Your Tremendously Helpful ‘How To Read Books’ Guide
Plus What A Vintage ‘Kindle’ Looks Like.
Liber medicina animi — A book is the soul’s medicine.
Why Would You Study How to Read?
Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking.
— Albert Einstein
Many of us read books for two reasons — enjoyment or to build our own knowledge base in an area that we want to master. If you are reading books to enjoy yourself, you may still want to challenge yourself. You can try reading through a critical lens. It is an enjoyable way of strengthening your reading muscles. It will also help you retain the information you read.
But if you read for the second reason, to build your knowledge base, chances are a large proportion of your sources are books. If a book is well written, the information will be concentrated in the specific area you are learning about. It will be well researched and will form a strong foundation for whatever you are trying to learn. Other sources will compliment the books. They will provide you with other stimuli to challenge what you are learning. Think online journals, blogs, maps, people, museums, archives, photography, infographics and images, field trips, film, culture, art.
Having a reading system will help you retain, reuse and build upon the most important information from the books you read. The challenge from learning how to read will be how to best absorb every text you come across. It’s particularly helpful if you read a lot and want to find a better way of retaining the information you read. Using a system of reading to build a knowledge base requires a great deal of effort — it’s no small task.
It is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree — make sure you understand the fundamental principles, i.e. the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang onto.
— Elon Musk.
This system certainly isn’t applicable to all books you may read — just the really valuable books. Understanding the history and core principles of reading will help you better understand and apply the steps to whatever text you’re reading.¹
Reading History: An Elite Activity
(14th to 16th Centuries) The Renaissance Readers: The bookwheel was the ‘Kindle’ of the Renaissance period. It was a little more cumbersome than the one we use now, but it was some of the earliest evidence of syntopical reading (reading a number of books at once on the same topic).² Unlike these days, reading was for the elite classes only and it was not a leisure activity for the elite, but a source of power.
A commonplace book was also used during this period. The reader would use the theme rather than the book — e.g. ‘wealth’ and then use several books to make notes under that topic. Reading was a very active process.
(16th and 17th Centuries) Reading as Power: ‘Literacy’ in the 16th and 17th centuries was about 10% of the European population. Historians define literate people as those who could sign their names. People could be read to, but this was largely limited to ethical and moral texts and commentaries. It was a treat to be read to by the master of the household. They held a power others in the household did not have. Women were not permitted to read. Even when the Bible became more available, very limited groups had access to any texts printed by the Gutenberg press.
(18th and 19th Centuries) Reading as ‘Injudicious’: Women started reading in the as the Renaissance period ended. Books began changing the way they were produced, published and marketed to society. Some changes were welcome, but of course there was resistance from the elite class. They were not keen on sharing the power of reading with women and lower classes of society. They warned women that reading novels was tantamount to prostitution and would cause illness and rebellions — like the Fall of the Bastille in 1789. But as the years went on, resistance faded.
(20th Century) Reading Becomes Mainstream: During the Civil Wars, reading became political. First the illiterate heard homilies and scriptures. It was a form of control by the elite class. But this evolved into pamphlets. The pamphlets were frequently in the form of dialogue to allow the reader and listener to see and hear the two sides to a story. You will sometimes also see this in texts written by the Stoics.³
(21st Century) The Reading Revolution: Reading in the 21st century has become a major feature in the culture of restoration . People read in cafes while they have coffee, on the beach and as a nightcap. Books have become part of a larger leisure culture — largely due to the rise of the novel in those early periods. Although reading is still an enjoyable activity for many, there are almost a million books published each year. It has become difficult to cull extraneous sources in an era of information overload. For voracious readers, a system would be helpful. I’ve outlined a 6 step process below.
The Process of Reading
But First, The Golden Rule of Frequency and Relevance
A Note On The Importance of Frequency: If you are studying a particular topic of interest (rather than just reading for pleasure), frequency is key. Gretchen Rubin perfectly describes how our minds respond to consistency in our work.
You’re much more likely to spot surprising relationships and to see fresh connections among ideas if your mind is constantly humming with issues related to your work. By contrast, working sporadically makes it hard to keep your focus.
When you’re immersed in reading about your topic, everything you experience will relate to it — and that is exhilarating; the world becomes more exciting as you view the world through the lens of your topic of interest. You become hyper aware and ideas continue to build on themselves. Creativity arises from a constant churn of ideas, so keep your mind engaged with your project. You will find that even in random chores or tasks in your day, solutions will come to you when you least expect because your subconscious is still linked to what you have been reading today and what you will be reading tomorrow.
— Adapted from Gretchen Rubin’s essay ‘Harnessing the Power of Frequency’.⁴
A Note On Relevance (the JIT method): Although it’s not always practical, matching books to our circumstances can be powerful. Books will have a greater resonance if they become part of a relevant experience. For example, I’m studying culture as part of my Masters, and will be doing the relevant readings when we travel this year. I’ll be able to connect inspiration and ideas on our journey with what I’m reading.
