How to read a book

How to read a book

When reading non-fiction, I’d never had a very clear sense of what I’m optimizing for. Sure, I probably wanted some combination of information, retention and enjoyment. But I’d never translated those high-level goals into a more concrete or measurable target. Accordingly, it had never really occurred to me that perhaps I could optimize better for what I want.

My main failing in reading non-fiction was to get too lost in the details. Sometimes this looked like fastidious note-taking as I went through; other times, it looked like painstakingly slow reading, or not moving on from a section until I understood it entirely. And sure enough, after a week, I often couldn’t recall enough to even bring it up in conversation.

This all changed when I read How to read a book. According to me, its key insight is something like: when you read non-fiction of any form, your goal is to internalise its main claims and some evidence for those claims, as quickly as possible. Discard all the rest (which you won’t remember anyway). That way, you add high-level stuff to your map of the world, which you can continue to draw on, make connections to and from, etc. And you don’t clog up your map with the low-level details, which you can look up if you need to.

In other words, extract the keys of the book, and discard the values.

The article also suggests some neat ways of optimizing for this goal. My favourites were:

1) Set a time limit

  • A 300 page book should take 6-8 hours.

  • Setting a timer makes the task less intimidating (the same reasoning behind Yoda Timers), makes you more focused during that time, and allows you to work out how long to devote to each section.

2) “Read actively”

  • As you read, be asking yourself: what’s the author’s claim? What’s their evidence for that claim? Form hypotheses about the answers to these questions, and confirm or refute them as you go.

  • When you make sense of something for yourself, your recall will be better than if you let someone else make sense of it for you. And you’re more likely to spot arguments that don’t actually make sense!

  • Tip: try explaining the claim and argument back to yourself, or to a friend in conversation.

3) “Read” it three times, each time with a different purpose.

  1. Discovery (10%): focusing on parts with high information density, get an unsophisticated understanding of the key claims and evidence.

    • In order, read: covers and jacket flaps; table of contents; the index for an overview of the key ideas; bibliography; preface/introduction/abstract; conclusion; figures; then read through the entire book at a fast pace, focusing on chapter introductions and conclusions, section headings, and sections with special formatting e.g. lists, boldface.
  2. Understanding (70%): read more carefully into their claims; evaluate the evidence.

  3. Note-taking (20%): in your own words, write 1-3 pages per 100 pages of notes on the key claims and evidence.

I felt like a bit of a fool for not having thought about this earlier. But hey, at least for the rest of my non-fiction reading life, I’ll have a clearer goal and strategy.