Everything You’ve Been Taught About How To Read a Book Is Wrong

how to read a book

When I learned to read, I was focused on trying to consciously remember what each chapter was about after I finished it.

Like most most people, most of the reading I did growing up was for school.

The reason you read something for school is because there is a test.

You test well by being able to hold a factual account of what happened in the book in your conscious memory.

Over the past few years, I’ve realized that it’s not only a useless model for how to read a book, it’s outright harmful.

There are no multiple choice tests in your day-to-day life. No one at your company cares if you can immediately remember what year Napoleon Bonaparte lost the Battle of Waterloo or if you have to take 10 seconds to Google it. In a post-Google world, being able to bang out facts is pretty useless.

What then is reading for?

For most nonfiction readers, the main role of reading is improving your model of the world to more accurately reflect reality so that you can make better decisions.

The reason for reading a book is not to be able to spit back facts at a cocktail party — it’s to shape the way you think.

Tarot Cards and Orthogonal Thinking

The experience that changed how I read books was a tarot card reading.

When I moved to San Diego in 2014, I’d found a woman on Craigslist who agreed to let me sublet a bedroom in her apartment.

A couple of days after I moved in, she pulled out a pack of tarot cards and offered to “read the cards” for me.

I said yes to be polite, but in my head I was thinking, “what a waste of time.”

As is often the case, the joke was on me. I learned a lot from the tarot card session and it helped me with a couple of major questions I was dealing with in my life.


Whenever you have a problem pop up, you start thinking about solving it head on.

However, the best, most elegant approach is usually orthogonal — coming at it from the side.

The Candle Problem

The human tendency to think about problems head on was shown in 1945 by Karl Duncker.

He conducted an experiment that has come to be called the “candle problem.”

The candle problem presents the following task: Affix a candle to a wall (or a cork board) and light it in such a way that the candle wax won’t drip onto the table below. To do so, one may use only:

  • The candle
  • A box of matches
  • A box of thumbtacks

The most common response is the most head-on one: Use the thumbtacks to attach the candle to the wall directly.

That method does not work.

The solution that does work is to empty the box of thumbtacks, use the thumbtacks to nail the box to the wall, put the candle into the box, and light the candle with a match.

It’s simple, but most people don’t see it. The first thought that pops into most people’s minds is to just tack the candle to the wall.

Instead of looking for other solutions, most people spend the whole experiment trying harder and harder to get the tacks to stick in the wall.

It’s hard to step back and see the orthoganal approach of using the box to hold the cand.

However, if the task is presented with the thumbtacks piled next to the box (rather than inside it), virtually all of the participants figure out the optimal solution.

The materials don’t change, but the presentation of the materials makes it easier to think about them in a new way.

Instead of seeing the box as an item to hold the thumbtacks, the participants see it as a tool to help solve the problem.

In the same way, I found that the tarot cards gave me new jumping off points that helped me approach whatever question I asked from a new direction.

The question I “asked the cards” was about a business problem that I was agonizing over. One of the cards the tarot card reader turned over was the Temperance card, which suggested patience. It made me consider that perhaps the problem didn’t need to be solved immediately and, if I was patient, might resolve itself.

It turns out that worked. This particular problem simply went away after a few months without me doing anything.

I have a list of random questions I use periodically that often help clients overcome obstacles that make them keep banging their head against the wall:

  • “If you had to 10x the economics of your business in six months, how would you do it?”
  • “What would a dream testimonial from a customer say?”
  • “What would someone you look up to, who is three to five years ahead of you professionally, do in this situation?”

A random question can generate new possibilities you never considered, because it helps you think about the problem in a new way.

How To Read a Book: Reading Is for Thinking

Albert Einstein was once asked: “If you have one hour to save the world, how would you spend that hour?”

He replied, “I would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and then five minutes solving it.”2

In much the same way as tarot cards do, reading books helps me better understand and define problems. It allows me to take orthogonal approaches to traditional problems that often yield more elegant solutions.

This is why I don’t speed read or listen to audiobooks on double speed — it gets rid of all the thinking time, which is the whole point of reading.

I will read (or reread) books on marketing when I am putting together marketing campaigns, not because there is new information to learn, but because the four or five hours I spend reading will give me way more ideas than if I just sit down and stare at a computer screen to try and write a marketing plan from scratch.

It creates time to think and gives me new approaches.

When you read to think instead of read to remember, it changes the way you take and use your notes.

For years, I took notes summarizing the points I read. After I finished, I kept telling myself, “I should go back through my notes from a book after I read so that I can really remember the important points.”

However, I almost never went back to my notes, and I beat myself up for it (maybe this sounds familiar?).

It wasn’t until I heard a story about Beethoven that I stopped feeling bad about not reviewing my notes.

Someone asked Beethoven, who was a prodigious note taker, when he looked over his notes. His reply was to the effect of “Never, it’s the act of taking the notes that helps me process the information so I don’t need to review them.”

When he died, Beethoven had stacks and stacks of notebooks filled with notes and sketches that he had never reviewed.

I’ve had the same experience — highlighting and taking notes helps me process the information and make connections, but I rarely go back to review everything. It’s just another way to help me think orthogonally.

Over the past five years, I’ve read a couple hundred books over the past five years and it’s very hard for me to recall even a single fact from most of the books I’ve read. But, I see the effects of those books everyday in how I think and approach problems.

The way to know if you learned something from a book is not by how well you can consciously recall individual facts, it’s how that book shaped how you think.

Once you realize this, it’ll make you feel a lot better about not remembering much from the books you’ve read.

It also makes reading a lot more fun, and, no surprise, you’ll read more as a result.

Did you like this essay?

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Originally published at Taylor Pearson.

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