How You Can Actually Read One Non-Fiction Book Every Week
A realistic guide to getting the most from any book you choose in record time
Between trying to make my online and freelancing businesses work, keeping up with my friends, and enjoying some downtime, my nonfiction reading had decreased over the years.
This doesn’t mean that I didn’t want to read more. In fact, reading more books was always at the top of my agenda for personal development. I simply didn’t manage to turn it into a priority and dedicate the time to it.
While I firmly believe that reading and success are correlated, the effects of regular reading can be subtle and long-term. That’s why it’s hard to convince yourself to read for three hours daily when you feel like your house (read: your business and bank account) is burning and there are gazillions of immediate actions you should be taking instead.
I decided to try out something different this year. My goal was to create a habit to read one book per week.
I knew it wasn’t going to happen in a conventional, read a book cover-to-cover way. Being realistic with my schedule and other priorities forced me to think outside the box and create a reading method that allows me to read and absorb more in less time.
Before using this method, I never managed to make reading a steady habit. I was reading in bursts. I would read a whole book on a weekend (needing all the weekend to do it), feel burned out from reading this much, and not touch a book again for weeks. I read around 10–20 books per year but always felt like I was falling short.
But now, non-fiction reading has become a steady habit for me. Sure, there are some weeks when I don’t read a full book—but most of the time I do, and when I feel that my habit has slipped a bit, I’ve created ways to get myself back on track. It’s the beginning of November as I am writing this, and I have already read almost the double amount of books I have read all last year.
Here is how I did it.
Prerequisite: Give Your Reading Clear Purpose
As with any other habit or challenge, things are significantly more difficult if you lack a clear goal or outcome. According to Dr. Bill Klemm, professor of neuroscience at Texas A&M,
“[e]veryone should have a purpose for their reading and think about how that purpose is being fulfilled during the actual reading.”
This is true for both the general purpose of wanting to read more (Why read more at all?) as well as each specific book itself (Why am I reading this book in particular?)
I certainly fell into the category of people who wanted to read more just for the sake of reading more, and because I believed that this is what I needed to do. Before setting my goal of reading a book a week I never defined the desired outcome to my reading, neither in general nor to the specific books that I have read.
Step 1: Define your overall purpose
Why do you want to read more?
There are infinite possible answers to this, but your answer needs to be more specific than “to expand my knowledge”.
What goals are you pursuing by reading more? Identifying your purpose will keep you on track by guiding your choices towards books that are relevant to you.
Here are some examples:
- To have a more holistic worldview in terms of world philosophies
- To generate more ideas for expanding or marketing your business
- To get to know other people’s life stories and learn from their mistakes and successes
- To learn about social dynamics, and to improve your relationships and daily interactions
- To improve yourself: gain more self-confidence, learn to love yourself, and heal from past traumas
You might have twenty such goals, or you might just have one; technically speaking, it doesn’t matter (though, for practicality’s sake, you might want to choose the most important few). The important thing is that you know for yourself why reading is important to you, personally, and that you choose your books according to that purpose.
This helps you choose the right books to read, but also helps you say “no” to books that aren’t relevant to your goals. That means you avoid collecting a stack of books driven by FOMO or feelings that you “should” read them — but truthfully lack the enthusiasm to spend time on them.
Step 2: Look for what is relevant to you within each book
Knowing what you roughly want to get out of a specific book will help you to stay on track and focus on the most relevant parts. There is so much information in every book and your brain only has a limited capacity, especially when it comes to long-term retention.
Defining beforehand which topics will be important to you will put you in an attentive mindset and help you separate what is relevant to you and what’s not in every particular book.
Defining your purpose, put it into practice
To change my attitude and goal towards reading worked wonders for me in staying on track. Here is an example of how this can look like in practice:
One of my personal goals for reading more is to build up a basic knowledge of natural sciences. I am a humanist and feel like I have significant gaps when it comes to mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, and all the hard sciences.