Read what you need to at the right time, not just in case you think you will need it someday. Take a look at your own situation and decide on genres or authors that might help you overcome your biggest current challenges. Whatever situation you are in, someone has been in a similar place and has written about it. You’ll find something useful to take away and apply to your own life.
Step 1: Prepare Before You Start Reading
Remember our Note on Relevance above? Based on your current challenge, clarify your goal and you’ll find the rest of this reading and learning process much more natural. For example, you may wish to save $20,000 by the end of the year. Unfortunately, you are naturally a spender, not a saver. So only set out to read books that teach you how to improve your savings and limit spending. You can keep your goals in a reading journal and log your success.
Step 2: Fill Your Book Funnel
If you need recommendations based on your goal, ask friends that you trust. You can also try online sources, like Ryan Holiday. Your favourite people, famous or not, will usually have a number of books they swear by and live by. Look at your current favourite books. If they have a bibliography or appendices, there are usually some great sources for further reading there. Finally, you always have the old-fashioned way, which is browsing through your local book store.
Step 3: Apply Effective Filters to Your Book
This should take 10 minutes at most. Remember that choosing to read a book carries an opportunity cost. Don’t waste your time trying to finish mediocre books. There are too many good books out there to go on with! One way to do some filtering is to investigate the source of the referral. The second great filter is age — if a book has been around for 50 or 100 years or 1000 years, there’s usually a good reason. Lastly, ask yourself: Are books really the best way to absorb this kind of information? You could be reading a series of articles or you could just be talking it over with someone smart. And of course, you can always just do some original thinking.⁵
Step 4: Create a Map of the Book (Context and Concept)
This step should take about 45 minutes in total. Now that you’ve found a truly valuable book, you’re going to try and glean as much value as possible. Understand what the book is about as a whole and in its parts. What would you learn after you finish reading the book?
Identify the Context (15–20mins): Start by doing some preliminary research on the book. For older books, try to understand the historical context. Ask why the author wrote the book. Did they have an agenda? What is their background? What else have they written? Where was it written? What was the political, economic, and cultural situation at the time of writing? Did any important events happen during the writing of the book? Important events may well influence how the book was written and its arguments. These may include a war, an economic depression, a change of leadership or new technology.
Identify the Concept of the Book (20–25mins): Now that you have context about the book and author, skim the book itself.
- Classify: Know what kind of book you are reading before you begin. You need to know the broad lines of classification. It is also helpful to distinguish between practical and theoretical works. Any guidebook that tells you what you should do or how to do it is practical. In contrast, a theoretical book says ‘is’ rather than ‘should’ or ‘ought’. It tries to show that something is true, that these are facts, not that things would be better if they were otherwise. Flick through the book, looking for key words that will help you classify it.
- Contents: Look at the table of contents. How is the book structured? What kind of parts are there? What kind of chapters are there? What are the big concepts? Also read the dust jackets for the publisher’s summary.
- Index, Introduction and Preface: Now skim the index, read the introduction and the preface. Even read the editors notes at the bottom of the pages. This preliminary information sets the stage and helps boost your knowledge going into the book.
- Reviews: Read online reviews (with a pinch of salt). Ask yourself whether the book is worth pursuing and what you expect to learn at the end.
If you’ve taken the time to go through this process, in many cases you can get 95% of the important knowledge into your head by reading 20 or 30% of the book. You should be able to state the unity of the whole book in a single sentence or a short paragraph at most. You’ll have your guidebook. Now you can take the full tour.
Step 5: Your First Read
Immerse Yourself: Read, very carefully. Be completely immersed in what you’re reading — you want it to last. Don’t read quickly. You won’t make connections with the knowledge, nor will you challenge your cognitive abilities (and the whole point is for mental growth!).
Lexicon: Have a lexicon in front of you. When you’re reading, you can look up words you don’t understand or use Wikipedia to grab maps and to help understand the terrain in a non-fiction book. You can add new terms and concepts to your lexicon. You’re going to come across concepts or words you’re not familiar with. Don’t pretend you understand — look it up, and if it’s a key term or concept you want to remember, add it to your lexicon or note it in the book you’re reading.
Make the Book Your Own: Most of us were taught to treat books as something sacred. No folding page corners or writing in the books. You will need to forget this rule. Have highlighters, post-its, pens, and invest time in making marginalia. The more you write in the book, the more active your mind will be while reading. Jot down connections between ideas, underline key passages, and make a habit of building a dialogue with the author. You can also make your own index of key pages or use your own set of abbreviations to note key passages. For example, Maria Popova of Brain Pickings writes “BL” next to any beautiful language.
You can take notes in the book margins, inside the front and back covers, or even on an external piece of paper. Write as if you’re writing to a specific person, as you will need to be as concrete as possible.
