How to Read a Book (for the sake of getting smarter)

There are two things to collect when reading a book: the insights of the author (things you want to remember) and the insights the book illicits for yourself.

Sometimes the most valuable things about a book are the things you learn. Other times, it’s the rabbit trails that spin off of it, and the things it makes you think about.

In reading a book, your task is to capture both.

1. Highlight, underline, and take notes in the margins

I used to be a strong advocate against this. Now I’m an advocate for it.

I don’t mark fiction, but I mark non-fiction heavily. I use both a highlighter and a pen — highlighter for things I most want to remember, underlines in pen for slightly less pertinent but still relevant points.

I mark down additional notes in the margins — things I want to consider, things a passage reminds me of, or things I want to research later. These notes serve as a mental trigger for me when I go back in and skim my highlights later.

The purpose of highlighting is twofold — to improve my reference ability (to find the things I’m looking for when I want to draw on a book for reference in blog posts or my own writing), and to increase my retention. When the important points are separated and jump out on the page, it makes skimming and refreshing significantly easier.

Reading a book once is work. Highlighting makes it significantly easier the second time around.

2. Do brain dumps

Periodically throughout the course of reading a book, pause and do a quick dump of both notes (things you learned that you want to remember) and things the book has inspired you to think about.

Half the benefit of engaging with new ideas are the rabbit trails they open up for you in your own thought processes. Be ruthless about documenting those too.

My colleague Chuck Grimmett does a brain dump after every chapter. I’m less precise, but I do brain dumps regularly throughout the writing process. Just forcing yourself to stop and actively contemplate what you’re thinking (rather than passively experiencing it without ever pinning it down) greatly enhances the benefit you derive for your reading.

3. Make notes of additional resources

This is a small one, but worth the effort. Every time the author of a book references a thinker, a book or resource, or even an individual they found impactful, I write it down. I create a list of resources I want to dig into from each book I read.

4. Make notes of questions

My favorite habit. I think in questions, which is why I’m partial to it, but I also think it’s an incredibly valuable exercise.

Be on the lookout for questions — constantly. When you read a paragraph you find interesting, look at it as a stand-alone piece of information (rather than part of a narrative), and ask yourself — what else do I want to know about this? If someone phrases something in an interesting way, do you want to know why? If someone has an interesting outlook on something, do you wonder where it came from? If you’ve experienced something contrary to what the author argues, do you wonder what they’d say in response to your experience if you were to share it with them?

Write these things down, and then seek out the answers. Read, research, google — or just contemplate the possibilities.

5. Treat the experience as conversation

On the same note as asking questions — engage in conversation.

When you read a book without questions, you’re a passive listener. You’re being talked at, not with. You’re expecting the book to do the heavy lifting, not doing the work yourself to bring your own thoughts, ideas, and arguments to the table, and see what parallels can be drawn between the book’s points and your own.

When you ask questions, you force your mind to engage. You read not just the lines, but between them, and the potential that lies therein.

Treat a book not as a lecture, but as a conversation, with yourself as the less knowledgeable party (but an active player in the process).

Also remember — the goal of a good conversation isn’t to hear yourself talk (with the exception of sharpening your ability to cleanly articulate things) — but rather, to ask the right questions to discern a deeper understanding of the point being made. Don’t just repeat things you already know; that doesn’t push you to grow. Instead, engage with the things you don’t, and seek to understand them.

Leave a Reply