“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
The written word might be the single greatest invention in the history of mankind. Reading and writing has allowed knowledge to bloom, ideas to spread, and civilization to flourish. Reading has also allowed millions to lift themselves up out of poverty and ignorance. Reading is priceless.
What's more, reading is one of the best leading indicators of success. The most successful people also tend to be the ones who read the most. Warren Buffet, one of the greatest investors in history and one of the top 5 richest men on Earth, says: “I just sit in my office and read all day.”
Buffet credits most of his success to his voracious reading habit (and a healthy dose of intelligence). When asked how to get smarter, Buffett once held up stacks of paper and said, “Read 500 pages like this every week. That’s how knowledge builds up, like compound interest.”
The knowledge gleaned from reading has propelled thousands into illustrious careers. Alexander Hamilton grew up penniless in St. Kitts and Nevis, turning to books in an attempt to escape his humble beginnings. Michael Faraday, father of electromagnetism, learned almost everything he knew about physics through books he managed to read in his off-hours as a bookbinder. Napoleon himself is said to have been reading tirelessly during his breaks at the military academy while his peers were out drinking and living the high life.
The power of reading is undeniable. However, as a medium, books are surprisingly bad at conveying knowledge. Even worse, most readers don't realize it.
Have you ever looked back on a book you read, only to realize that you can only recall a few simple insights and sentences? Sure, you can remember the basic talking points but all that detail is missing. You can't recall the exact whys, the hows, and the whens. Sometimes, it's your memory who's at fault. But more often than not, you realize you never properly understood the idea in the first place.
It's not because you're dumb or you have a terrible memory. You only read the book, rather than actually understanding it.
As Arthur Schopenhauer put it, when we read, another person thinks for us. We repeat their mental process, following along as they go from conclusion to conclusion. The work of thinking is done for us. We're being spoon-fed. Schopenhauer claims that this is why we relax when given the opportunity to read after being occupied with our own thoughts. We can simply shut off our thinking brain and revel in mindlessly accepting the author's thoughts. And so his greatest fear was that a person who continuously ingests other people's thoughts eventually loses the ability to think for themself. They're no longer in the habit of thinking things through, merely consuming the latest tidbit.
Once you become used to passively ingesting info, your recall and knowledge will regress rapidly.
And the only way to combat it is through active participation.
Reading should be a conversation between you and the author. To truly understand a book, you should go deeper than just passively reading and ingesting information.
Reading is an active process. It's what happens when you stop treating books like pre-packaged ideas and come to see them as an invitation to learn and think. Presumably, the author knows more about the subject than you do. Way more. If not, don't bother with their book in the first place.
You don't just want to know what an author says. You want to know what he means and why he says it. As Mortimer Adler puts it in the masterfully-written ‘How To Read A Book’: active reading is the effort to understand.
And the best way to understand is to ask questions. We must be curious. Like a child asking “Why?” again and again, we need to drill down to the essence to properly understand. Adler says to ask questions while you read - questions that you yourself must try to answer in the course of reading.
There are four main questions you must ask about any book:
1) What Is the Book About? - This is not just the subject matter, but also the implications. What is its thesis?
2) What Is Being Said In Detail And How? - This is the summary. What are the main ideas that the author presents? What arguments does he use to back up his opinions?
3) Is The Book True, In Whole Or Part? - Confirmation bias is a bitch, so be careful in answering this question. Do the author's thoughts and ideas line up with the rest of the field or are they the odd man out? Did the author provide good sources?
4) What Of It? - Is it actually important to you to know these things? What is further implied or suggested?)What info follows? What has it not answered? Where could you stand to gain more knowledge?
Simply put, reading should be active. But the process of properly reading a book starts before cracking the first page.
When you're going on a trip to another country, do you simply hop on the first plane, without a care in the world? Or do you spend some time packing your bags, getting a visa, and arranging a place to stay? As with everything, diving in headfirst rarely leads to success. Reading books included. By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.
Reading a book starts before you ever open it. You have a lot of assumptions and preceding knowledge that comes into play. After all, you chose to pick up the book for a reason, right?
