Do you remember being a kid, making your way through a complex book? Although you had to pause and look up some words, it felt like a new world opened up for you.
I remember the first time I made my way through a whole book in English (I’m French), dictionary in hand. I felt so much pride, and I could not wait to start another one.
Decades later, I discovered that I could recreate the wonder as an adult, as long as I picked a challenging enough book.
Complex books challenge you to do research and to fill in the blanks as you read. Rather than passively making your way through them, you must apply your knowledge and experience to the text.
Learning new things and reaching the end will leave you feeling accomplished and proud.
So, now, You’ve picked a book — fiction or non-fiction — that is outside of your comfort zone. What should you do to understand and retain the material, and make the most out of what you’re reading?
1. Don’t try to memorize everything.
When reading light non-fiction books, I’m a skimmer. But the same approach doesn’t work for advanced non-fiction texts.
I used to slow my reading pace down considerably — this part was fine, challenging books typically take a longer time to get through. But as I read, I tried to learn every new fact by heart. This made the whole experience an unpleasant slog, and I failed to take in the real point of what I was reading.
I couldn’t see the forest from the trees.
Comprehending and retaining a book doesn’t mean memorization. You want to find the point of each passage and understand the core takeaways.
This is especially important if you’re reading non-fiction — it’s all too easy to get lost in statistics or dates, while your goal is to understand the system you’re reading about.
Now, if you’re struggling with how to tell what is essential from what isn’t, my advice is to take notes.
Write down everything that refuses to stick in your brain, whether it’s the stages of an evolving political system or all the characters in War and Peace.
There could be a glossary at the end of your book to give you some guidance. But in my experience, there is more value in taking notes first and only consulting the glossary afterward.
Note: You could also try applying various memory-enhancing techniques to what you read. This is especially handy if you’re reading something to do with your profession, where the details could be useful to you later.
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2. Let go of the anti-spoiler mentality.
If you’re used to only reading lighthearted genre fiction, you probably go out of your way to avoid spoilers. What’s the point of reading if you know how the story’s going to end?
But with more challenging books, feel free to skip to the end if you want to — it might enhance your experience rather than detract from it. Knowing the ending can clarify everything for you.
Another great way to keep yourself on track is to read the book’s Wiki article or a review from an informed reader.
By relying on someone else’s perspective, you can make your way through any parts that confuse or bore you. Later, when you reread the text, you’ll find that you have opinions and insights of your own.
3. Look (some of) it up.
As you’re reading, you will come across concepts you’re unfamiliar with and references you can’t quite grasp. This is a good sign; it means the book is truly broadening your horizons.
When you bump into this kind of obstacle, your options are to:
- Research the unfamiliar concept
- Or keep reading and work it out from the context.
In my experience, it’s best to combine these two approaches. You can benefit from the cognitive work of understanding the point when you only have limited information to work with. Plus, If you’re immersed in reading, googling things may disrupt your flow.
But if you never do independent research, you may be left with some wrong impressions. If you ignore everything you don’t understand, there’s not much point in picking up a difficult book in the first place.
The best way to go is to pay attention to the rhythm of your reading experience.
If you’re about to reach a natural resting point soon, wait until you do and then look up whatever is confusing you.
If the resting point is a long way away, write down the concept, and you can look it up later if it’s still unclear.
On the other hand, if the text makes no sense because a key puzzle piece is missing, stop reading right now and dive into some research.
4. Keep notes of various kinds.
“‘Marginalia’ are when you mark out thoughts, questions, and connections to other ideas’ in the margins. The goal behind doing this is to digest what you are learning and make it your own — make associations, draw connections, play with it, hold it in your mind.”
While reading, I will highlight a passage, fold the top or bottom corner of the page, and write my ideas in the margins.
This helps me achieve more clarity, but note-taking can be an exercise in creativity too. There’s no one right way to create marginalia, and it’s up to you to develop your own approach.
I also recommend keeping a reading journal. Even if you don’t use a journal for other activities, grab a notebook and write down your impressions as you read and after you’re done with each book. Revisiting your notes later is often more valuable than rereading the whole book.
Other forms of note-taking include flashcards, quote collections, and even writing the occasional Goodreads review. It’s up to you to find the best way to retain and share your impressions of what you read, and it will also depend on what kind of book it is.
5. Revisit the text later.
I am an unabashed rereader. While this is a matter of personal preference, I think there are books you have to read several times to understand them fully.
A genuinely complex text will give you new insights the second and even the third time you read it.
Once you’ve understood the main takeaway, you can take in more of the details and see how they all fit together. Plus, rereading something years later lets you discover the ways you’ve changed as a person and as a reader.
How long should you wait until you go back?
My recommendation is to reread your notes on the book a week or two after you’ve finished reading it. Then wait a few months, let your brain digest the text. Then, you can go back and check it out again if you feel like it.
6. Apply it to life.
“For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.” — Aristotle
My final piece of advice is to start applying the concepts you read about.
You don’t need to become an expert on the subject before you can start using your new knowledge.
Find situations where you can use or talk about the main takeaways.
You can always check out the bibliography of the book you finished, and use that to find your next read.
Build on the knowledge you’ve collected, let yourself grow in new and unexpected ways.
Why You Shouldn’t Put This Off
Considering the state of the world today, reading challenging books is more important than ever. When you read a book above your current level:
- You become better at drawing lines between relevant information and forgettable details.
- Drawing conclusions becomes second nature.
- You hone your critical thinking skills.
- You learn about new ways of life, new viewpoints, and you challenge the prejudices you currently have.
Books can make you more critical and more compassionate. Even if you pick a topic you disagree with on a visceral level, you’ll improve yourself by engaging with it in good faith.
There’s nothing wrong with comfort reads. Sometimes, all you have the mental space for is a fluffy, accessible book that won’t engage you too much. But don’t let these books become your only option.
Remember: anyone can start reading more complex books. There are no qualifications required, and you don’t have to have experience either.
It may seem daunting at first, and you might need to take a break for a few weeks. But with time, these books will bring you joy and confidence, and you will become better at the act of reading.