That’s how I have stumbled upon The Jazz of Physics, a book written by physicist and musician Stephon Alexander, which explains complex physical questions and theories through musical concepts. I have an understanding of musical concepts, so this was a great book for this purpose.
However, it also includes lots of biographical details and often has more of a storytelling character. While Alexander’s life is super interesting, it didn’t serve my purpose when reading his book, so I didn’t direct my focus to it and selected what was relevant for me, instead.
Starting any new book with a purpose makes a big difference because it comes with immediate results, rather than aimless reading. In this case, grasping new physical concepts was a very tangible outcome, as opposed to just having broadened my worldview in some vague way.
The Methodology for Reading More
What does it mean to have read a book?
Based on the goals above, what you need to ask yourself is: what does it mean to you to have read a book? Is a book only read when you’ve seen every word of it? Or is it rather when you have found what you were looking for in the first place?
For my undertaking to read a book a week, I have redefined the definition of reading a book. Rather than having read it word for word, I say that I have read a book once I:
- Can properly explain it to someone
- Can discuss it
- Know what I can use it as a reference for
- Know what the book contains, even in the parts that I haven’t read
Why you don’t have to read from cover to cover
What kept me back so far from reading more among others was my definition of having read a book. Reading a book, for me, always meant reading from cover to cover. Which is fine if it is one of the exceptional pieces that keeps you hooked from the first sentence and for which you force yourself to stay awake all night long.
Most books are not like this. Most books have one or the other good idea you might apply for a long time to come, while you will forget about the rest.
It’s not that most books are bad (although many are). It’s that as you read more, your knowledge and reading experience compounds—and there will be less and less groundbreaking information for you.
My way of reading books from cover to cover was getting in my way, instead of providing more value. I don’t enjoy all parts of most books, so I was slow, getting nowhere, forgetting where I was, and I ended up reading one book for several weeks. At the same time, I was plagued by FOMO — what if I miss the essence if I stop now? Every time I put a book aside without finishing it I had a bad conscience and the feeling that I cannot follow through on anything.
How to read books instead
That’s why it was such a relief to figure out that I don’t have to read books all the way through. I was the only one who was forcing myself to do this.
This insight came after an elaborate discussion of Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life with a friend. When asking about when she read the book she said “I didn’t. I just read a lot about it.”
In the 21st century, every book comes with more (completely free!) information about it than you know what to do with. It’s a mistake to not make good use of that information. I like to call this the additional layers of a book: book descriptions, audiobooks, author interviews, podcasts, vlogs dedicated to summarizing books, ratings, reviews, and so much more.
By turning to these additional layers you can collect a large pool of information and absorb big parts of the content in a short time through multiple channels.
The great thing about author interviews, Ted Talks, and podcasts revolving around a book is that they focus on the essential stuff and cut out all the noise.
See it this way: When you’ve spent a year writing a book and are given 20 minutes to talk about it to a big audience, you’ll be sure to focus on its biggest takeaways and aha-moments.
These additional layers of a book are invaluable resources for reading and learning more in less time.
How to Read a Book
In the following paragraphs, I will walk you through my process of reading a book step by step, relying on these additional layers of books, for the most part.
You can read any book like this in less than half a day and be able to have lengthy discussions about it afterward.
Step 1: What is the book about?
What you are looking for first is a rough overview of the whole book. For this, simply Google [title of the book + summary] and read 2–3 overviews, depending on their length. Some books have amazing video summaries. If you’re the audio-visual type, then that’s a great supplement.
This alone leaves you with the main ideas of the book, plus its most important points, in less than 30 minutes.
Step 2: What does the author say it’s about?
How does the author present their book? When forced to condense their book into 20–30 minutes, they will make sure to focus on the essentials, key points, and his biggest findings, so this is a perfect way for you to take note and learn of these. You can do this in two ways (I usually do both, because the two are different):
a) Listen to an interview with the author (e.g. podcast)
This is a way of dialogue where the interviewer asks some (critical) questions and the author explains their book via the answers to those questions.
b) Watch a book presentation of the author (e.g. university talk or TED-talk)
This is where the author will speak freely about his or her findings. Usually, this is both about summarizing the book as well as generating curiosity about it, so such presentations usually present the biggest aha-moments and most important parts of the book well.