Why did you? Are you already familiar with the topic? Have you heard good things about the book or author? Is it something you're interested in learning more about, or did you simply buy the book because the cover looked cute? (Which is a totally valid reason)
Before you start reading a new book, it pays to take stock of what you know. Take out a sheet of paper or start a new file in your favorite note-taking app. Write down what you know about the book you’re about to read — the subject, the author, the level of detail it'll go into, etc. We're simply trying to answer the question “What is the book about?”. The analytical reader must ask many organized questions of what he is reading and this is simply the first of them.
Having done that, you should have a basic idea of what the book is and — most importantly — isn't. Now it's time for us to turn the first page and get started.
But we're not going to start reading straight away. Oh, no. Preparation, remember?
First, we'll skim through the book. Let's study the table of contents to obtain a general sense of the book’s structure. What topics do you think will be covered. In what order? This is going to be our roadmap.
Next, read the publisher’s blurb. Usually, this is where they'll provide a super short summary of the main points of the book. This is the most optimized part of the entire book. Every word has been carefully tailored by copywriters to be as informative and engaging as possible. Usually, you'll be able to get a good idea of the general thesis of the author.
Now, feel free to start leafing through the book. Look at chapters that seem pivotal to the author's arguments. What stands out? Are there any pictures, diagrams or long quotes? Feel free to give them a cursory glance. Right now, we're just focusing on skimming systematically, to learn everything that the surface alone can teach you.
Read the summary statements in the opening or closing pages of chapters. Authors can't resist the temptation to sum up what they think is important about a chapter. The same usually goes for the last two or three pages of the book itself. They'll often provide a cursory overview of the entire book as a final parting gift. It's intended to act as a reminder for the reader, but it'll suit our purposes just fine.
All told, you should have a general grasp of the book's contents. You know the journey you're about to embark upon. You know the bullet-points the author's going to talk about. At this point, you should decide whether it's worth the time to actually read the book? Are you still interested?
If not, it's completely acceptable to put the book away. It wasn't for you. No big loss. After all, most books are only $10-20. Even if you only get a single insight from a book, it's been well worth it. But life's too short to slog through books. Best to put it aside and read a book you're actually interested in.
If you still want to read the book, it's time to start reading properly, with pencil in hand.
Reading — real reading — is messy. It's skimming through sections before closely rereading them, dog-earing your pages, adding marginalia, underlining sections, checking sources, and doodling in the margins. Occasionally, you stop to ponder a stand-out sentence. You'll go back to previous chapters. Reread a passage or two. You'll move back and forth, reconstructing the thought process of the author until you finally, truly, understand. Reading is so much more than simply ingesting words on a page.
If you want to read deeply and understand what you've read, you need to engage at every turn. The human brain is immensely powerful and it can be leveraged to great effect in increasing reading retention and recall. Our worldview is built upon our senses of smell, touch, sight, sound, and taste. The more senses you can engage, the better your recall and comprehension. The way most people read, only a single sense gets stimulated: sight.
Be impressed with the text. Not in a ‘Wow, that's cool’-type of impressed. Rather, you should seek to build an impression. Stop and picture a scene in your mind. When the author talks about the backstreets of Paris, imagine yourself walking down the cobblestone streets, passing by boulangeries, and seeing the Eiffel Tower off in the distance. Try to imagine the smells of freshly-baked bread and the gentle padding of rain droplets falling on your jacket. Be there. The more detail you add, the stronger the impression.
We think by association. With the example above, you'll undoubtedly think of Paris differently next time you're reminded of it. Coming across a particular word or sound in daily life can quickly lead you down memory lane. A passing smell or an old tune might remind you of your childhood home. We can do the same with reading. Link the text to something you already know. When a book takes place in the Second World War, place the book inside the larger context of the war. When a date gets mentioned, try to place it within your larger framework of knowledge. You're building up a mindmap where every piece of info is backed-up by dozens of other facts and memories.
Finally, repetition is key for remembering. The more you repeat, the more you remember. This can occur by literally re-reading a certain passage or in highlighting it or writing it down then returning to it again later.
In ‘How To Read’, Adler gives us a handy set of rules for for finding out what a book is about:
1) Classify the book according to kind and subject matter.
2) State what the whole book is about with the utmost brevity.
3) Enumerate its major parts in their order and relation, and outline these parts as you have outlined the whole.
4) Define the problem or problems the author is trying to solve.
5) Come to terms with the author by interpreting his key words.
