How I make my book reading work for me

My reading goal this year is the same as the last two years — to read 60 books, 45 of them focused on personal improvement in some fashion. Even amongst people who identify as readers, that’s a lot of books. One of my friends recently scoffed at reading 45 books for personal improvement in a year, saying:

There is no way you can remember every one of those books!

He’s right. I’m not going to remember every one of the books I read in a year. Some of them are going to be only mediocre anyway, but even if we assume I read 35 good books, that’s a lot of words to take in.

Here’s how I help make sure that I’m making use of my reading time.

Write

If you want to get something out of every book you read, you need to write about them. No you don’t have to publish what you write, but you do need to write.

The process of writing forces you to analyze what you’ve read. There have been many times I’ve read a book and thought I grasped what it was saying, until I went to write about it. Once I had to put words on ‘paper’ I found that I needed to go back and read parts of the book again.

When you’re getting started you need to ask yourself these three basic questions.

  1. What was great about the book?
  2. What didn’t I like about the book?
  3. What are my three takeaways?

Your answers don’t need to be long. A few sentences per question, per book, will do. Even the bad books I read get this treatment. A number of times I’ve thought a book was bad. Then after answering these questions realized it had much more utility than I thought. I may still not recommend it, but I get something out of my time spent reading.

If you want to dive even deeper then you need to analyze the book a bit more. When I start reading a book I add the following headings to a document.

Purpose

What is the purpose of the book? Why did the author write it?

The author usually states their purpose in the introduction or the first chapter.

Structure

How is the book divided up? What is each section supposed to be about?

The author usually states the basic structure of the book in the introduction or the first chapter.

Review

Based on the structure that the author outlines, I dig into the book. I take each section and summarize its main arguments. I’ll pull out any quotes that may be useful to highlight a point in my review.

Many times as I dig through the structure to summarize a section, I find that I don’t understand part of the book. That means I open the book back up and read a section again. Yes it takes time, but the goal is understanding of the author’s main arguments. If you don’t understand them, you’re not equipped to judge the book.

Recommendation

My book reviews often end with a recommendation. Here I look at two things. First, whether the book achieved the goal/purpose it wanted to in the beginning. And second, whether it was a good book on the topic or whether there’s something better out there.

There are books I haven’t liked and yet I’ve recommended. If you’re struggling with what the book talks about, it’s likely something that can help you.

Drawing conclusions across books

Reading lots means I get exposed to ideas that oppose one another. One author says that to get creative work done you need to shut out distraction. Then a marketing book tells you that to get clients you need to get on social media and use it lots.

Those two ideas hold some tension at least. As a creative you need to create. You also need to pay the bills and eat, so you need to tell people you create.

When you find ideas that align, or oppose each other, it’s time to write a bit more. I usually break it out into a blog post dealing with only these ideas. I’ll address how they’re different and not so different.

Drawing ideas together across different books helps your comprehension immensely. You’ll often need to read the pertinent sections of the books again. Then you’ll need to dig into the ideas so that you understand them wholly.

Out of this tension you’ll find where you fall. Maybe you decide that scheduled social media time only into the afternoon is the right way to tackle the tension of needing time to work and needing to tell people how awesome you are.

Coming back to the book

Your job isn’t done once you read the book and write about it. You still need to do something with the notes you’ve made. I drop my raw book notes into DevonThink Pro for future reference. I also break out any especially awesome quotes into their own notes and add them to DevonThink Pro.

Once I have the notes I make it a practice to go back and read through them. This yields more contrasting ideas to write about because I’ve done more reading. By regularly going back and reviewing my notes my understanding is pushed deeper.

If you’re reading (and I think you should if you want to be successful) then at the very least you need to ask yourself the three questions I proposed at the beginning of this post.

If you don’t do that, then you’re not getting near enough value out of your time with the written word.

photo by: clement127

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