Unlocking Books – A Guide To Reading Better

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Seldom do we stop to consider reading. It’s just this thing we can do.

Some books are difficult, some easy. Some people are good at reading, others less so.

But it doesn’t have to stay this way.

Reading is an integral skill that we can improve. And certainly should.

It is our primary medium of learning and a gateway to the world. Reading well not only keeps our minds sharp and active, but enriches our lives; laying bare the fabric of space and time to be manipulated by our whim.

This blog post is (an attempt at) a comprehensive guide to reading better: It will take you through the whole reading process, from choosing good books to reviewing strategies, and everything in between.

Three principles of reading

Reading is like playing catch

We tend to picture reading as a passive process.

And done wrong, it can be to some extent.

But reading is more akin to playing catch; you receive the ball, but actually catching it is up to you.

It is active, and further than that a nuanced skill. Done right, it is every bit as difficult as writing.

Reading is a conversation

What’s the point of catching a ball if you’re not going to throw it back?

Reading is like a conversation with an intelligent peer: you must listen patiently, seek to understand, ask questions and give your opinion.

It should be a constant back and forth of ideas, the book merely a provocation of thought. Do not be afraid to become a critic, or a writer, and join in on the conversation.

Quality over quantity

If I read as many books as most men do, I would be as dull-witted as they are

Thomas Hobbes

As Hobbes so prosaically tells us: being well-read is notabout reading widely, but deeply.

Only by burrowing deep into a few good books will we encounter these life-changing insights, like nuggets of gold buried deep in the pages.

If you’re scratching on the surface you’re not going to find anything but coal.

Choosing good books

To get value from the books you read, the first step is to ensure there is actually value to be got; that you are reading books with sufficient depth and meaning.

A filter

When I come across a book I want to read, very seldom do I immediately do so. Rather I store it in a central database (a list with added steps).

In this database I group books according to projects/topics and importance (on a scale of 1-3). For example, one project is ‘the philosophy of education’, and I have books like The Republic, Meno, Schools of Tomorrow, Emile, Education and Democracy etc. listed there.

I regularly clean out this list, so that the books on it represent only my long-term interests, and have held up to scrutiny.

In this way this database acts as a filter, and by only selecting books from this list I improve the quality and relevancy of what I read.

Project-oriented reading

Insofar as possible, I read books as part of a larger project; an attempt to learn about something specific.

This is important for a few reasons:

  1. It lends focus to your reading. You are deliberately advancing specific areas of your knowledge, and know what you want to get from what you’re reading.
  2. It makes reading more meaningful, as it ties into a larger goal.
  3. You make meaningful connections between knowledge, which fosters long-term learning. The books accentuate each other, and you build of this latticework of ideas.

All this means is that I try to dedicate a month at a time (more or less) to reading a certain type of book, for example on ‘the philosophy of education’.

Challenging yourself

If you want to improve your reading, you must read challenging books, that force you to exert your faculties of comprehension and understanding.

Before reading

Preliminary reading

Okay, you have a list of three books you might want to read. How do you narrow it down? The answer is preliminary reading:

  1. Online summaries and reviews (but be careful of someone’s interpretation being imposed on you)
  2. Read the title carefully, the preface, table of contents, index (to see what types of terms are used and books referenced) and blurb. Get a better idea of the book.
  3. Skim the book, a paragraph here and there. Pay attention to important chapter’s, and look for summaries at the beginning or end of them.

The idea here is to have good understanding of the book before you read it. You want to know the central theme, the general ideas and where it fits in historically and personally so you don’t have to figure these out while reading.  

This allows you to focus on the arguments and ideas expressed in the greater context of the book.

Understanding the author

You cannot fully grasp a book until you have understood it’s author, and the era it was written in. (Especially in older works) these give invaluable context; shedding a whole new light on the book.

Let us take Tolkien for example: one can never fully appreciate his magnum opus, The Lord of the Rings, without first understanding what he set out to do; finding the English mythology lacking (consisting “mainly of chap books”), he set out to create one, from scratch; in the process inventing complex languages, fabricating thousands of years of history and lore, and breathing life into the world of Middle Earth. 

