How I Read Books

I read a few non-fiction books a week. At any given time, I’m actively reading between 3–10 of them. And since it’s something I’ve been doing since 5th grade, I thought I’d about write how I do it. I’ll get into logistics, but first let’s talk about goals.

Know Why You’re Reading a Book

In grade school, there was a program in my school called, “Accelerated Reading.” You could accumulate points by checking out books from the library, reading them, and taking a test on a computer to prove that you read it. I don’t remember if the points were good for anything, all I remember is wanting all the points.

The book that was worth the most points was Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind (did I mention I grew up in rural Georgia?). It was the only book worth more than 1,000 points and is over 1,000 pages long. As a 5th grader I couldn’t even lift the hardback. I had to read it on my lap and wriggle out from underneath it when I had to pee (and before you ask, no I couldn’t just watch the movie and get the points. The computer test always included questions that were not in the movie).

It took me about a week to read Gone with the Wind. I finished it late in the night and proudly informed my Mom the next morning as she was making my breakfast.

“You know,” she said as my 10-year-old hands awkwardly manipulated glass of orange juice to my mouth, “a lot of people consider that the best book ever written.”

I swallowed the mouthful of orange juice and replied:

“They should read more books.”


When I was kinda forced to read a lot, I started to learn other ways to think about reading. In 5th grade, I read for points.

Now I read books to learn how the people who wrote them think the world works.

I think that books are the best medium available for learning how someone thinks. Even if someone is bad at writing, it’s hard to spend so long making something without accidentally demonstrating the assumptions you’ve made about how the world works. When I’m reading a book, this is what I’m reading to learn about.

The Benefits of Reading with Purpose

If you think about the point of reading as to learn how someone thinks, then it opens up the opportunity to learn from every book, and not just the good ones.

Now that I’ve read Gone with the Wind, I know what Margaret Mitchell thinks about the Civil War. And more importantly, I know why she thinks what she thinks. This gives me the weird super-power of being able to empathize with a (patently terrible and overtly racist) view of history and understand it’s appeal even as I disagree with it. This is not something I would be able to do if I only read “good” books.

Most books are mediocre. And being forced to read a lot of them from Accelerated Reading all the way through Graduate School taught me how to mine those books for interesting ideas. If someone took the time to crank out a book (sympathy I would learn later as I wrote books), then there is something in there worth reading. Here are some thoughts I have when I think a book is crap:

  • A book that makes me angry has a lot to teach me about why the hell an idea is making me so angry.
  • A book that is poorly constructed can still have great turns of phrase.
  • A book that is written for an audience that I am not a part of can teach me something about how that audience thinks.
  • “What is this author trying to say” and “how is this author trying to convince me of that” are very useful questions.
  • There comes a point in every (non-fiction) book where there are no more surprises. Once I feel like I’m there, I consider the book finished.

But if you’re still curious how I read so many damn books, I’ll tell ya.

Some of my books and what I sit on when I read them.

The First Time Through, Only Read the Important Words

When you’re in 5th Grade, reading means looking at each letter in a word, figuring out what that word means, then doing that for every word in a sentence, then every sentence in the paragraph. You literally have to read every word.

But then you grow the fuck up and realize most of the words in a book are filler.

When I got to the University of Chicago, the sheer volume of pages that I needed to read per day meant that I needed to get tactical about word consumption. It was the first time I needed to change my reading goal. I was no longer reading for points and now I was reading to figure out what authors were trying to say. And I think it was my undiagnosed ADHD that helped me figure how to do that. So here’s…

Coach Stevo’s Non-Fiction “First Pass” Reading Formula

  1. Read the whole introduction chapter.
  2. Read the first paragraph of the next chapter.
  3. Read the first and last sentence of every paragraph in that chapter.
  4. Skip every “illustrative story” as these just serve to repeat the points in the first paragraph of the chapter, which you already read.
  5. Read the last paragraph of that chapter.
  6. Repeat until you realize the book has no more surprises.
  7. Read the final chapter.

Now I do this instinctively with every new book I pick up. If the book is good or the ideas are new, I’ll slow down. If the book is really good, I remind myself that this will just be my first pass. I re-read books multiple times in different ways; this is just how I read a book the first time to see if it’s worth a second read.

You might be thinking, “that’s not reading; that’s skimming.”

Well, we’re talking about reading, not Pole Vaulting. Show me the rule-book for the Olympic Event called ‘Reading’ and I’ll concede that I am breaking the rules of Reading. And while you’re looking for that and reading every single non-fiction word you come across out of misplaced guilt, I’ll be reading the words that matter and talking about them at the Book Club you didn’t come to because you never “finished” the goddamn book.

If you have a goal when you read, you can skip the words that do not help you meet that goal. If you do not know why you’re reading a book, you’ll feel like you’re forcing yourself to read and end up hating it.

