How To Read Books More Efficiently By Following These Few Incredibly Simple Steps
A guide to read faster, memorize more, and improve your knowledge effectiveness by fooling your brain
The search for “reading list 2020” gives already 26'700 results, compared to only 18'000 for the year 2019, which corresponds to an increase of nearly 50%.
I did not sum up the numbers of recommended books on all the bestseller lists. But I would guess, if every category is considered, these would be several hundred.
Honestly, I feel overwhelmed by this inflation of booklists. How to read so many books?
That would result in
- 5 hours and 19 minutes for J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
- 7 hours and 19 minutes for John Grisham, The Guardians
- 9 hours and 19 minutes for Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
- 11 hours and 36 minutes for Michelle Obama, Becoming
Reading one hour per day results in about one book a week and 52 books a year. Presupposed, you would be so disciplined and doing it.
As lovely as such lists are, and all the published reading habits of people like Bill Gates, they are making us probably more guilty than helping us.
Do not get me wrong! I am over and over again discovering new interesting books because of such recommendations.
But it gives you the impression that you are missing 95% of the world’s essential wisdom.
At least it shows us that books are still a vital part of our life and one of the most valuable knowledge carriers.
There is a force for reading — internally and externally motivated.
So, how to read books so efficiently that you can indeed read a book every week?
I was always reading a lot. During my school time, I have read four to five books a week. Many people did not believe that I have really read them. But each time they asked me about the details of the content, I could answer them.
I rarely read a book straight from the first line to the last line or read every word. Later, in high school, I reduced it further to headlines and specific paragraphs and sentences.
While studying mathematics and statistics at the university, I had to perfect the logical understanding and conclusion, besides processing large amounts of readings and content. I had to get the most and best value out of written information in the shortest possible time. The internet, as we know it today, did not yet exist. Thus, quickly look up a term of interest was not possible.
So, I have developed and refined an efficient and effective way of reading and understanding over all the years. It is a balance between “read it all” and “read sufficient to understand.”
I am still reading a lot, and I have at least eight books next to my bed, which I am reading in parallel.
Today, I have read Digitally Deaf by Steven M. Stone in about an hour, including summarizing the book and key tables in a mind map. Ok, the book has only 140 pages.
So, let me share my journey and techniques such that you can do it, too.
#1 Structure your reading by first reading only the table of contents and then the corresponding titles, subtitles, and selected paragraphs in the book
Yes, I know. That is the usual advice everybody gives you. But let me add some subtle details that nobody typically tells you.
I am scanning the table of contents, titles, and subtitles in reversed order, i.e., from the end to the beginning. Starting at the end means that you start with the conclusion, i.e., the why. Then, you can focus on the arguments on how to reach that conclusion. That gives a logical structure of the deduction, and you grasp the rationale faster.
Then, I start at the end of the book and of the main parts. In the end, usually, a summary, mostly identifiable by an enumeration, is given. That gives you the full content in a very concise and precise manner.
Next, I am reading selected paragraphs. Sub-chapters mostly starts by introducing the topic or scene. Then, after about 2/3 of the sub-chapter, the key points are given. And in the last few sentences, some sub-conclusions are stated.
It is like in an ice hockey match: You start watching the game; then you go for a beer, return for the last five minutes of the second third, and the last two minutes of the final one because that summarizes nearly the whole action and performance of a match.
With this kind of scanning, you can comprehend all key messages and conclusions of a book in not even thirty minutes.
#2 Focus on the sentence’s visual structure and not on a single word itself
Read the following paragraph.
Even though you only have the upper half of the text, you can read and understand everything.
You don’t need to read every single word. On the contrary, just skimming a text is enough for full understanding. And you do not need to doubt your grasp. There is no need to go back and repeat until you have read each word consciously.
Now, test the following:
- Take your mobile phone
- Open a newspaper and select any article
- Read the article by scrolling down continuously as if you would search for a particular paragraph
- Do not stop scrolling
Reflect on how much of the content have you grasp? 30%, 50% or 80%? I would guess it’s more than 50%.
I further guess that you are doing this several times a day for scanning information in social media. What happens is that you primarily see the upper part of a line. It is like in the picture above.
Now, take a small book, e.g., with a width of around 13 centimeters (5 inches). That is not much larger than your mobile phone.
Do the same, but with the difference that now the text is not moving. You are now moving your view through the book down. It is similar as you would scroll down. Move the eyes in the middle of the pages down.
In the beginning, do not practice it too fast. Chose a speed that balances on one side that you can capture the upper texture of the lines. But on the other side such that your eyes are not starting to move horizontally.
Do not care if you cannot consciously read all words and lines. It is vital to get a feeling for the content. It will improve the more you are practicing.
Do it for one page, then for the next. Finally, take the same pace as you would scroll on your mobile.
How much have you grasped? Again, I would guess more than 50%. Isn’t it amazing?
#3 Read the sentence and words by seeing their meaning and not by reading them with subvocalization.
Look at the red-framed words in the following text.
I guess you could recognize all words instantly visually in their meaning. But most probably, it happened without reading them with subvocalization, i.e., with an inner voice that is sounding out each word internally. Only, in the second attempt, for confirming your first impression, you began to read it consciously.