Summarise: While you are reading, practise summarising what the book is about in each of its parts. For example: ‘author x accomplished this plan in five major parts, of which the first part is x, the second part is x and the third is x. The first part considers x, the second considers y and the author argues z overall.’ You can add very short two-sentence summaries of the main concepts on key pages to help you recall the information, particularly if they are difficult concepts.
Identify the Argument: Locate or construct the basic arguments in the book. They are usually either premises or conclusions in the book. Use the Feynman technique — take some of the complicated sentences in the book and try to state the main ideas in your own words. After you have grasped the author’s argument, you will find it easier to identify the author’s proposed solutions.
Flip Through It Again (optional): Before you close the book, go back through and reread all the passages you’ve marked.
Give it a Break: When you finish reading, give it a week or two of space, and then you’ll pick it up and read it again for the second reading. You have to let your brain move on to other things before you come back to what you read before. That will help you make new connections when you come back.
Step 6: Your Second Read (Transfer Notes and Compare)
Any kind of important book should immediately be read twice, partly because one grasps the matter in its entirety the second time, and only really understands the beginning when the end is known; and partly because in reading it the second time one’s temper and mood are different, so that one gets another impression; it may be that one sees the matter in another light.
— Arthur Schopenhauer.
Transfer Notes: After the week or two is over, you can go through the passages you noted in the first reading. Transfer them into a journal or type them out in a searchable platform. This will be a very helpful resource if you want this information to be easily retrievable later. You’ll also narrow down the important passages, because you won’t want to write/type everything you’ve highlighted! Reference your quotes properly so you never risk forgetting to attribute.
When you have to use your energy to put those words down, you are more apt to make them count.
Compare: If your intention is to go very deep on this topic, try to use syntopical reading — you’re comparing books on the same topic. You will want to read these comparative texts in real time by flipping back and forth between them. You will then be able to start using the ideas you collect for writing or for the specific project you’re working on.
- Step 1 — Find Relevant Passages: You are not reading passively but actively looking for answers. You want to find out how it can be useful to you in a connection that may actually be nothing to do with the author’s own purpose in writing the book. You may just want to read certain sections of it that you might be having trouble with, or sections that you want to develop a deeper understanding of.
- Step 2 — Bring The Authors to Terms: Authors use different terms and one of the main efforts in syntopical reading is to translate these into your own language. Build up a set of terms in your lexicon to help you understand all your authors on the same topic.
- Step 3 — Set Clear Questions and Answers: Frame a set of questions relevant to your challenge or topic. Your authors will give answers to each of your question. Don’t expect the answers to be the same. What do different authors think about these? The differing answers should expand your view on the topic.
- Step 4 — Analyse the Discussion: You will find your answer at the conflict of opposing answers by the authors. Not all discussions will have persuasive evidence and convincing arguments to support them. That part will be for you to decide. It can prepare the way for an original thinker to make a breakthrough. Without an analysis this is not possible.
Now that you fully understand the text and have compared it with other views, you will be able to argue with the author and express yourself. You must be able to say with certainty ‘I understand’ before you can say whether you agree, disagree or suspend judgment. Present strong reasons for any judgment you make. Show where the author is uninformed, misinformed, illogical, or incomplete.
How to Apply What You’ve Read
Make Connections: When you review your notes, you’ll remember other things from more recent reading or thinking and add to them. It’s helpful to use different colours of ink on the same notes. This applies whether you’re making notes in the book itself, in external notebooks, on a searchable online platform like Evernote or a combination of these.
The most useful insights are found at the intersection of ideas. Consider how the book connects with ideas in your head and integrate lessons you’re learning with previous ideas. Forcing yourself to connect ideas helps you realise there isn’t a single way of looking at the world. The complex connections between ideas are where the best pieces of knowledge reside. You can do research, interviews and reading that relate to the topic you’re reading about. Keep asking yourself “What does this remind me of?” and “Why does it remind me of it?” That will help you make connections as you continue your reading journey.
Take A Specific and Relevant Action: You highlight for a reason that is relevant to your personal situation. Use what you’ve read in papers, emails, letters and in your daily life. Tim Ferriss draws a small box on each page of his journals, where he writes an action step. It means nothing he writes goes astray and it will all be used to improve his life. It’s not just a space to vent or complain. Try practising this. If you find there’s no action you can really take, chances are there’s no point of reading that article and you should be trying to choose higher quality reading!
Keep in mind: reading alone does very little. The ideas in book[s] are meant to be applied and this requires practice.
— Tim Ferriss
Teach What You Have Learned: Try the Feynman Technique by teaching what you have learned to a child.
Find Your Next Book: You can find the next book to read in the blog, footnotes or bibliography by the author.
Do not read, as children do, to amuse yourself, or like the ambitious, for the purpose of instruction. No, read in order to live.