Step 3: What do readers have to say about it?
The last step of going through the additional book layers is to read through its reviews. Read the most helpful 5-, 4-, 3-, 2- and 1-star reviews on Amazon and Goodreads (both platforms will show you the best-rated, most helpful reviews first).
This will give you…
- An excellent idea about what others took away from the book, what they liked and didn’t like (the book’s strengths and weaknesses), and its biggest takeaways for readers.
- Which passages are actually worth reading: at this point, note down the parts that are either frequently mentioned in the reviews or that personally strike you as interesting, based on the reviews.
Step 4: Open the book and read — but only certain parts of it!
Only after completing all the above steps do I take the book into my hands and start reading parts of it. I recommend you do this the following way:
- Read the first and last chapter of the book
If you are a reader who also writes, you surely have heard that the first and last parts of your writing have to really kick in: If the first chapter sucks, nobody will finish what you wrote and if the last chapter sucks, it’ll leave people directionless and disappointed. Both have to be excellent. Authors know this, so it is worth reading the first and last chapters of any book first to get a further idea of the message it wants to convey.
- Read those parts that you took note of while going through the reviews (step 3)
After having read the first and last chapters, jump to those parts that other readers found worth mentioning in their reviews. This will give you a further idea about the main points of the book.
- Skim the rest like a magazine and take note of what each chapter is roughly about
To do this, read the first few sentences of each chapter, skim its pages and write down what they are roughly about in the form of marginalia.
I find it helpful to read with a pen or pencil in hand or — if reading on Kindle — with fingers ready to mark passages, even if just skimming. This helps you focus on getting the gist of what you’re reading, read more critically, stay more alert and keep your mind from wandering.
It doesn’t mean that you have to mark lots of passages. I actually discourage you from marking too much, as highlighting everything has the same result as highlighting nothing. Highlighting only the most important info will help you get from passive reading mode to analyzing mode which will let you grasp any book a lot better.
“The intellectual is, quite simply, a human being who has a pencil in his or her hand when reading a book.”
How to Process a Book and Transfer It to Your Long-Term Memory
The process described above takes approximately 3–4 hours and will leave you with a thorough understanding of any non-fiction book. However, since you haven’t spent as much time with the book as you usually would when reading from cover to cover, you will need to take a few additional steps to help you remember and make the most of it.
I suggest you leave some time (one or two nights) between reading and processing to let things sink in — this will help you see the material from a bit of a distance and focus on what is valuable and what’s not.
What you cannot remember one or two days later probably wasn’t that important anyway.
I keep a book journal for processing books. It used to be an actual, hand-written journal, but I have switched to digital lately (I use a folder with Google Docs now). It’s faster and cannot get lost, but it’s really a matter of preference. For every book, I open a separate Google Doc.
The following steps are all optional. I don’t do any of them for a book I didn’t like and do all of them if for one I loved. Most books fall somewhere in between.
The steps are chronological and the more of them you complete, the more thoroughly you’ll process the new information.
1. How did the book serve the initial purpose of reading it?
Did you find what you were looking for when choosing this book? Which questions did you receive answers to? Did you learn any new concepts in the fields of your interests? If the answer is no to all of these questions, this might be the point you’ll stop going further with processing the book.
2. Write a book summary in max 3 sentences
Think of this as writing a blurb for the book. If you had to describe what the book was about very quickly to someone, what would you say?
3. Write about the book to an imaginary friend
Think of this as a bit longer summary (1/2 to one page) where you explain the book in a little more detail to someone.
4. What were the three biggest insights for you?
This is about thinking of the ways this book surprised you and the new things you have learned from it that you have found interesting — its added value to your life.
