How to get the most out of the books you read

The cheapest and best resource at your disposal to learn new things is the age-old book. For very little money or effort, you get access to the thoughts of people you look up to. Even if you were able to buy a bit of their time for a one-on-one consult, it would cost you ten times more than the book.

However, simply purchasing the book does you no good. Even reading the book may yield little in terms of real-world, actionable items you can use to move your business forward. That’s because most people have no idea how to read a book…effectively.

It’s not just letting your eyes skim across the page taking in the words — at least not for the good books that can help you grow your business into something awesome. Today we’re going to cover four ways you can read a book to get the most out of it.

I learned these ways from How to Read a Book. For a much more detailed look than I can give it here, you should read that book.

Reading is hard

Let’s start by saying that, much like any endeavour worth doing, reading well to increase our knowledge is hard work.

To pass from understanding less to understanding more by your own intellectual effort in reading is something like pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. It certainly feels that way. It is a major exertion. — How to Read a Book

Far too many people tell me they don’t read, or they at least don’t read anything outside of fiction because they don’t enjoy it. Most of the time with a bit of probing we come to the realization that reading is simply an activity they’ve never really practiced, and thus it’s hard.

The effectiveness with which he reads is determined by the amount of effort and skill he puts into reading. In general, the rule is: the more effort the better… — How to Read a Book

If you want to be a good reader, then you need to start reading deep. You can start to gain more understanding of the books you read once you understand the best ways to read the books you’re presented with.

1. Basic Comprehension or Elementary Reading

This is what we’re all taught in school. You can read and understand the words on the page. You can fit them into the sentences the author used. This is what we do through almost all of school — reading to take information in so that we can spew it back out on a test.

Unfortunately most people stop here because school rarely forces them to take anything a step further. They never need to move past spewing information back out onto a page or into some presentation, so they never learn (and are never taught) any of the next levels of reading.

One big thing that trips up many people here is that this level of reading easily succumbs to confirmation bias. Because one only knows to read for information-gathering purposes, they typically only read that which confirms the opinions they already hold. Reading contrary opinions would mean you need to know how to read at a deeper level, and since most of us are never taught to read deeper, we simply avoid that hard work and sit smugly in confirmation of the beliefs we already hold.

2. Inspectional Reading

This can be thought of as skimming or pre-reading and the purpose isn’t to get everything out of the book that there is inside. For most books you should give yourself no more than 15 minutes to inspect the book and by the end of that 15 minutes you should have a good handle on:

  1. What the book is about.
  2. The structure of the book.
  3. Whether the book is worth reading more deeply.

Not every book that looks interesting is worth reading from cover to cover. There is no badge for reading books that have no utility to you simply because you started them. Before you read any book you should engage in an inspectional read to make sure the book is worth focusing your attention on and moving to the next level of reading.

Yes, most of the books that you read analytically should go through an Inspectional read to confirm they are indeed worth the effort before you commit yourself to that deeper reading.

Here is the method I use to do an Inspectional Reading which was adapted from How to Read a Book.

  1. Look at the title page and read the preface, if it has one. Here you should be able to gain the aim of the book and the subjects it will cover. You should be able to identify any other books that may be of similar content that you’ve already read.
  2. Look at the table of contents. This will give you a good understanding of the overall structure of the book. It’s like looking at a map before you embark on a journey.
  3. Check the index of the book if it has one. This is going to give you another look at what the author and editor(s) considered to be important topics in the book. If some of the terms seem crucial to the core of the book look up the relevant passages and give them a quick read.
  4. Go back to the table of contents, and now that you’ve identified some of the key terms choose a chapter (maybe two) which seem to contain the core arguments of the book and look for the summary opening/closing statements at the beginning and end of the chapters.
  5. Flip through some of the chunks of the book and dip into small sections to get an idea of the content. You may only read a sentence, or a paragraph, or at times a few pages. Your goal is to look for the threads of the main content and how they relate to the specific section you’re currently looking at.

