I love to read. It is easily my favourite activity. I can get lost in a book for hours on end, forgetting the basic necessities of life (food and water). I’m slightly ashamed to admit that on many occasions I have cancelled plans last minute because I couldn’t put a book down.
It wasn’t until recently, however, that I started reading intentionally. For years I would pick up a book read as fast as I could, then move on to the next one, often churning through 4-5 books a week. Quantity over quality.
I recently started going back and re-reading some of the books I really enjoyed. What I found was that my original comprehension of each one was about 20% of what I got out of it the second time. It was striking to me that the way I was reading resulted in a big opportunity cost of knowledge and understanding. I knew I was doing it wrong, and I knew I needed to make some changes to get the most out of reading.
I am not going to talk in this short essay about why you should read. That to me is fairly obvious. There is so much knowledge out there to be consumed. And there is a strong enough correlation between reading and output by highly proficient people in all domains. What I do want to do is share a few tactical strategies I have employed that have greatly improved my reading. How I select what to read. How I read to both understand the text and retain the key information. And how I translate input into output i.e. how what I read manifests in my personal and professional life.
General principle: read wide, read often
I read from a wide range of topics, genres, and time periods. I am not shy about reading 1 or two chapters and putting a book down. I also typically have 6-8 books on the go at any one time. I know many people will argue for the importance of staying focused on one subject but for me I find the context switching helpful to be able to pursue multiple interest threads at the same time. The combination of context switching and a disregard for sunk cost of a book not worth my time finishing allows me to keep reading even if I’ve hit a few duds or just need a break from a topic.
Often people confuse being tired of the subject matter for being tired of the medium. Have you ever put down a book because you were bored and then didn’t start reading again for a few days when you felt like reading *that* book again? Or what about labouring through a book you lost interest in but have told yourself you can’t pick up another book until you finish this one? I definitely have. The key is to put that book down and pick up another.
By giving myself permission to read a lot of different things at the same time and the permission to put any one of them down at any time I give myself the freedom to keep reading without artificial constraints.
What to read
I read different things for different reasons. Sometimes I want to go deep on a specific subject, so I will buy a bunch of books written on that to try and gain broad perspective. Economics would be an example of this. I have roughly 40 books on economics. My goal here is to first gain a foundation of the different perspectives before drawing my own conclusion. To do this I try to balance the input across different schools of thought and time period.
Sometimes I want to just read good writing. Maybe because I want to emulate my writing off of them, maybe because I just want to get lost in their writing. I’ll find a writer that I connect with, irrespective of the subject, and dive in. Chances are I end up going deep on the subject regardless.
I usually have one or two books on the go that are on a subject I don’t have much of a view on but want to gain some general perspective. I use reading to cover up any blind spots (I have lots) in my worldview, for example, right now I’m reading a book on the school zoning process in the US and a memoir of a former cartel hitman. I’m not planning on writing a thesis on school zones, or joining a cartel, but I figured I don’t know much about either, so might as well read something.
This curiosity and eclecticism in my reading has now started to pay dividends as I’ve reached critical mass. Early on it felt like I was spinning my tires as I read a little bit about everything – maybe I should just pick one thing and read as much as I can get my hands on about that specific thing before I move on to the next. Maybe reading about the cartel is an opportunity cost of reading another book on economics. What I have found now though is that I can link these things together. It took a while, sometimes there isn’t a logical connection from the cartel right to economics. But as I’ve also read quite a bit on early colonial America I can now draw the connection of the cartel to enterprising colonials dealing with each other outside the purview of Britain, and I can also see how this side trade in colonial America led to an entirely new economy. Now I see the connection of cartels to basic fundamentals of economics more clearly.
When selecting a text, I always look for recommendations. I will typically start with people that I know who have some area of domain expertise in a specific area. This has a second order impact because I also then know that they are going to ask me about their recommendations later, or even better, want to talk about the subject matter broadly, so it creates some implicit accountability to read the text and understand it. This usually turns into some great conversations that build better relationships.
I know when people ask me for recommendations I always look forward to the follow up when we can then debrief on the book and the subject.
I also make a habit of looking for recommendations from public figures that I respect, or public figures that have a strong opinion about something that I want to get a better understanding. If I can get my hands on the source material of their influence I can usually get a good sense of their worldview. Once I’ve found books that I enjoy I then try to find books that the author has recommended – these are usually somewhat easy to find. Whether it’s texts that are attributed to influencing people’s work (i.e. Seneca influencing Montaigne) or if the author is still alive today, chances are they’ve been on a podcast promoting their book, and chances are, the interviewer asked them about other books, which are typically found in the show notes.
On balance, I would recommend reading a wide breadth of texts, culling often, and when you find something that resonates, go deep on the source material.
How to read
Environment matters. I find it very important to be in a distraction free environment with good lighting. I usually put my phone on do not disturb and set myself up somewhere with either natural light or lamp light.
Jump around. Not all books need to be read sequentially. For a lot of nonfiction, reference style texts you can read chapters in piecemeal. This can also be a good way to see if you actually want to invest the time to make it to the midpoint, let alone the end. I will often check the table of contents, find a chapter that aligns with a specific area of interest, jump to that, and if it resonates then I’ll back track.
Read with a pen in hand. When I read I always have a pen with me. I’m not always taking notes. Sometimes I am just starring something that I want to come back to. One thing you can be sure of though is that there will be a number of dog-eared pages to denote that I either starred something or made a note.
Refresh. Once I’ve been through a book, I’ll try and make a habit of going back and re-reading the notes sections, flipping through the dog-eared pages to see what I wrote, or to comb through the noted passages. This helps me stay connected to the text and internalize the important bits.
Read, and then re-read. I would highly recommend re-reading books that you find value in. As the wise @naval said in his Farnham St. interview (10/10 would recommend) “I don’t want to read everything. I just want to read the 100 great books over and over again.” I think this is prescient. I’ll typically re-read some of my favourite texts cover to cover every year or two. Each time I am sure to find some new insights. What I would also say though is that to find your list of 100 great books you will probably need to read 1,000 and cull down to that list of 100. And as life goes on, that 100 list will change. Perspective changes. What you need to read changes. And the available texts change.
It’s very rare that I read a book and I feel like I get zero insights. Even if objectively it wasn’t a great book, there is often at least something that sparks a thought for me. Sometimes that actually comes from books I didn’t find particularly great because it can prompt me to explore things that I felt the author missed. That has value in itself.
To apply these insights outside of reading I try to write short summaries of books after I’m done reading. I write them as if I’m writing a summary for someone else, even though it’s typically just me that sees them. That usually helps when I go back and read the summary since I typically forget about 80% of what I read the first time.
The next level of this is to then map summaries of different books to each other to draw connections between different texts. This can evolve into a web of knowledge spanning a wide range of material. This is where reading and understanding turns into new insights. That really is the purpose of this all – not just to gain knowledge on something already broadly understood and communicated, but to uncover new insights.
I also find it very helpful to talk to others about what I’m reading. I don’t have a book club, but getting recommendations from others is a great way to set up an implicit 1:1 book club with the person who recommended. At minimum a short conversation can go a long way in retaining the information.
All in all, I have found that reading has greatly improved different areas of my life. Not only does it bring me peace, I have expanded my thinking, and developed great relationships through shared perspective.
The last thing I will say is that I would recommend that everyone not only consume the medium but also produce the medium. The more you write the more appreciation you will have for what others have written. And the more you read the better writer you will become. Writing is such a high leverage skill – in the information age, the ability to communicate effectively through prose is a major advantage.
I wrote a post on writing that you can find here.