10 ideas that will make you a better reader

I was listening to Liz Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things audiobook with my husband when I caught myself shifting nervously in my chair. “I want something to happen, I want something to happen! Now!” It was one of the less dynamic periods of Alma’s life, when she was on Tahiti, also waiting for something to happen. But I was desperate for some action. Come on, friendly Universe from the book! Give us something surprising!

Then I realized that my way of reading/listening to the book was not exactly the best. I wanted the book to get ahead of itself like I often do. I was like a chorus of kids from the back seat of the car: “Are we there yet? Are we there yet?” I failed to be present and enjoy the journey. I was only focused on the end result. What will happen?

You may get the idea that The Signature of All Things is a boring book. That is far from the truth. I was looking forward to each and every listening session. I started listening alone and liked it so much that I invited my husband to join me and we started from the beginning. And we both loved the book. It is dynamic and contagious, full of surprises and beautiful thoughts. So the book was not the problem, I would warmly recommend it to everyone. The problem was my monkey mind.

I learned about Annie Dillard’s idea of presence over productivity from Maria Popova. Too often we want to find out what will happen in the book, read it, cross it off the to-do list, like doing laundry or any other unwanted task, and jump onto something else. A friend recently told me that he listens to audio books at 1.5 speed. I couldn’t help but think of Woody Allen’s quote:

“I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in 20 minutes. It involves Russia.”

It’s not the point just to read more books, but also to know what you’ve read. Each book contains gems of wisdom and big ideas. And it takes a little bit of time to understand them, reflect on them and sure, implement some of them in your life. Yet, we are tempted to read the idea, say: “Aha. This is interesting. Makes sense.” And move on. Always in search of new, magical solution, bigger and better “A-HA” moments.

The books that transformed me the most are the ones that I read and re-read. The books that made me think. The books that I highlighted left and right, summarized the favorite citations, meditated on extensively. The books I mentioned in my own writing. I firmly believe there is an enormous value in reading slowly, not rushing, thinking and letting the book stay with me for a little longer.

Technology made reading easier and more available than ever. (Thank you, technology!) We all know that readers are leaders and we are eager to read more. Reading more is awesome. But I also suggest: let’s read better.

Besides of slowing down and reading more carefully, here are some more ideas on how to make more out of your reading, how to reflect, remember and be transformed by what you read:

1. Write your 10 favorite ideas from the book.

If you know anything about me, you know that I’m 10-idea zealot.,Writing 10 ideas about anything pushes you out of your comfort zone. And 10 ideas from the book represent a decent summary in a nice form, which you will be able to use later in your writing, speaking or any other creative endeavor. Derek Sievers, Ryan Holiday, Maria Popova, all have great ways of summarizing what they’ve read.

2. Write the list of your favorite citations.

Kindles made this easier than ever. Just keep on highlighting and you’ll have all your citations summarized in one place. When I’m listening to audiobooks, I usually go to goodreads.com for the citations. Whether you’re re-writing or copy-paste-ing the citations, make sure to read them once again. Also, whenever you’re looking for some inspiration, search through your citations. You’ll be surprised by how many nuggets of wisdom are waiting for you there.

3. Retell the book in 5 sentences.

(Inspiration came from 1-sentence story on Quora). Sublime what you read in a short form. You will also be able to remind yourself of the material quickly.

4. Implement one idea from the book today.

I recently read Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and I loved it. But what made the biggest difference for me was (drumroll, please) tidying up my house the very day I finished the book. My drawers are now organized based on Marie’s suggestions and it’s great. Yes, I felt resistance, yes, it took me some effort. But it was totally worth it. If I read the book, said: “Cool, I should definitely do this one day,” I wouldn’t be able to see any benefit. The most transformative ideas are the ones you try out.

5. Recommend someone a book by explaining one good idea from it.

Use your short book summary or 10 ideas from the book (ideas #1 and #2) and send your friend/colleague/acquaintance a message. “Hey, I read this book and stumbled upon an awesome idea you might want to check out.” First, you will add value to other person’s life (perfect for networking, too). Second, your friend will get a good book recommendation. Third, even if he decides not to read a book, he will be introduced to a new idea. (And you get tons of Karma cash.)

6. (When encountering a weird idea) Ask yourself: “How can this work for me?”

A lot of people (myself included) love Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile. Some people, though, find it inaccurate and not fully representative of the economy today. That’s OK. But when I hear a negative opinion about this book, I usually refer people to really good ideas that can be implemented on a personal level, such as diversifying your income sources, skills, having redundancies (savings, hard drive backup, side hustle, both car and the bicycle), avoiding debt (fragility) and so on. It is fairly easy to write off an idea as “unrealistic” or “not for me”. The value comes from the more creative approach: “How can this work for me?” You will be surprised by how many ideas, in a broader sense, are actually very applicable.

7. (When reading fiction) Ask yourself: “In which ways is the main character similar to me?”

We read to know ourselves better. And we can know ourselves better when we see our traits and actions reflected in someone else. In this case, the character from the book. I thought that Alma Whitaker and I don’t have anything in common. But we do. Our approach to work is similar, our desire to explain everything so that it makes sense, frequent inability to relax and enjoy, the tendency to avoid conflicts and always smoothen things out. Her reluctance to publish her best scientific work reminded me of my hesitance to publish anything. Seeing her inability to forgive showed me a few of my unresolved issues. Book characters are powerful teachers.

8. (When reading fiction) Ask yourself: “Why did the character choose to do this?”

This is called the motivation and fiction writers are masters of it. A good story must not include any random actions, when you scratch your head, wondering: “Why in the world did she do this?” If we don’t understand the motivation well, we cannot fully enjoy the story. Even if you don’t agree with character’s action, you must be able to see where he or she is coming from. Thinking about the motivation will help you understand and remember the book better.

9. (When reading fiction and somebody’s action pisses you off) Ask yourself: “What is my version of this?”

Too often I feel the need to jump into the book and punch someone in the face. When you notice this happening, it is really good to pause and ask yourself: “What is my version of this?” You have never murdered anyone, but you have probably killed some dreams and ideas. You have not betrayed someone, but maybe you haven’t talked to your best friend for a while either. Whitney Cummings says that we should pay close attention to the things that offend us when we watch stand-up comedy. Strong emotions usually mean that there’s something more, something hidden, something uncomfortable. And that’s where our growth can be found.

10. Summarize a book in a different form.

When I was a kid I always illustrated the stories and books that I read. I felt the need to express the read content in a different form. You can try this. Illustrate the story. Stick figures can tell amazing things. Also, you can create a visual or infographic about the book. (If it doesn’t look good, don’t show it to anyone. But don’t use it as an excuse not to even try.) Or a slide show. Creating visuals can make big ideas stick. It also boosts the creativity. Or you can create a Youtube playlist inspired by the book. Or a short video with favorite ideas or citations. Memes for your Pinterest board. There are limitless options, especially with technology nowadays.


Final note: each one of these actions requires some time and mental power. It is so much easier to just read the book, throw it away and start something new. But that’s not the point. After you spend a few days reading a book, one additional small investment of your time and discipline can make your reading unproportionally more transformative and informative. Remember the words of Seth Godin:

“Extraordinary benefits accrue to the tiny minority of people who are able to push just a tiny bit longer.”

These ideas should help you do exactly that with your reading process.


Your turn. In the comments below let me know what is your favorite strategy for the mindful reading.


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