Do I Need SuperMemo's Incremental Reading If I'm Only Reading One Book? (Examples in Nonfiction and Textbooks)

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To save you time, yes, this is another fanboi article on the supreme 4D-chess, big-brain reading method that is Incremental Reading (IR).


There’s no one definitive, black-and-white answer. Different goals call for different strategies. It depends on what book you’re reading and what you want to get out of it.

For the sake of simplicity, this article only discusses the broad reading method, so no extracting and making items (flashcards).

Reading one fiction

Let’s start with the obvious. For reading a fiction, as for leisure reading (as opposed to text analysis of some classic literature), you’re after enjoyment and thus, doing linear reading with a physical copy is the obvious choice.

Reading one non-fiction

Say you are reading 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari. You open chapter 1 and start reading. It may never occur to you that you could jump to chapter 2, 3, 4 and start reading as well, before finishing chapter 1. This is because each chapter is standalone and independent, i.e., Chapter 2: Work is not related to Chapter 17: Post-Truth. With SuperMemo, you can start reading all the chapters simultaneously in one reading session. SuperMemo, while also being a knowledge management system, will keep track of all the reading progress.

More similar examples: 23 Things They Don’t Tell You about Capitalism (each thing is independent), Economic Facts and Fallacies (each fact and fallacy is independent).

Books like Debt: The First 5000 Years require linear reading. You can’t read “10: The Middle Ages (600 AD – 1450 AD)” before “9: The Axial Age (800 BC – 600 AD)”. There is a strict and clear timeline.

Reading one Textbook

Imagine you’re studying psychology. You need to read this Introduction to Psychology for an exam.

PS: I should add that, from the time-cost, effort vs. return, bang-for-the-buck perspective, reading the textbook for the purpose of excelling an exam is not the way to go. Doing practice questions and mock exams are my preferred strategies.

Let’s take a look at the table of contents:


There are potentially two ways to go about it: 1. Linear and spaced reading and 2. Simultaneous and spaced reading.

1. Linear and spaced reading


Linear: You can see that only the first chapter has the green icon, while all the others are in blue. It means that SuperMemo won’t show you any chapters except chapter 1 (given that you don’t finish the outstanding queue). When you finish chapter 1, you can then manually introduce chapter 2 to the outstanding queue and continue.

Spaced: most likely you won’t be able to finish chapter 1 in a day. Then SuperMemo will schedule the next reading date for you: it might be a few days or a few weeks (depending on your priority).

2. Simultaneous and spaced reading


Why can you read all the chapters simultaneously?

The major determinant is whether the content is self-contained, i.e., independent of other chapters. A self-contained chapter means that it doesn’t require any prior knowledge from the previous chapters. Since each chapter isn’t inter-connected, you can start reading them right away. Imagine building a city: the progress of the water supply doesn’t depend on that of the electrical grids. Both can be built concurrently.

Take a look at the above psychology textbook. Each chapter focuses on a different topic: “remembering and judging”, “intelligence and language”, or “emotions and motivations”. There will be overlapping among each chapter, of course, but for the most part, each chapter’s content is standalone, i.e., you don’t need any prior knowledge from the previous chapter(s) in order to start reading it. Therefore, you can start reading all the chapters simultaneously.

You SHOULD NOT read the subsections of a chapter simultaneously

Consider chapter 3:


All the subsections (i.e., 3.1, 3.2, 3.3 etc) are in green. This means that there’s a chance SuperMemo will show you “3.4 Putting It All Together” before you even finished “3.1 The Neuron is the Building Blocks of the Nervous System”. This is problematic because, generally, all subsequent subsections depend on the previous ones. You need to read 3.1 before moving onto 3.2 and then 3.3 and so on (To avoid this, see below.)

You need linear reading for each chapter (1A->1B->1C), but you don’t need linear reading for the chapters themselves (1->2->3).

Which one to use, “1. Linear and spaced reading” or “2. Simultaneous and spaced reading”?

Which method to use depends on whether your reading material allows for simultaneous progression among all the chapters, i.e., reading each chapter simultaneously. There are books that are built on top of each chapter, and therefore, you have to pick “1. Linear and spaced reading”. If you see that each chapter is relatively self-contained, then you may consider “2. Simultaneous and spaced reading”.

“One Topic for each chapter” or “One Topic for each subsection of a chapter”?

For each chapter, you can further split it according to the subsections:


In my opinion, it’s more or less a matter of personal preference. There is no hard rule as how granular you want to split the chapters; they can either be one Topic per chapter, or one Topic per subsection of a chapter. This is because it’s the color (green or blue) that determines whether it’s in the outstanding queue or pending queue, and thus, its reading sequence.

For example, if the chapter has to be read sequentially, but it’s very large in size (it’ll take a long time to load or will even crash SuperMemo), you can split it by subsections. To split it, right click on the component, and then:


For all the produced Topics (subsections), right click on each one in the Knowledge Tree:

Process branch -> Learning -> Forget

This will send this Topic into the pending queue, so it won’t appear in the outstanding queue. This way, 3.2 won’t appear before 3.1 unless you manually introduce 3.2 back to the outstanding queue (after reading 3.1).


If you’re reading one book, I believe using IR is still beneficial and useful. You can apply IR to only one book, but you can also apply IR to multiple books. Also, you need to stick to SuperMemo long enough and frequent enough in order to fully appreciate and experience the power of IR.

The video Starting with SM Going through the IR Manual is currently the best video on getting started with IR.