Here’s the good thing and bad thing about reading: everyone learns how to do it early in life. You start off with the alphabet, move on to words, and – before you know it! – you’re reading entire sentences and paragraphs. Reading is a skill that almost everyone in the world has. This is why almost no one stops to think about how to read better and how to read books more effectively.
Or to be put it differently, technically we know how to read, but we don’t question our methods and we don’t think about reading and digesting information philosophically.
And that’s a shame. Because there are always ways to improve your reading skills. When you read a book, wouldn’t you want to retain more information? To learn and grow faster? The answer is probably “yes”.
Part of the problem is that we’re not really interested to develop those skills that we know the basics of. We know how read, so we’re not motivated to improve ourselves, or learn how to do it differently. It’s the same with writing: we all know how to do it technically, so we imagine it would be easy to write a book one day. In contrast, most of us don’t think that we could do the same with painting, or recording an album. We lack the basic skills and so we don’t think we could do it.
So when it comes to reading (and writing, and other ‘basic skills’), we actually put ourselves at a disadvantage. We never try to improve them; we’re sabotaging ourselves in the process.
However, there are clearly better ways to read a book. The goal of growth reading is to push yourself into new areas, digesting information and knowledge that is “above your level”. And not just that: we should also retain this information, and make use of it in our lives.
All of this is a habit, and you can train yourself to do it. All you need to have is an approach – a method to put yourself in the right reading mindset. To read actively, to reflect and to think, and to record your learning. But you also need a way to put into practice the books you’ve read, and the information you’ve digested.
Interested? Here’s how you properly read a book and build an effective reading habit.
Before you start reading
Reading effectively starts before you even open a book – it’s the mindset and the approach that are vital. As with many other things in life, preparation is key.
Pick the right book
This is a personal thing, but you need to select the right reading material for you. What are you struggling with right now? What do you want to learn more about? What is holding back your personal growth? Select your books based on that, so you know why you’re reading it. What is the goal or objective?
There are a few pointers though. Usually older is better when it comes to timeless lessons; if a book has been in print for hundreds or thousands of years, it probably offers a lot of value. But otherwise the topic needs to resonate with you and with what you need.
Start with the context
After you’ve selected a book to read, it’s important that you understand the context surrounding the book.
Who was the author and why was this book written? Bear in mind that a book often offers a perspective or study from a single person. It’s not necessarily a 100% true, and it could just represent the author’s view. So who was the author, and how does he or she relate to arguments made in the book? Why did the author write it in the first place, does he or she have an agenda? Also: does the author have a background or expertise in the subject? Can you trust him or her?
The historical and cultural context is important as well. What was happening in society at that time? This information helps because it potentially provides you with new insights into the book, or at least it can help to clarify some of the things while you read.
(Optional) If necessary, read the Wikipedia page
For some books, like biographies or history books, it is worthwhile to read the Wikipedia page beforehand. Growth reading is not so much about understanding what happened, but more about why something happened. That is, what can be learned from it, or what are the takeaways? So by reading through the Wikipedia page you already get a sense of the story, the context, and how the situation unfolds.
This ruins the ending, yes, but that’s not the point. The point is to understand the why, and to apply the lessons to your own life. So if the book’s subject is new to you, or if it has major historical implications, read the Wikipedia page first to help you get started.
(Optional) Skim the reviews
Another optional step is to skim the reviews of the book on Amazon or GoodReads. This way you can identify what other people find important or useful. It also gives you a sense of the major themes or topics, and the cultural significance. Is it a popular book or not? Highly rated or not?
Get into the right mindset
Perhaps the most important step before starting to read a book is to get into the right mindset. You’re a student wanting to learn and grow. You’re here to read, reflect, and apply the lessons from the book and the author. You take into account Bismarck’s saying:
“Fools say that they learn by experience. I prefer to profit by others’ experience.”
So don’t read passively and stay aware of what you’re reading. Have you noticed how sometimes we’re reading mechanically, flipping through the pages, and after a while we realize that we don’t remember a single thing of what we read? That’s reading passively. You want to avoid doing that. Instead you want to stay active and engaged with the material.
This preparation helps you to do that.