It is in your interest to read a short biography of the author, and know the basics of the period it’s set in. 

Primer questions

When reading a non-fiction book, it is important to have an agenda: questions that you want the book to answer.

It is good to formalize these questions in a list, and attempt to answer them after reading.

The questions act as a link, allowing a reader to translate and assimilate the book’s knowledge into his own thoughts and actions effectively; it is application of the book to the questions you’re thinking about.

Further, they prime our brain to focus on certain ideas that we deem important; rather than idly wandering through the book, we are trying to get something specific out of it.

How to read a book

The three-step strategy

A good book should have three readings:

  1. Read the book quickly (ideally in one sitting). Don’t stop for unknown words, and skim over passages you do not understand. This allows you to grasp the unity, the essence, of a book. It is also essential for you to find emotional resonance with the book, that it moves you not only intellectually, but on a deeper level.
  2. Read the book carefully. Aim for understanding of the author’s arguments and ideas. Withhold judgement.
  3. Read the book critically. This is the time to evaluate the arguments, answer your primer questions, and decide whether you agree or not.

Ask and you shall recieve

Reading must be a dialogue of minds. The most important thing is therefore to engage with a book by asking questions.

The good reader must develop a habit of asking insighful questions. Only then will you receive the answers you want, and meaningfully tie the book in to your existing thoughts and ideas.

Speedreading?

Speedreading is a valuable tool. The most important thing is to know-when-reading-fast is the best choice, and when, we should, read slooower. There are plenty of good tutorials on speed reading and here.

My personal stance on this is slightly different. In my mind, if the books you’re reading consistently require you to read them fast, then you should find better books. Sure, every book has some fluff you can skip over, but in a good book this fluff doesn’t warrant learning a whole new skill.

If a book isn't worth reading slowly, it's not worth reading at all Click To Tweet

Meeting minds

The better we understand an author, the better we understand his work.

To truly understand an author we must undergo a ‘meeting of minds’; beginning to understand how he uses words, his personality and voice, learning his idiosyncracies and odd phrases.

There are a few ways of doing this:

  1. Understanding his/her context is invaluable.
  2. Keep a running list of important terms, and what the author means by them. (Especially in philosophical works) words are employed in a very precise manner that is important to understand.
  3. Read one author extensively.

Take notes

There are many ways of doing this. Most prefer things like underlining passages, notes in margins, and having an index of these highlights at the back of the book.

While this works fine for most people, I will forever recommend Zettelkasten, which has genuinely changed my life (it is meant mostly for writers, and those serious about learning).

A brief synopsis: Zettelkasten involves capturing a book’s ideas in your own words, storing them as atomic notes (in one of the many digital applications), linking these ideas to each other (through digital references), and thereby creating a ‘latticework of ideas’, weaving a web of your understanding. The beauty of the system is that each idea refers you to related ones, and so knowledge is revealed when it is needed most. It also allows you to consciously assimilate new information into your existing knowledge by defining links between the ideas. This assimilation process is what we call learning.

I will never pass up an opportunity to show off my Zettelkasten (each dot represents a note, an atomic idea, and each line a defined link between them):

A zoomed in view of the previous graph

If you are a writer, or just feel that you read a lot of books, but don’t really absorb their ideas, Zettelkasten is perfect. I realize this has begun to sound like an advertisement. It’s not, don’t worry.

If you want to learn more I suggest visiting this introduction or reading How to take Smart Notes, a great book about writing better, dealing with knowledge, learning, creativity, and obviously, Zettelkasten.

What to pay attention to

After that brief digression, let’s move on.

While reading, it is essential that you pay attention to a few things:

  1. The problems the author is trying to solve, and the solutions he proposes
  2. The arguments the author makes in favour of his solutions
  3. The importance of his solutions to you, what they mean for your thought and action
  4. The structure and sequence of the book; how the arguments and ideas fit together

After reading

To properly digest a book, we need a review process.

