How to Read a Book

A Guide to Making the Most of the Books You Read

By my count, I read about 63 books last year.  About 18 of those were fiction, so about 45 non-fiction books for the purpose of learning.  

I’ve added notes from some of them here.

The topics ranged from love and dating to trading options, to marketing and sales.  

While a broad base of knowledge is a good thing, sometimes that comes at the cost of depth.

So while I systematically took notes for the first time (here’s how I do it), I’ve now spent some time planning how to “read better” moving forward.  

What I’m after is:

  • How do I retain more of what I read?
  • How do I improve my learning from books?
  • How do I apply what I learn more effectively?  

In other words: how can I make the most of what I read?

This article is an outline for myself for how to read a book - I hope it helps you too.

Book Reading Preparation

This is the largest change to my reading habits.

Previously, I’d select a book in two main ways:

  1. I would look at the long list of books in my library, and select something I was interested in at that that time.  If I was having trouble thinking through some marketing, I’d choose one from that list.
  2. I’d read books as they were released from authors I knew, or books that were highly recommended.  Examples of books like this in 2018 were The Laws of Human Nature, The Dichotomy of Leadership, and Can’t Hurt Me.

For the most part, this has served me well.  I read a wide range of highly recommended books in a variety of disciplines, and as a result have a good general knowledge base.

But I felt like I was lacking some depth.  

The other issue with reading just one or two books on a subject is that one tends to parrot the views of the author, without coming up with anything novel.

Syntopical Reading

The answer to this question is syntopical reading.

Syntopical reading: reading many books on the same subject, then comparing and contrasting the ideas within.

The benefit of this method is that you get much more depth.

Ideas and arguments are fresh in your mind. After reading several books, you can examine your notes and come up with general principles and ideas.

So, with this in mind, how do you choose what to read?

First, choose a topic.  

I make a list of all the subjects I’m interested in learning more about, and then prioritize based on my current needs.  These can be as general or specific as you want, though I would start more general.

Once I have a list of the subjects I want to learn, I either:

  1. add books from my overall reading list/library that fit that subject, or
  2. research the topic further for books to read.

From these books, I’ll pick the top 3-5, ideally from different authors.

Before reading, make note of the questions you want answered from the books:

  • What are you trying to learn?
  • Where do you want to apply this knowledge? Be specific.
  • Ex: I want to create a plan for marketing my business this year, including creating a customer profile and digital marketing.

This will help with both selecting the correct books and picking out relevant ideas while reading.

When researching books, don’t rely on best-seller lists, or other crowd-sourced lists.  Try and find people you respect and admire, and the books they recommend.

Also apply the Lindy effect: how long something has been around is a prediction of value/how long it will be around in the future.

In other words, if you pick a book that has been considered a classic in the field for 20 years, it’s much more likely to be a good pick than one that came out last week.

Once you’ve chosen 3-5 books and written down the questions you want answered, it’s time to start reading.

You should approach your reading with the mindset that you will need to teach what you learn to someone later.

Taking Notes While Reading

Without a doubt, one of the best things you can do to make the most of your reading is take notes.  

It helps with immediate retention, and gives you a much shorter summary to go back to in future.

I’ve written about how I take notes on the books I read.

Highlighting, exporting, re-reading and editing are good starts when taking book notes.  But that simple act is not great for actually retaining and applying information.  I would add a couple more things.

The first is summarization: After each chapter, try and write your own summary of the main points, in your own, simple words (I prefer to do this after exporting my notes/highlights).  This will help you identify areas where you lack understanding.

The second is to make things personal:  While reading, add notes about how you could apply concepts to your own life, or connections that come to mind.

When you come across answers or information relevant to the questions you posed at the beginning, write them down.  Also make note of any new questions that come to mind.

Once you’ve read the book, go back after some time (I’d suggest a week) and go through all your notes.  Edit, reword where possible, and generally make them more readable for you in the future.  

Then store them somewhere; I keep all my notes in Evernote for easy access.

Making the Most of the Information

After you’ve done this for 3-5 books on the topic you’re interested in, you should have a good base of knowledge.

Hopefully, as you’ve been reading and taking notes, you’ve assumed the teacher role and thought about how you would teach this topic in future.  This mindset helps ensure you actually understand the material.

At this point, we’re going to use the Feynman technique to synthesize all the information.

The Feynman technique works roughly as follows:

  1. Choose a concept: in this case, it will be whatever question we set out to answer before reading.
  2. Teach it to a toddler: keeping it as short as possible (ideally one page), explain the concept as you would to a toddler.  This means simple vocabulary and precise language.  
  3. Identify gaps & go back to source material: as you try to write this explanation, you should identify areas you don’t fully understand, or gaps in your knowledge, and go back to the material to fill in that information. Continue until you’re satisfied with your explanation.
  4. Review and simplify: as you continue to read more books on the subject in future, or gain further understanding, you can go back to this document and simplify and refine.

To take this one step further, write a separate document about how you are going to apply your new knowledge in your life.  

If you have multiple areas where you can apply it, write multiple documents.  

This process of forcing yourself to apply your new knowledge will help with both understanding and remembering in future.

Long-Term Retention

Once you’ve gone to the trouble of deeply understanding and applying the new material you’ve learned, you want to retain it long-term.

To do this, we’ll do two things.

The first is testing ourselves on the material.  

Self-testing is one of the best ways of learning and identifying knowledge gaps.  

In this case, you should be able to reproduce the explanation you created during the Feynman exercise.

The second step is to schedule this self-testing appropriately, and set aside time for it.

The general rule for retaining material is to test yourself at 10-20% of the interval you want to retain it.  For example, if you want to remember something for a year, you should revisit the material at least every month or two.

I would suggest that a good interval to revisit the material is every week for the first 4-8 weeks, and then one time per month or quarter.  Schedule this time in your calendar after each session so you don’t forget.

Tools like Anki and Tiny Cards can also help.

Future Updates

If you’ve followed this sequence properly, you should have an answer to the original question(s) you asked.  

Now, in future, when you want to read another book on the topic, you can simply go through the steps and update your previous work.

Long-term, this should allow you to master many topics, and retain them long-term.

Note that mastering the skills that go with these topics is a separate issue; gaining subject knowledge is the first step.

How to Read a Book Summary

To get the most from reading:

  1. Choose a subject you’d like to learn.
  2. Pick the best 3-5 books on the topic, from different authors.
  3. Use recommendations from experts, not general reviews or lists.
  4. Write down the question(s) you want answered.
  5. Take notes:
  6. Highlight key passages and write notes while reading.
  7. Briefly summarize each chapter in your own words.
  8. Write down new questions and ways you could immediately apply the knowledge to your own life.
  9. Revisit all notes after a week or so, and rewrite and format to make them useful for you.
  10. Store somewhere easy to access (I use Evernote).
  11. Use the Feynman technique to synthesize information.
  12. Choose concept (the question you set out to answer).
  13. Teach to a toddler.
  14. Identify gaps & go back to source material.
  15. Review & simplify.
  16. Write down how you could immediately apply new knowledge.
  17. To retain information long-term:
  18. Use self-testing.
  19. Revisit every 1-2 months.
  20. As you read more books on the topic, update notes and repeat.

Sources & Further Reading

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