5. What is the one thing that you would like to take away or apply to your own life?
As much as we are motivated in the beginning, it is seldom that we apply a whole book step-by-step for an extended period. If we are honest, few books are real game-changers, but most books have at least one important and applicable takeaway. What is this and how can you apply it in the future?
6. Categorize the book
For which topics in your writing, work, career or general conversations can this book be a future reference for? Where could you quote the book?
As a writer who reads a lot, I love collecting future references and categorizing what I need. This way I know where to turn to later when it comes to specific topics I need references for. I prefer to put every book into 3–10 main categories.
The Art of Follow Through: How to Jump Back After Some Downtime
While the method I outlined above makes it much easier, faster, and more actionable to read and comprehend one book every week, it doesn’t mean that you will actually find the time or energy to do it every single week. It’s still a commitment of 4–5 hours of concentration you have to clip off your free time.
Am I going to read 52 books this year? Probably not. It’s week number 45 as I am writing this and I have just finished book 37, meaning I have skipped 7 weeks so far and will likely have to skip one or two until the end of the year.
But guess what: that doesn’t matter. I have still read more than ever this year, and I knew what I was doing and had a clear purpose for every book in my mind. That’s what matters to me. As with every other habit, what you are aiming for is general, sustainable consistency.
What entices me to skip weeks in the first place boils down to three main factors:
- not knowing what to read next or not having the time or energy to search for the next book, and
- not “feeling like it” —little reading burnouts from all the advice out there.
Here is what helps me overcome each of these factors:
Time: reserve the processing for the really awesome, mind-bending stuff
Remember: Your goal is to read one book per week, not to memorize all of them. Around half of all the books that I have read made it to my book-journal (aside from step 1) and I have done all steps of processing for a total of six of them — the ones that really, genuinely opened my eyes and that I want to remember for years to come. Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens was such a piece, as well as Stephen King’s On Writing—but ingenious books like these are rare out there.
What to read next: ask people close to you for recommendations
When I’m unsure of what to read next or don’t feel motivated to find a book in the first place I ask someone close to me the following question:
“What’s a book that changed your life?”
Just the fact that a book changed the life of someone close to me makes it very interesting from the start. It might not change my life as well, but it will sure help me understand that person better which is a big motivation by itself that pushes me. This also means that you get to discuss the book later with that person.
Reading burnout: read fiction outside of your dedicated non-fiction reading time
This might sound contradictory, but it can be very demotivating to dedicate all your reading time to non-fiction if you are a person who likes fiction books just as much. Fiction books might not have the hands-on mentality and advice that non-fiction books have, but a gripping piece of fiction carries a possibility of wonder and excitement no non-fiction book does.
I read a few pages of fiction with my morning coffee and on most nights before I go to bed. In total, I still read way fewer fiction books (as I read those from cover-to-cover), but the variety keeps me motivated and leaves me a lot more freedom in the books I choose.
How You Can Get Started and Read One Book Today
Shifting my perspective on what reading a book means to me completely changed all my non-fictional reading experiences. Expanding my horizon further to the several multimedia layers books have was the exact step that I needed to finally manage reading a book per week, on a consistent basis.
If you add it all together, the above process doesn’t take more than 4–5 foreseeable hours. This means that you can do it; everyone can. Even the busiest people in the world have 4–5 hours per week for something that’s important to them.
If you’re not sure where to start, you can either…
a) pick up the one book you’ve meant to read for a while, but never got around to, or
b) if there is no such book on your mind right now, define your biggest reading purpose and find the best books related to this topic (e.g. via Amazon), or
c) ask someone close to you about the book that changed their life, and go from there.
Remember that higher success or intelligence is not about the number of books you consumed by whoever defined what proper reading is. It is the knowledge you compound, the lessons you learn, and the things you take away and apply in the long run that counts.
Read for retention of what’s important, not for the sake of reading. Remember that you too can read a whole book today — or on any day — starting right now.