Active Reading

Once I got to graduate school, my reading goals changed once again. Now reading mostly science, I needed to keep track of large-scale arguments played out over decades and tens of thousands of publications. Since I had never annotated as I read before graduate school, I needed to come up with a system for “active reading.” So here’s what I do right now:

Highlighting

  • Yellow = author’s main points
  • Pink = weaknesses in the author’s argument
  • Green = clever quotes or turns of phrase
  • Blue = follow ups to other books or authors I need to read

Notes

  • Tag any passage that relates to another author’s arguments with that author’s name, even if the name isn’t mentioned. If someone is talking about the “is-ought” problem, I tag it “HUME”, even if they don’t know who the hell David Hume is.
  • Write notes for follow up ideas and tag them “LATER.” That way I can filter by the tag “LATER” and see all the thoughts I had while I was reading that I wanted to follow up on.

I’m not 100% with these, which is why I read important books multiple times. The goal is to surface the assumptions the author is making, the arguments they make based on those assumptions, and anyone they bring into the fight with them. And I need all that in a separate format that I can share with Omar Ganai if he wants to look at it.

These are the tools that let me do that:

Reading Tools

Despite the above picture, I’ve switched entirely over to reading books on screens. There was a learning curve (I had developed a lot of instincts about where the “good parts” of a non-ficiton book would be by physically holding the book) but now I love all the super-powers I get from books in a digital format.

Centralized Organization, Decentralized Storage

I keep all my books organized with Calibre. When I get an ebook, Calibre adds the metadata (cover image, description, authors, tags, links to GoodReads, etc.) based on the ISBN number and automatically converts it into ePub, MOBI, and PDF formats. It then stores those formats locally, and on an encrypted cloud (this takes less than 30 seconds, by the way). Once in Calibre, I have access to my books in any format I want on every device, no matter where I am in the world. I have backups stored locally, and on a server in a cave in the Swiss Alps.

The Killer iPad Apps

I have a Kindle Paperwhite (and I’ve left 3 on airplanes…), but I prefer to read on my iPad Air 2. And that’s because of Marvin 3 and PDF Expert.

If you edit photos for a living, you need Adobe Photoshop. If you read books for a living, you need Marvin 3. Marvin 3 lets you control everything about the reading experience. The font size, the fonts, the width, the color schemes (pre-loaded and you can make your own), and 50 other things I can’t remember. It also puts a fuck-ton of tools right where you need them: dictionaries (plural!), wikipedia, thesauruses, sharing, copy-pasta, and search with RegEx all in tooltips and gestures that you can edit.

Most useful to me though, are the annotations. Marvin lets me set up annotation options however I want and collects my annotations into a “journal” that I can filter by color, go back and make more notes on, view on a literal map of the world (in case I want to see where I was when I had an idea), and create a custom “vocabulary” for each book. I can then export the entire journal in ePub, PDF, CSV, or HTML format.

When I can’t procure a book in ePub format and have to read it in PDF, I use PDF Expert. It’s a great piece of software, too, but the PDF format is just way more limited. You can’t, for example, change the fonts of a PDF, and extracting highlights from a PDF depends on software character recognition. That can be sketchy on badly formatted PDFs. But PDF Expert has (almost) all the same annotation options as Marvin 3.

Annotation Files

Once I have my highlights from a book, I export them into an HTML and a CSV files and put them into Calibre. Then I put the highlighted copy of the file into Calibre with a date stamp in the filename. By reading a copy of the original file in Marvin or PDF Expert, then storing highlighted copies and annotations separately from the original, I can read books multiple times and re-annotate them for different goals. For example, I have 5 copies of Richard Ryan and Ed Deci’s Self-Determination Theory: Basic Psychological Needs in Motivation, Development, and Wellness because I have read it with 5 different goals in mind and 5 different annotation strategies. All 5 highlighted versions are in the same folder, with the extractions of their annotations.

Inspired by how Omar Ganai reads, sometimes I also will write a summary of a book which I also stick in Calibre, but these are rare because Omar and I tend to read the same books.

Keeping things like this means that Omar and I can share our thoughts on books quickly and easily, which is pretty useful when you’re writing a book together.

Goodreads

Recently, I’ve started using Goodreads as a way to keep others up to date on what I’m reading and when. Lots of people were asking me “what are you reading” and that seems like Goodread’s exact use case. I have it synced to Calibre, so when I finish a book, it automatically gets moved from my “reading” to my “read” shelf. When I start a book, it automatically goes from “to-read” to “reading.” The only thing I haven’t taken the time to set up is the progress stuff. And frankly, I don’t know that I will because as you might have noticed, I think about progress differently that just “what page am I on?”

Audiobooks

I only listen to biographies on audiobooks. But I’m always listening to at least one and it’s usually Ulysses S. Grant or William Tecumseh Sherman.

A Final Note on Fiction

You probably have noticed that I took great pains to say, “here’s how I read non-fiction.” That’s because I don’t read a lot of fiction. When I do, I read it the slow, boring, methodical way that I just made fun of you for doing. Fiction, for me, is a treat and I tend to savor it. To an extreme. For example, I’ve been on my first reading of John Fowles’s The Magus for 18 years. I pick it up, read a few pages every year, then put it away. Not because it’s not compelling, but frankly because I never want to be not-reading that book for the first time.

If everything works out, I’ll read the last page of The Magus on the last day I’m alive.