— Gustave Flaubert, 1857.
Syntopical Reading Summary:
- Create a tentative bibliography of your subject by consulting library catalogues, advisors, blogs, favourite authors and bibliographies in books.
- Inspect all the books to see which are core to your subject.
- Now go back and inspect the books you’ve chosen to find the most relevant passages.
- Bring the authors to your terms by constructing a neutral terminology of the subject.
- Frame a set of questions to which all or most of the authors can be interpreted as giving answers.
- Express the opposing answers of authors to the various questions you have framed in Step (5).
- Now analyse the discussion to establish your own view.
How To Keep Track Of What You’re Reading and Learning
Where Should I Keep Track Of What I’m Reading?
- A reading journal.
- A Trello list.
- An Evernote Notebook that includes basic information about the book.
Where Should I Keep Track Of What I’m Learning?
Having a catalogue of everything you learn from reading creates a priceless resource which can be consulted whenever you need an idea, inspiration, or to confirm a thought. You will build up your own bank of wisdom to refer to whenever you need it. It is hard to convey how valuable this can prove to be. You can try using:
- A box of index cards (organised by topic, author, or time of reading).
- A commonplace book (organised by topic, author, or time of reading).
- A digital system like Evernote, OneNote, Google Docs or Microsoft Word.
- There is a place for digital and a place for physical notes. It is better to store quotes and nuanced concepts electronically, as you can search them on an online platform (like Google Drive, Trello or Evernote). However, using a blank page to record the larger conceptual ideas helps you retain them, and then you can build on them. Writing down your ideas and knowledge by hand forces you to take the time and to go over everything again. If you make this part easy, you can lose the ideas you may yourself have created.
Depending on your personality, you may find [it] exhilarating or terrifying. Some people have a fear of the blank page. Barry [Diller] has precisely the opposite problem: He’s repelled by the faintest mark on a page, by anything that’s preordained.
- Discard Bad Books: As important as it is to invest in understanding what you are reading, it is equally important to discard material that is not helpful. Do not be afraid to stop reading if it is irrelevant or not useful to you. So many people think ‘I’ve committed, that’s it! I have to finish it.’ It’s an opportunity cost — you could be reading something better about the same topic. Give it about 50 pages, then decide if it will deliver great value (yes, you’ll know). If not, move on.
- Put Learning Into Action: Finish with a ‘next step’. How will you use this to move forward? For me, I’ve made a checklist (LINK) that I’ll be using whenever I read my books for future units in my Masters. Try to take what you’ve read and apply it immediately to your life. It will reinforce what you have read and add context and meaning. Something for you to build on!
- Read Difficult Works: The reward for reading is twofold. You improve your reading skill, particularly when reading difficult works. Secondly, a good book will teach you more about the world and yourself. If you struggle, try to read aloud. It helps your brain process the difficult concepts.
- Power of Reading.
- See more images of the bookwheel here. Rather than using a tap of your finger to switch between books on a screen, you used your feet on a pedal to turn the bookwheel north or south to bring the desired book closest to you for reading.
- Try reading Seneca, Plato and Marcus Aurelius.
- 99u’s ‘Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind.
- See more from The Art of Reading by Farnam Courses. I completed this course and found it very valuable — I like pragmatic takeaways and this course really delivered.
- Nicholas Carr’s What The Internet is Doing to Our Brains
- Robert Greene’s 3 Secrets
- The Essential Schopenhauer
- Mental Models and Literary Criticisms
- BBC’s Reading, In Our Time Podcast
- My Quotes on Reading
EndNotes: The idea for this Masters came from our slow-moving and irrelevant tertiary education. I deferred a Masters of Law (Corporate and Commercial Specialty) to focus on areas that are more relevant to the conceptual age. I’ll still be learning about the law, but in a way that’s more relevant and connected to the outside world. You can follow along with my progress on Medium.
Dedication: It’s a long dedication, but I have a big family:
To Dad, thanks for teaching us the power of persistence and Dettol. To Mum, I really loved my quattro-flavoured sandwiches. I never exchanged any of my quarters with anyone. To Jeremy, thanks for being prepared with the promise of a power wedgie if anyone tried to harrass me (they never did). To Jewelz, thanks for introducing me to Mr Bingley’s confession: ‘I have been the most unmitigated and comprehensive ass.’ I hope to return the same value to your life some day. To Mat, thanks for sharing my love of bacon. Keep cooking until crispy. Maybe one day we won’t have to hit the fire detector with pillows. To Dora, there’s a lot more to you than soap bombs. If you’re not careful we might start randomly posting your art around Sydney. To Tim, your flatulence may be powerful, but your inheritance of Dad’s persistence is even more powerful. May the force be with you. To Luke, your passion for fact books and finger pointing will take you far. Never give up your sense of curiosity.