Reading Better

This article outlines how to get the most out of your reading. It doesn’t matter of it’s a book, article, or academic paper. We cover quitting, the levels of reading, choosing great books, improving reading comprehension and recall, and effective note-taking.

“In my whole life, I have known no wise people (over a broad subject matter area) who didn’t read all the time – none, zero.”

— Charlie Munger

One of the benefits of reading is that it allows you to master the best of what other people have already figured out. This is only true, however, if you can remember and apply the lessons and insights from what you read.

Let’s explore the tested insights and frameworks that we’ve found to be most helpful.

Quit Books

Bad books are a grind. Good books almost read themselves.

When you pick up a good book you feel it instantly. Not only are they well written and packed with ideas and insight, but they’re well organized. You want to read the next page.

Start books quickly but give them up easily.  One of the biggest things that holds people back when reading is our desire to finish what we start. Good books finish themselves. You can’t put them down. Trying to finish a bad book, on the other hand, is like walking through the mud with a wheelbarrow full of bricks. Life is too short.

When it comes to reading, you don’t need to finish what you start.

Once you realize that you can quit bad books (or reading anything for that matter) without guilt, everything changes. Putting a bad book down creates the opportunity and space for a great book.

Skim a lot of books. Read a few. Immediately re-read the best ones twice.

Levels of Reading

Reading the words on the page (or screen) is the easy part. We learned how to do this in elementary school. The problem is this is the only way we learned to read.

Tailoring how you read to what you read makes more sense. Not everything needs to be read with the same intensity. Some books only deserve a skim, while others deserve your complete attention. How much effort you put in relates to what you’re reading and why you’re reading it.

The Levels of Reading offer four different approaches to reading (from easiest to hardest). Most of our time will be spent between levels 2 and 3.

  1. Reading to Entertain — The level of reading taught in our elementary schools.
  2. Reading to Inform — A superficial read. You skim, dive in and out, and get a feel for the book and get the gist of things.
  3. Reading to Understand— The real workhorse of reading. This is a thorough reading where you chew on things and digest them.
  4. Reading to Master  —  If you just read one book on a topic odds are you have a lot of blind spots in your knowledge. Synoptical reading is reading a variety of books and articles on the same topic, finding and evaluating the contradictions, and forming an opinion.

Reading takes a lot of effort.

Speed Reading

Reading speed is a vanity metric. No one cares how fast you read or how many books you read last year. In the real world what matters is what you absorb.

Skim broadly to find something worth reading. Then dive in slowly and deeply.

Choose Great Books

Improving what you get out of reading starts with selecting great raw material. Just as it’s harder to make healthy choices if your house is full of junk, it’s hard to get great insights from books that haven’t stood the test of time.

If you’re like most people, you’ll naturally be interested in new books. This is understandable. New books are full of sex appeal, marketing, and empty promises. While a few new books might prove to be valuable, the vast majority of them will be forgotten in months.

How do we sort the books worth reading from the ones that should be skimmed or ignored all together? Time.

We can’t tell which new books will be great and which ones won’t. Time will filter them for us. Books that don’t deliver timeless insights don’t stick around. Time filters out what works from what doesn’t. And there is no need to waste time on ones that don’t last. Most of what you need out of new books (skill development, recipes, programming languages or other fast moving industries) can be found online.

Reading time is limited, it should be directed at knowledge that lasts. The opportunity cost of reading something new is re-reading the best book you’ve ever read.

Read old books. Read the best ones twice.

While this approach seems less sexy than reading the latest best-seller that everyone is talking about, most of those books will fail the test of time.

Taking Notes

The Blank Sheet

The single biggest change you can make to getting more out of the books you read is using the blank sheet method.

Over the years I’ve tested multiple approaches and this one works best for simplicity and effectiveness — it will 10x your comprehension overnight.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Before you start reading a new book, take out a blank sheet of paper. Write down what you know about the book / subject you’re about to read — a mind map if you will.
  2. After you finish a reading session, spend a few minutes adding to the map with a different color.
  3. Before you start your next reading session, review the page.
  4. When you’re done reading, put these ‘blank sheets’ into a binder that you periodically review.

Why does this work so well?

The blank sheet primes your brain for what you’re about to read and shows you what you’re learning.

When you first start with a blank sheet, you’re forced to search your memory and put on paper what you know (or what you think you know) about a subject.

As you read, you literally see that knowledge grow as you add new knowledge to the foundation. Often, you’ll even remove things you thought you knew.

Reviewing what you knew about a subject, as well as what you learned before a reading session not only improves memory and recall but helps connects ideas. While most of the early connections come from putting the authors structure onto your foundation, most the later ones come from you connecting ideas across disciplines.

If you don’t know anything about a book or subject going in, don’t worry. You’ll be able to borrow the authors scaffolding to get you started.

As your cognitive fluency in a subject grows, you’ll start connecting ideas across disciplines, disagreeing with authors about specific points, and even developing your own ideas.

When you’re done the book put the page into a binder. Review the binder every few months. This is essential for establishing deep fluency and connecting ideas across disciplines.

Conventional Notes

Forget the teacher that yelled at you for writing in your book when you were a kid. You bought this thing. It’s your property. You need to write in the margins.

Here is a very simple process to take notes while reading:

  • At the end of each chapter write a few bullet points that summarize the main idea or specific points. Use your own words and not the authors. Try and connect it to something in your life — a memory or another idea. Also, make note any unanswered questions you had while reading.
  • When you’re done the book, put it down for a week.
  • Pick up the book again and go through all your notes. In a lot of cases, reading your notes will be as good as reading the book again.
  • On the inside cover write out the main idea of the book using your own words. If you find yourself stuck, review your notes. (This is called the Feynman Technique). Writing is the process by which we often discover we don’t know what we are talking about.
  • You can even make a custom index on the back cover with themes or topics.
  • (Optional) Copy out the excerpts by hand and put them on the back of your blank sheet from above or type them out and put them into Evernote. Tag accordingly.

The point of both conventional notes and the blank sheet is to connect new knowledge to old knowledge and point out gaps in your understanding. Writing about what you read is a great way to see what you’ve learned.

Reading More

You can’t get where you want to go if you’re not learning all the time. One of the best ways to learn is to read.

Reading habits don’t need to be complicated, you can start a simple 25 page a day habit right now. While it seems small the gains add up quickly.

Above all else remember that just because you’ve read something doesn’t mean you’ve done the work required to have an opinion.

Book Recommendations by Year

Now that you can get more out of what you read, you might be interested in looking at some of the books we’ve recommended over the years: 2015 | 2016 | 2017 | 2018 | 2019 | 2020

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