How I read
April 15, 2018
“Read more. Read as much as you can, read as fast as you can. The ever-ending quest to read more lowers the opportunity cost of reading a book and acquiring new information.”
Here are a collection of thoughts on what worked well for me reading books over the years.
Books are food for the mind
Don’t just read one book at a time. One of the lessons I’ve picked up over time is that there is a right time to read the right book. We both read to learn and we read for enjoyment. And the primary driver will change depending on your situation.
Just as you may find different foods are more right at different occasions, so it is with books.
There are times when I want something lighter or when I have a particular craving or need. There are times for binge-reading and times when I’m looking for more of a buffet.
And just like food, I often find that reading different foods together makes both more enjoyable and valuable.
If it’s not to taste, it’s ok to move on
I think people sometimes stick with a book for far too long. Unless there’s a very specific need, reading shouldn’t be an ordeal. It’s perfectly ok to return a book to the unfinished books list.
Tastes change over time as well and I’ve often found that reading (or re-reading) a book later in my life suddenly gives it new meaning or enjoyment. The wonderful thing about good books is that they change with you. Your thinking is changed, and coming back to a book lets you uncover more.
And, if I’ve gotten all I need from a book, I allow myself to stop. There’s no special award for completing a book - reading is purely for you.
Use speed to your advantage
I am lucky in being able to read fast. However, what matters more than raw speed is having different gears of speed. Sometimes you want to slow down and sometimes you want to kick it up a gear. Different content benefit from different speeds and different needs benefit from different speeds.
A book is a journey to another world
In particular, you will want to develop a top-gear that allows you to quickly get a sense of a book. This helps me get an intuition for the book, identify things to look out for and pay attention to, and provides sense of direction. And it’s completely fine not to start at the beginning. When opening a new book, I often begin 50 pages or take a look at the index to pick an interesting starting chapter.
I view it in a similar manner to going on holiday - if you know a bit about the city, you understand more about which neighbourhood you’re going through, what landmarks to head towards, places to keep an eye out for and get a sense if this destination is right for you.
By doing this, I find I am much better placed to discover the best a book has to offer.
Read with a plan
Typically, I would have an idea what I want from a book. This allows me to understand it better and what I’m looking for, and target my reading appropriately.
Explore the landscape. The more I know about an area, the more connections I can make. I can connect and relate this with other things and so the better my reading will be. It’s partly why I aim to read a wide breadth of subjects as well as go deep in interesting areas in some of them. When reading a book, I have a quick read around the subject beforehand and during.
Understand the context. I typically have a sense about why this book was written. This gives me a clue to what questions are raised, the context in which it was written and the intent behind it. Not surprisingly, books have biases.
Identify the points of leverage. For all books, there are particularly interesting or important sections and I look out for those. I also try to look to seek more/better insight and information from particularly on things that I need more understanding on.
Know your environment and listen to your needs
I find that I can read a lot more effectively when I have the right environment. If I’m fully focused, I can get through a typical book in one or two sittings. Other times, I may take many number of sittings to make any headway into a book. The internet and Netflix are particularly bad as easy distractions.
The way I typically overcome it is to set out to read, and make time and space for it, and then allow myself to get into the zone.
I’m not too dogmatic here and don’t let it get in the way of learning or enjoyment. Sometimes, I find the best reading sessions are when a book uncovers a thread that piques my interest for me to follow by reading more elsewhere on the internet. I do try make sure to snap back to the main thread if it still makes sense but the journey is what matters.
Finally, the Kindle app combined with a long, contigious commute journey helps. However, I find that this often competes with internet reading time unless I’m already deep in a book.
Read different books differently
Non-fiction in particular, benefit from a non-linear reading pattern with multiple passes through.
A final word
Read more. Read as much as you can, read as fast as you can.
In books, we have access to all the knowledge of the world to help us grow. There are more than we can read in one lifetime so spend it towards what matter for you and make it matter for you.
When I first started reading The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, I found I wasn’t getting into it at all and put it to aside for a couple of years. When it re-emerged in my stack again, I had a totally different experience and read it end-to-end in one sitting, seeking out other Murakami books afterwards. ↩︎
My average completion rate for books is about 70%. Of the remaining 30%, I’d probably read half of those to about 2/3 completion, read another quarter of those to 50% completion, and give up on all the rest after a few chapters. These aren’t necessarily the first chapters. ↩︎