How to Read: Advice From a Professional Book Reviewer

Abandon bad books, keep a reading journal, and other advice to take you from casual to expert reader.

Sarah Olson Michel
Dec 3, 2020 · 5 min read

I started reviewing books just two years ago. As an avid reader, I wanted to share my thoughts while helping people find good books to read. Over the course of the first year, I became well known in the science community for my blog Read More Science.

I specialize is a genre of nonfiction called popular science, or popsci. They’re like documentaries in book form — educational, engaging, and exciting. Readers get to tag along with scientists and journalists as they solve mysteries millions of years old: Where did the universe come from? What happened to the dinosaurs? What can our planet’s past tell us about our future?

I was enchanted from the moment I first stumbled on the genre. Since then I’ve read countless popsci books, written dozens of reviews, and shared my passion with readers through major media outlets like Science Friday and Science Magazine.

I’ve taken college coursework in science writing and literature as well as STEM classes. Publishers send me copies of books to review. Authors pitch me books to consider, hoping I’ll recommend it to my audience. You could call me an expert, but I don’t think I have quite enough credentials yet. The one thing I actually am an expert in is reading.

You can be an expert in reading too. It’s not hard, and anyone can do it if they’re willing to learn. Through a few key behaviors I’ve picked up on as a professional book reviewer, I’ll show you how.

And I don’t just mean more books — I’m talking about the right books.

They haunt their favorite sections of their local bookstore and library. They browse sites like Kirkus and the New York Times and NPR for book reviews. They pay attention when books in their favorite genre come out.

But they don’t just base their reading taste on what’s being reviewed and the things reviewers say. They’re willing to get their hands on a copy and make that decision based on what they see.

Because here’s the thing that defines an expert readers from someone who casually opens a book now and then: expert readers know they have permission to set down a book they aren’t enjoying and never pick it back up.

That’s right. We abandon books.

Because we’re willing to set down the books we don’t immediately like, we have more time to invest in finding the ones we love.

There are so many good books out there — you’ll never read them all. Why waste time on the ones you don’t like?

When our spouse is watching television or our friends are out for drinks, we are tucked away in our favorite reading nook and perfectly satisfied with that decision.

We’re willing to make sacrifices that other people aren’t. Because we love to read. We don’t even think of it as a sacrifice, really.

We’d just rather be reading then watching TV or socializing with a big group (you know, that thing people did in the before-times).

Because expert readers make time for their passion — just like someone might make time to golf or knit or hit the gym — we devour books at rates much higher than our non-committal counterparts.

What’s the difference between a reader and a book lover? A book lover collects books, but a reader reads them.

Unless you’re just decorating your shelves (hey, no judgment, that’s some smart decor), don’t be a collector. Be a reader. Make time.

If you’ve never done this before, I recommend you give it a try. Keep a small notebook near you when you read — jot down page numbers for passages you want to return to, quotes that stand out to you, thoughts you want to capture as they come.

A reading notebook is your best friend. It’s a place for you to record the earth-shattering realizations you have when you’re reading a great book. They’re preserved for you to return to whenever you want inspiration.

I started my first reading notebook when I was ten. I’ve had one ever since — even if it’s just a nearby scrap of paper. Other times, I make notes in the margins or dog-ear pages like a reading heathen. I can’t help myself.

As a book reviewer this is really important, because I rely on my notes and bookmarked pages and references as I’m writing my reviews. Especially if I can’t write the review right away, I might not remember important details I want to share.

But as a reader, making notes helps you retain information better and connect more deeply with what you’re reading. Having a reading notebook is like keeping journal. It’s a record of not only what you’ve read, but what you’re learning and curious about and interested in.

Suffice to say, there’s a reason your high school English teacher made you write essays and journals on books you read for class. It’s because we remember and learn so much more when we take the time to contemplate what we’re reading, think critically, analyze, and ask questions.

This comes naturally to me as a former English major and literature nerd, but it’s a skill that absolutely anyone can learn. It starts by simply jotting down your most important thoughts while you read. Those notes will lead you right into deeper reading.

Deep reading is another thing that separates expert readers from casual book lovers. They’re willing to squeeze every last drop of worthwhile material from the pages.

Questions we think about include, what’s the key takeaway the author wants me to finish the book with? What are some of the major themes tying the book together? What anecdotes or details stand out to me even after I put the book down? If I was recommending this to a friend, what would I say about it?

These questions (and others you come up with as you read) are the lighthouse guiding you home as you sail through the dark and turbulent waters of the unknown. Keep them in your heart as you read.

I wish you the best on your journey toward becoming an expert reader. I promise you’ll love the process.

Go ahead — dig in to your next great read!

Want to take the trouble out of finding new books? Get my reading recommendations delivered right to your inbox.

Sarah Olson Michel (she/they) is a science writer and book reviewer based in the beautiful Pacific Northwest, where she works for an indie bookstore and studies science at OSU.

Read More Science

Lifechanging books for lifelong learners

Sarah Olson Michel

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Nonfiction writer wrangling words and horses in the Pacific Northwest | she/they

Read More Science

Science writer Sarah Olson Michel is bringing back her reviews of pop science, nature writing, and nonfiction in this new Medium publication

Sarah Olson Michel

Written by

Nonfiction writer wrangling words and horses in the Pacific Northwest | she/they

Read More Science

Science writer Sarah Olson Michel is bringing back her reviews of pop science, nature writing, and nonfiction in this new Medium publication

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