Finally, remember that you’re reading to grow, to become a better person. So the takeaways from a book should always be the key messages and the key points. Why did something happen? What can you learn from that? Don’t focus on what happened. The trivia, the random facts, are not important. What is important are the things you can take away and bring to your daily life, and put into practice. So focus on that when you open the book.
While you’re reading the book
With the context in mind, and with the right attitude, it’s time to start reading the book. In order to get the most knowledge and growth out of a book, you want to keep the following points in mind.
Start with a quick skim
It’s always good to start off with an inspection of the book, so you know what you can expect and already get a sense of the story line. Skim through the index pages, read the chapter headings, and flip through some of the sections. This already helps to build a framework of the book and its contents in your mind. In that sense it’s similar to reading the Wikipedia page or reading the reviews; you don’t start reading completely blank, you know what you will encounter and how it fits into the overall story of the book.
Read all the parts
It can be tempting to skip the general introduction, translator’s notes, prefaces, introduction to the XXth edition, and all that. Especially for historical books the introductions can be longer than the actual work! But don’t let that stop you. All of the introductions provide vital context about what is to come, and builds your frame of reference.
Then start, but remember: active not passive
As we said above, you need to be wary about reading passively – when the pages just flip by but you don’t remember a single thing of what you’ve read. Remain active. Engage with the material. Ask yourself questions such as: ‘Do I think this is true?’, ‘What lessons can I learn from this?’, ‘How does this relate to XYZ (other topic)?’, ‘Can I put this into practice?’, and ‘What is the general takeaway of this story, paragraph or chapter?’
Active reading also means that you’re focusing exclusively on the material in front of you. No multitasking, no watching TV, and no checking your Twitter feed in between. If you struggle to concentrate in the beginning of your reading journey (and, let’s face it, technology has severely decreased our attention span), try setting a timer. Focus intensely on reading and engaging with the material for 15 or 30 minutes and then take your Twitter or Instagram break.
Active reading is a habit, and so you need to practice to become good at it. It’s the only way to digest information properly and to personally grow from the book you’re reading.
Speed-reading: Yea or Nay?
Speaking about active and passive reading, should you practice speed-reading? It make sense, no? We’re trying to gain knowledge, and time is of the essence, so why not practice some speed-reading techniques in order to help you read more?
The answer is most definitely no – speed-reading will not help you, and it might even harm you.
Cutting corners is not the point. You need to invest the time to properly digest the information and think about it. Flipping pages as quickly as you can, means you can’t ask questions, wonder about things, or to really savor the material.
It’s infinitely better to read one good book slowly, than it is to read ten books fast. I can guarantee you that you will remember and learn from this one book a lot more.
To get the most out of things you have to invest with your time, your attention, your focus, your brainpower – there’s no quick way, no shortcuts. You will have to want it badly enough and make the actual investment.
There’s only one way to read faster, and that is to read more books – slowly, that is. By building your reading habit and reading skills and by actively engaging with the material you will slowly get better at reading. That is: you will be able to read faster and actively at the same time. But this is a skill that needs development. Especially if you read books in the same subject area, you will be able to digest future information more quickly: you have the mental framework, base knowledge, and so it becomes easier to engage with the book.
I’ll leave you with Woody Allen:
“I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.”
Get some help if you need it
The point of reading is to gain an understanding. So if you encounter unknown words, or if you’re not sure about a sentence, look it up. There is no shame in this: the goal is to learn, and you can’t learn if you don’t understand.
The same goes for cultural or historical references, or for other background information.
So consult the dictionary, check Wikipedia pages, and ask others for help if needed.
Finishing the book is optional
If you don’t like the book, or you don’t think the material is particularly relevant for you, remember that finishing the book is optional. You don’t have to continue and slog through hundreds of pages just to complete it.
Life’s too short for bad books!
There’s a funny rule of thumb for deciding whether or not you should continue reading the book, and that is to read up to page 100 minus your age. So if you’re 30 years old, you stick with the book until page 70. If, after that point, the material is not engaging you and you find it boring, stop reading!
The older we get, the less time we have left to read, so the more selective we have to be.