This exercise shows two amazing effects:
- First, you can read without sounding out the words internally, and
- Second, you can fully trust your first attempt, and you don’t need to re-read the text
Both save you a lot of time in reading.
When I was learning Japanese, it was the first time when I discovered this difference consciously. I had just read my first whole sentence written with the Kanjis — the Japanese signs. I did know the meaning of every single Kanji and did fully understand the sentence. But I could not translate it into the spoken language as quickly as I understood the meaning. There was a considerable time gap between understanding and sounding out.
Practicing that in already familiar languages and getting out of the habit of reading with subvocalization, you can flip the book — like the text above — and train it.
So, take the same book as before, open it randomly and turn it by 180 degrees. And now you repeat exercise #2 but with the reversed book. You will be slower than before, but it should force a speed that you cannot start reading the words consciously with your inner voice.
Practice that for several pages. Over time, you are starting to gather the meaning visually.
#4 Focus on parts of the sentence and not one single word or sentence
Now, look at the white spot in the middle of the text. Widen your view as you would look at an item in the distance. You will now have the whole text in your field of vision. And then, read the paragraph.
This exercise demonstrates how wide our field of view is. And this means that you do not need to read only a single word. No, you can directly read parts of a sentence. When you read three or four terms together, you are three to four times faster.
Retake the book for practice. Repeat exercises #2 and #3 but now with such a wider view.
It needs some practice.
It could help to have in mind the image that you would look into the distance. I often have a concrete scene in mind: I always imagine that I would look at the mountains far away.
#5 Read diagonal and from right to left
I know it is relatively uncommon how we are reading here. It is in contrast to all the reading behavior that we have learned during our time in school. And what they have told us about learning and memorizing.
And many of them would say, “this is just skimming!” Well, reading is a process to receive information. If these techniques serve this purpose, then I call it reading. Of course, the information should be structured and understandable.
So, the last technique I want to introduce is “zigzag” reading.
The movements of the eyes follow such a pattern.
It corresponds to a natural movement of our eyes when we are scanning information, people, pictures. Because we are writing from left to right, we typically start on the left side and move to the right. The secondary movement is then from top to down. Of course, in other languages like Arabic, or Hebrew, we would reverse it from top right to left bottom.
And now, read the following text by following the red lines and only using 1 (!) second per arrow.
Read it in a state that you have learned before
- Focus on the upper half of the text
- Do not read it with subvocalization
- Have a view as you would look far into the distance
You have just read 159 words in 8 seconds. Or in other words: instead of reading Michelle Obama’s Becoming in 11 hours and 36 minutes, you only would need 2 hours and 19 minutes. That is five times faster than you have read before.
Do not care if you have the feeling that you could not grasp all the content. It needs some training. But if you start to practice this, consequently, you will see the progress.
I am dyslexic. And if I could manage to achieve that, you can do it too, and most probably much faster than I did.
Now, you can argue that all these techniques are mainly suitable for non-fiction books. Well, yes and no. All steps can also be applied to fiction books. However, I never would have applied #1 above to the Games of Throne books. I want to preserve the tension.
All the other steps, I am using to read any book efficiently.
Connecting the Dots
Reading efficient and effective can be learned. And it can be learned quickly. It is not speed reading. The secret is the incredibly simple techniques that utilize our eyes’ natural movement and the power of our cognition in several dimensions.
So, my advice to you:
Practice it regularly
Start experimenting with the techniques already today. It does neither mean that you should practice them throughout the complete book nor with every book you are reading.
It is more efficient to practice it every day 10 to 15 minutes. The more progress you experience, the more fun you will have and applying it.
Learning is not sequential
Practice the exercise that you feel like doing. It is not needed to carry out all activities in the given order. Learning is circular.
If you want to exercise #3, then do it. If you want to try out #5, do it. It is crucial that you are doing it. The success will come automatically.
Set goals where you want to know more
Set goals about what topic you want to know more, or what book you want to read. Do never set goals about the techniques themselves. Then, take that book, read, and experiment with these techniques.
Do not care if the exercises do not work out as quickly as expected. Or if you do not remember as much content as hoped.
Enjoy reading and gaining new information. Look for daily opportunities to apply this newly acquired information. It can be in discussion with friends or at the workplace. The more you can use it, the more you will read, and the more efficient you must read.
To give you an example: I was reading a lot about graphene science and technology. Graphene is a 2D material with imposing properties. However, it is neither part of my daily professional nor private life. I just did it for curiosity and fun.
And I was telling people about graphene and the exciting properties as part of “advanced small talk.”
One day, two Ph.D. students who attended my lecture came to me and asked about the best way to get into the data science field when coming from a different area. I showed them the various options, but I also told them that there is not just one linear way but many entry points that will lead after a while to that field. And I mentioned my graphene learning as an example.
One of the Ph.D. students was looking at me and shouting, “I am doing my Ph.D. in graphene!” And that was a win-win situation: I could visit the graphene lab and see everything in practice, and because of my knowledge, what skills people working in this field have, I could give her much better advice.
And finally: you should not doubt your capacity in reading. Just do it.
The exercises before showed you how outstanding your cognitive skills are and that there is no reason to mistrust your reading and understanding capabilities.
Now: enjoy your reading!
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