With this done, you should have a few notes on the book and a solid idea if it is worth moving to the next level of reading. Or if you’ve heard the arguments before and can safely put it aside in favour of some other book that is more worth your time.

If for some reason you’re still not sure, there is an additional level of reading that may be done to see if the book in hand is worth putting considerable effort into. This is most often the case with difficult books that are going to stretch your understanding. With the second level of Inspectional Reading you simply sit down and read the book as fast as possible. You don’t take notes. You don’t look up words you don’t understand. You don’t go back and read passages a second time if you missed their point.

You just read the whole book, cover to cover, quickly. At the end of this exercise you’ll certainly have a solid idea if the parts you don’t understand are worth puzzling out and with a first quick read done, you’re on much better footing to move on to the next level of reading.

3. Analytical Reading

Enlightenment is achieved only when, in addition to knowing what an author says, you know what he means and why he says it. — How to Read a Book

Analytical Reading is the deepest form of reading despite there being two more levels of deep reading to go. (When we address Syntopical Reading, you’ll understand why it is not the deepest level of reading.)

While How to Read a Book covers many more questions and techniques for Analytical Reading (most of the book is devoted to Analytical Reading) there are really only a few key questions to answer to start getting much more out of the books. The key questions are:

  1. What is the purpose of the book?
  2. What is its structure?
  3. What is the author trying to say in detail and how are they saying it?
  4. Does it achieve its purpose and is what the author is saying true?
  5. What does it matter?

As you can see, some of those questions will already be answered during your Inspectional Reading, specifically the first two questions and part of the third question.

I feel the most crucial questions to help you get more from a book are the last two questions. Did the author actually achieve communicating what they sought out to communicate and why does it matter to you?

To answer Question 4, you must spend time reading and analyzing the arguments made by the author. You must define their purpose in writing the book and weigh the truth of their assertions against what you know and have read already.

Finally, Question 5 forces some introspection — does it matter that you’ve read the book? Many books you read analytically will have some impact on your thinking. If you keep finding that the answer to the final question is that the book you just read doesn’t matter, then you’re doing a poor job of Inspectional Reading and the book should never have been given the Analytical Reading you just finished.

Of course it’s also possible that you did a poor job with your analytical reading, and you can’t answer the questions because you didn’t devote the time required to understand the author’s arguments. Far from being shy about admitting this, you should be honest with yourself so that you can decide if you should be heading back to give the book a proper reading.

4. Syntopical Reading

The final level of reading is Syntopical Reading. This is where you look at a whole subject and put together a list of the books in the field that are possibly relevant.

From there you filter out those books (maybe a list of 100 or more) that are the core books in the field. You do this by reading them Inspectionally and making notes on them.

Once you’ve got your list of relevant books down to a manageable level you take those few that are worth reading Analytically and read them in depth. Out of the hundreds you started with you may end up with 30 that are relevant and only 10 that warrant a full Analytical Reading.

Many of the other books in your list of 30 will get an Inspectional Reading where you simply read through quickly. Your goal here is to pull out the points that are relevant to your task at hand. Maybe you’re reading through everything to write a paper or a book, so you’re hunting for quotes that will support the arguments you think you’ll be making. Remember that the point here is not to use everything the way the author intended; the point is to get the utility you need from the book and put its contents to use for your own purpose.

One of the big things you’ll do with a Syntopical Reading is to normalize the vocabulary in the books. As an example, in his book Start with WHY, Simon Sinek says that you must have your WHY to really excel in life. Jeff Goins calls this purpose in his book The Art of Work. They are essentially the same concept with only nuance separating them, so as you read through them you’d normalize the vocabulary they use to describe the same topic.

You’re not done yet

I’ll talk about this more on Friday, but you’re not done with a book just because you’ve given it a good read. The next step is doing something about it or analyzing what you have learned from the book. The best way I’ve found to really dig into what a book has taught me is to take the time to write a short review of it.

Friday, I’ll give you my book review formula. If you want to dig much deeper into what it means to read a book then you must get How to Read a Book.

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