Remember that you’re trying to build a reading habit that will help you grow. What’s important are not the books themselves, but the habit. And slogging through a boring book will make it harder to stick with your habit. Above everything else, prioritize the habit – not the books.
Perhaps the most important step while reading is to make notes in one way or another. There are various techniques for doing this, and each person tends to prefer a different method. So you’ll need to experiment a bit and see what works for you.
But let’s start in general: why would you want to make notes?
First, a book is long and it will take you a while to read it. You’re never going to remember all of the things you read, and that’s okay. For the most important parts (that is: what strikes you as the most important part) you take notes, or do some form of recording. This way you can extract the most important lessons, messages, or quotes from a book.
Second, while you’re reading actively, questions will pop into your head. You’ll get tangential thoughts, you’ll see references or connections, and you might get a few good ideas of your own. If you don’t record this, or write them down, you’ll be sure to forget it.
Reading actively means taking notes, and marking important passages. Here’s a few ways to do so:
Taking notes (1): Post-It Notes
The first technique centers around putting Post-its or some other form of tagging/sticky labels on each of the pages that contains important messages for you. When reading the book simply mark every page that you find valuable. This could be for different reasons. Perhaps the page contains a central message, clarifies the points of the chapter, maybe there is a quote you really like, or there’s a book or concept mentioned that you want to look up.
After reading the book it’s then easy to go back to the noted pages. At the same time you can also check if what you found valuable the first time reading around, is still valuable to you or not.
Taking notes (2): Marginalia and Highlighting
This is slightly more intrusive form of note taking. But as you go through the book simply mark up or highlight the important passages, and write any observations you have in the book’s margins. This is the perfect way to make sure you’re reading actively. You’re constantly thinking about what the book is saying, and connecting your own thoughts and notes in the process.
Now, this technique is not for everyone and it definitely takes some getting used to. Personally I was always against defiling books by writing in them. But that is just a mindset. Without a doubt writing marginalia is an excellent way to take notes while reading.
For those of you that don’t want to blemish your books, it’s always possible to take your notes somewhere else. I often use a simple notepad while reading to write down thoughts, or I simply record them in Evernote as I go along.
In the end the technique itself doesn’t really matter. What matters is that you take notes, write down your thoughts, and engage actively with the book. So you’ll just have to experiment which ways you want to record your thoughts.
After reading the book
Once you’ve finished the book, you’re not yet done! You probably have gained knowledge along the way, but that is going to disappear if you don’t properly record and apply it. All of the things you do after reading the book will help you to retain the information and get the most out of the time you’ve invested so far.
Skim through it again, then take a break and think on it
In order to get the complete structure and main arguments from the book solidly in your head, skim through it once again. What is the structure or story line? The main arguments? What are the key takeaways? Also take a look at your Post-it notes or marginalia; what did you write down? Going through it once more quickly allows the information to consolidate in your brain.
And then, take a break! Leave the book aside for at least a few days or a few weeks (at maximum). Think about the lessons you’ve learned and how you can apply them to your life.
Also think about how this book integrates into what you already know, and what you already do. A book is not a standalone thing, it’s always based on countless of other things, so you should be able to make some connections yourself. So try to integrate this book into your existing knowledge, how is it connected and linked?
Organize your notes
After having taken the break, it’s time to organize your notes for future reference. Let’s start with the why, and move on the how after:
Why should you organize your notes?
As with the many ways of taking notes while reading, there are also countless ways of organizing those notes afterwards. Before delving into the different techniques, let’s start with the why. Why would you want to spend time organizing your notes, questions, and takeaways from the book?
Well, one of main reasons is that you will have an easy reference you can consult in the future. There’s no need to go through the entire book again, because you can just go through your notes and see what your main conclusions and points were.
At the same time, organizing your notes, and making a sort of summary for yourself, consolidates what you’ve read and what you’ve learned. You’re giving the book and its contents one final moment of attention, and you write down what’s important – and that’s probably what you’ll end up remembering in the end.
Finally, by doing this process over and over again with different books, you will start to build your own reference bible. Some people call this a commonplace book, others write online summaries of the books they read, and others yet make a digital collection of quotes and lessons.