6) Grasp the author’s leading propositions by dealing with his most important sentences.
7) Know the author’s arguments, by finding them in, or constructing them out of, sequences of sentences.
8) Determine which of his problems the author has solved, and which he has not; and as to the latter, decide which the author knew he had failed to solve.
Notice that in all of these cases, the reader — you — is charged with making sense of the author's thoughts. It's not going to be handed on a silver platter.
Finally, Adler suggests to write a few bullet points that summarize what you’ve read and to make it personal if you can — that is, apply it to something in your life.
In How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler identifies four different levels of reading. Each is done for different purposes and requires varied levels of effort. They are:
Elementary reading is what you are taught in school. Everyone can do this. You simply start reading and trying to remember as you go along. You're not thinking, merely consuming. This also happens to be the most ineffective method or reading.
Second, there is Inspectional reading. This can take the form of a quick, leisurely read or skimming a book's preface, table of contents, and jacket. In preparing to read the book, we were effectively engaging in inspectional reading. Skimming is not bad, despite what you might've been told. In short, inspectional reading gives you the basic gist of the book. It gives us a look at the author's overall blueprint and helps us decide whether it's worth diving deeper into the book.
Where the real work and retention begins is with analytical reading. If you followed the steps above, we're now at this stage. This is where we thoroughly read something, trying to go as deep as humanly possible. We try to classify the contents of the book, summarize wherever possible, establish connections between the book’s major parts, and generally define the problem or problems the author is trying to solve.
The final level is syntopical reading, which means you read a wide range of books on the same topic, comparing as you go along. In reading multiple authors’ take on the same subject, you start to tease out commonalities, contrasting ideas, and different conclusions. At this point, the goal is no longer to understand any single book, but rather to deeply understand the entire field.
The greatest writers are often the same people who read the most. Except that these great writers read fewer books than you might think. They devour the few books they deem worth reading. They'd rather thoroughly study six great books per year than six dozen mediocre ones. They strive to become authorities. And the only way to do that is to own your books.
As Adler puts it: “Full ownership of a book only comes when you have made it a part of yourself, and the best way to make yourself a part of it— which comes to the same thing— is by writing in it.”
It might seem sacrilegious to write in books. We're conditioned from an early age to treat books as fragile and delicate things. Most great readers know this is bullshit. They're your books, aren't they? You can do whatever the hell you want to them. As long as they're not library books, go to town. Make the book uniquely yours.
The best way to read is to read with pencil in hand. You'll want to note down any questions that pop up. Write in the margins, underline and circle important passages. Treat the book as a canvas.
When teaching children, one thing gets crammed into their heads again and again. “State in your own words!” The best sign of truly knowing something is when we can rephrase an idea in our own words. It implies understanding.
And so your note-taking should facilitate this as much as possible. Note down some bullet points after finishing every chapter. Rephrase some of the key findings. After finishing the entire book, you should have several pages full of notes and summaries. Then, it's time to let the book rest.
Shane Parrish of Farnam Street is a serial note taker, and he finds himself constantly returning to the books he reads:
"After I finish a book, I let it age for a week or two and then pick it up again. I look at my notes and the sections I’ve marked as important. I write them down. Or let it age for another week or two.”
When the book has had time to settle in, we can pick it up again. Review your notes. There will be some bad ones, but also a handful that you will want to remember. Write the good stuff on the inside cover of the book along with a page number.
Next, copy out the excerpts and place them in your note-taking system. I use Evernote, based on a handy system created by Tiago Forte.
With the right note-taking system, compiling notes helps you build a grand repository of all your knowledge. And the best part is that it's available at a moment’s notice. By archiving the insights we gained from the book, the total sum of our knowledge increases.
Good books should grant knowledge for life, not just a fleeting moment of insight, soon to be forgotten.
When you read properly, the act of reading becomes a conversation. It's not just the author beaming thoughts into your head, it's a two-way street. And in all cases, the reader has the last word.
A person who has read widely but not well deserves to be pitied rather than praised. The person who has powered through a hundred books in a single year will derive less value from it than the person who spent a month reading a single book in great depth, stopping along the way.
Simply reading a book is useless. Knowledge is gained only when, in addition to knowing what an author says, you know what he means and why he says it.
And that only happens when reading becomes an active process