A Helpful Guide to Reading Better
In this article, we outline how to improve your reading.
We’ll cover choosing books that aren’t a waste of your time, reading on a deeper level, how to take effective notes, how to retain more of what you read, and more. With that in mind, we set out to summarize everything we know about reading better in this article, including a note taking formula which could 10x the amount you retain from books.
Over the years, we’ve put a tremendous amount of thought and effort into how we can help you read better. We’ve put countless hours into trying out techniques, testing out tips, and experimenting with new approaches. As a result, we’ve helped thousands of Farnam Street readers get more out of the books they read, helping them “master the best of what other people have already figured out.”
Let’s dig in.
“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 best ways to learn is from the experiences of others. And one of the best ways to do that is to make friends with the eminent dead. Through trial and error, over the years, we’ve come across several frameworks that help us improve how we read.
While there are thousands of hacks and shortcuts on the internet, most of them only offer the illusion of speed, retention, or improvement.
It turns out you don’t need a lot of frameworks anyways. A few, well-tested ones, can vastly improve your comprehension, speed, and ability to connect and apply what you are reading to critical thinking, problem-solving, and creativity.
This article explains the frameworks that we’ve found to be most helpful to improving my reading.
How to Read Better
Reading the words is the easy part. You were taught how to do this in elementary school. But just because you read the words doesn’t mean you read well. Ideally, the way you read is tailored to whether you’re reading for entertainment, information, or understanding. The Levels of Reading will help you read more effectively and efficiently.
What to Read
Knowing how to read is only half the battle. Too much of what we consume these days is the mental equivalent of junk food. Quality matters more than quantity. The Pot-Belly of ignorance talks about the importance of selecting your reading material wisely.
Arthur Schopenhauer’s timeless advice on reading is also worth reading (be quick to start books, quicker to stop them, and read the best ones again right after you finish). Montaigne’s rule with reading was the promiscuous pursuit of pleasure.
Book Recommendations by Year
Each year we keep a reading list of the books we’ve read and loved. The books range in subjects from history and biographies to hard sciences and the occasional work of fiction.
We know you’re busy. While we start hundreds of books a year only the ones we like make the list. Sometimes, we don’t like the entire book, just a part of it. We note when this is the case and why.
Taking Notes While Reading
Think of reading as a conversation between you and the author. One of the ways you can process a conversation with someone who is not there is to write in the margins. It’s ok to question the author or disagree. This is how we think.
We use a very simple process to take notes while reading:
- At the end of each chapter write a few bullet points that summarize what you’ve read and make it personal if you can — that is, apply it to something in your life. Also, note any unanswered questions. When you’re done the book, put it down for a week.
- Pick up the book again and go through all your notes. Most of these will be garbage but there will be lots you want to remember. Write the good stuff on the inside cover of the book along with a page number.
- Copy out the excerpts by hand or take a picture of them to pop into Evernote. Tag accordingly.
Remembering What You Read
Why is it that some people seem to be able to read a book once and remember every detail of it for life, while others struggle to recall even the title a few days after putting down a book?
The answer is simple but not easy.
It’s not what they read. It’s how they read. Good reading habits not only help you read more but help you read better.
Here’s the FS system for remembering what you read.
The Blank Sheet
But the most effective approach that we’ve found, and tested on thousands of people, is called the blank sheet. It’s the single easiest change you can make to reading that will 10x your ability to recall what you’re reading.
Here’s how it works:
- Before you start reading a new book, take out a blank sheet of paper. Write down what you know about the subject you’re about to read — a mind map if you will.
- After you are done a reading session spend a few minutes adding to the map (we use a different color ink).
- Before you start your next reading session, review the mindmap (we use ours as a bookmark sometimes.)
- Put these mind maps into a binder that you periodically review.
Works like a charm.
The way to get better results in life is to learn constantly. And the best way to learn is to read effectively and read a lot. If you’re short on time, here is how to find more time to read. Reading habits don’t need to be complicated, you can start a simple 25 page a day habit.
Above all else remember that just because you’ve read something doesn’t mean you’ve done the work required to have an opinion.
Important Articles on Reading
- Speed Reading is BS. The best way to read faster is to read more.
- The Ultimate Guide to How To Read A Book — In How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler teaches us the four levels of reading to become a more effective reader. Learning how to read is more than just picking up a book and starting to read.
- How to Remember What You Read — The benefits of reading are negated if you don’t remember what you read. This article discusses a tested system to increase retention.
- How to Choose Your Next Book — If you’re wondering what to read, here are two simple ideas that we can combine to help us choose what to read next.
- The Feynman Technique: The Best Way to Learn Anything — The Feynman Technique is a mental model that helps you learn faster and increases retention. Read this article to supercharge your learning.
- Arthur Schopenhauer on the Dangers of Clickbait — Arthur Schopenhauer Schopenhauer reminds us that the existence of words is no indication of their truth and offers timeless insights on clickbait.
- Why You Should Stop Reading the News — We spend hours consuming news because we want to be well informed. However, the news is by definition something that doesn’t last. As news has become easier to distribute and cheaper to produce the quality has reduced.
- Learning How to Think: The Skill No One Taught You — One of the best skills you can learn is how to think for your self. Only we’ve never been taught how to think. Read this to learn how to think better.
- The Noise Bottleneck: When More Information is Harmful — Nassim Taleb explains the Noise Bottleneck: why seeking out more information can prove harmful. More information does not mean more signal.
- Five Percent Better: The Compounding of Consistent Incremental Progress — Most of us think getting better is a binary process. The best people in the world, however, view improvement as compounding and adjust accordingly.
- Arthur Schopenhauer: On Reading and Books — German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer offers a timeless meditation on reading, exploring what it means to read and whether it’s a path to acquire wisdom.