As with note taking, the format is not the most important part. What is important, if you want to grow through your reading, is that you do this step and you make the effort.
How should you organize your notes?
There are a few ways how to organize your notes.
Some people start building a “commonplace book” which, in the original form, is a big notebook in which people would write their thoughts, quotes they liked, things they learned, et cetera. If you’re inclined to like physical paper, this is not a bad idea. However, the downside to this is that it’s not really organized: there’s no way to search, or to look things up by theme.
Others write down their notes on flashcards and organize it by theme. Robert Greene is a fan of this method for example, and it helps him with the research for his books. The disadvantages of physical flashcards are that they’re easy to get lost, stolen, or burned. However, you can of course make a digital version of this – which would make it easily searchable and virtually indestructible.
Another method is to write down your own short “summary” if you can call it that. Different formats exist of course, but what works for me is to write down my view on the book in 3-5 sentences, and then type out all of the main points / quotes below this. This way you end up with an easy reference document about your view on the book, and the main takeaways. Plus, it’s easily searchable, so if you’re looking for that particular quote or that particular point, it’s easy to find.
These methods probably give you some idea about how you can organize your notes. Again this is a personal thing, and you should probably experiment with what works for you. Remember: the method is not the goal; the goal is to record and organize your learning.
(Optional) Take a look at the bibliography
If you’ve just finished a book on a topic you really enjoy, it can be a good practice to take a look at the bibliography. Usually the author of the book will have read tens, if not hundreds, of books on the same subject and so the bibliography becomes an interesting list to delve into. So check the sources the author is using, and see if anything strikes your interest.
Consulting the bibliography and picking the books you’re going to read next is an excellent way to get familiar with that subject area.
Put it into action
So now that you’ve read the book and organized your notes – is that it? No, unfortunately not. The consumption and organization of information does not help by itself. Sure, it’s nice to be able to look at the notes anytime in the future, but growth only happens when you put your learning and knowledge into practice.
This means that you need to reflect and think. How can I apply this knowledge to my life, work, or relationships? In what situations would this information be applicable? In which situations wouldn’t it be?
The best way to start to apply some of the knowledge and insight from the book into practice is to take one – or a few – ideas and thoughts and experiment with it. See if you can consciously change your habits and implement some of the lessons of the book.
This helps to reinforce the learning and growth loop. You read something, you took away the knowledge, but only by application in your daily life can you truly learn something.
You don’t have to apply everything at the same time because change and application of new things are difficult to do. But by at least making the effort, and by trying, you can truly start the self improvement journey.
(Optional) Reread the book at some point
Rereading the same book might seem pointless after doing all of the above. Why would you want to spend more time reading the same thing, if you’ve already read it, taken the notes, and applied the lessons into practice?
For one, it helps to consolidate and reinforce the knowledge you’ve applied earlier. We’re not advocating that you read the book again right after finishing it, but after a few months or years, why not?
At that point in time you will be a different person than you are today. You will have a slightly altered perspective, you’ll be in a new place in life, and – hopefully – you’ve grown from the person you are today. So with all this you will have a new outlook on life and learning. And this why it might be valuable to reread the book again. You will tend to notice different things, things you didn’t saw the first time around. Repetition can be useful if you do it with the right books and with the right timing.
So there it is: how to read books effectively so that it maximizes your knowledge and personal growth. Before you start reading, you need to pick the right book, contextualize yourself, and get into the right mindset. Whilst reading you need to stay ‘active’, engage with the material, look up unknown things, and take (copious) notes. And after reading you need to organize your notes and thoughts on the book, and apply this into practice.
This process might seem complex, but as with all the habits we form, it will become easy and natural with practice. The key is just to get started. So pick a book, and try this method once. We’re convinced that you will instantly notice the difference.
And remember why you’re doing this: books contain an infinite amount of wisdom and insight that will help you to grow. It means that you will be better and more knowledgeable than your peers, it means that you will pursue the right things in life, and build the right relationships. Reading books allows you to leap years ahead. Because one thing that can be guaranteed: almost nobody will pursue these techniques as diligently as you will, which means that almost nobody will grow at the same rate as you. And that makes all the difference – for whatever it is that you’re pursuing.