on whether or not it will ‘become’ knowledge depends on the subject, the topic, my memory, and many such factors. Whereas, in Hunting, so to speak, the sole aim is the ‘prey’, whatever mode the predator may be in.

    2. Other that this one thing, this article is really very good. “Search”, as in reading sundry magazine articles, and “Chase”, as in Googling. 🙂

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  • Sally

    I really like your idea of chasing, but I find the example of reading a fiction book with a question in mind kind of limiting. I understand what you are trying to say but how would I avoid being stuck in one aspect of the book by just focusing on the one question? My fear would be if I only chase after one question, I might lose sight of the big picture or all other things author tried to depict in that book. I am interested in hearing your response.

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