It’s purpose is to truly assimilate the book; making it a part of our identity and subconscious mind.

Habits of action and thought

The most effective way to do this is to convert a book into habits of action and thought.

For example, after reading Deep Work I made it a part of my schedule to revisit and practice its lessons. It became habitual, rather than a set of abstract principles; it is now a part of my identity, how I plan and work.

There are a few ways we can digest books to this extent:

  1. The first step is fully understanding the book. You can read commentaries and explanations (preferably afterwards) to supplement this.
  2. For practical books (that function as calls to action) periodical review and practicing the lessons are essential.
  3. Reading as part of a project. In this way the book’s ideas ties into a greater body of knowledge, and becomes meaningful.   
  4. A note-making system. This is different to note-taking, which is simply recording ideas. Note making is about thinking forward, linking ideas to a greater body of knowledge.
  5. Reviewing the book:

Reviews: What to focus on

  1. A one sentence summary that captures the book’s unity, the controlling idea.
  2. The problems of the book; what questions was the author trying to solve, and how satisfactorily did he address them?
  3. Arguments and ideas. How does the author prove his thesis? Attempt to trace line(s) of argument.
  4. Answer your primer questions, and others that arose throughout.
  5. Become a critic. What did you think about the book? Did you agree with it?

For added incentive you can:

  1. Release the review as some sort of blog post if you on a platform of your choice (Medium is a good free option)
  2. Write the reviews on Amazon or Goodreads.
  3. Write it as a letter to the author (even if he’s dead, it doesn’t really matter, it’s just a nice format to do it in).

Bear in mind that I myself do not do book reviews because I believe my rigorous note-taking, note-making and writing renders them redundant.

Self-help Books

There are a few important things to keep in mind when reading self-help books. Luckily I have already written a blog post covering this.

How to apply this article

I will now recount how I have applied (and am applying) these principles to my life:

  1. I have a bullet point list of things to remember while reading, which I review periodically (I suggest doing so each time before you read a book until it becomes habit).
  2. Keep a list of ‘to be read’ books with some sort of classification system, and only select books to read from this list.
  3. Try to read books as part of a project.
  4. Before you read a book: do preliminary reading, make a list of primer questions, and simply google ‘context of book you are going to read’ and browse one or two articles (it is obviously to your benefit to go more in depth).
  5. Start taking notes (and even look into Zettelkasten).

Trying to suddenly do all of this is impractical.

It’s important to make these steps as easy as possible: start with one or two things, and do them quickly. As these become habitual, you can add a few more, and so on.

You might find my step-by-step guide to building habits helpful.

One last thing…

The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of… We know the truth not only by the reason, but by the heart.

Blaise Pascal

When wielding the surgical knife of analysis, amidst your dissection of the book, do not lose your sense of wonder. Without wonder and enjoyment, what is the point of reading?

Good books are an experience, not just a collection of ideas. In your attempts to digest them intellectually, do not refrain from savouring them emotionally and spiritually.

Good books are an experience, not just a collection of ideas Click To Tweet

Without a strong emotional factor books cannot impress themselves strongly enough upon our minds to shift our beings, and become part of our identity. They become lifeless words on a page, the abstruse scribblings of some dead man, rather than soaring edifices of imagination.

Do not allow the magic of reading to die.


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Brian Scoles
23 days ago

Your post brings to mind two volumes: Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book, which I have not read, and it’s counterpoint, Alan Jacob’s The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. I absolutely loved Jacob’s book and his thesis: read at whim.

Finally, the French writer Stendhal is spot on when he noted: A good book is an event in my life.

Here’s to the pleasures of the printed page, and the books that change our lives.

Louis Kruger
Louis Kruger
22 days ago
Reply to  Brian Scoles

I have not read Jacobs book, although it is on my to be read list.

I have unfortunately bought a copy of How to Read a Book. I read about a quarter of it, and skimmed the rest. I found it to be superficial, pedantic and waffling, although it had a few nice ideas.

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.” ~ George R.R. Martin