How to Read a Book

I read a lot, but sometimes the benefit slips through my fingers – often due to mere laziness. It’s difficult to retain ideas if you don’t apply the knowledge immediately. That’s especially true in the case of audiobooks, something that I’ve been experimenting with as a way to make the most out of long walks.

Yes, oral communication feels more natural. But a month after listening to a book, one I that recall holding some valuable passages, I find it hard to remember anything more concrete than the general theme and main conclusions.

The only way I know to reliably  take advantage of a book is by taking notes, and ideally by summarising the main points of the book in our own words. This is much easier to do on paper books, and relatively easy on eBooks. In the case of audiobooks, there are no proper markup systems, and recording or annotation is often not convenient. 

Note that all this is true even for those who mainly read for leisure, even fiction. The best fiction books have parts that are good to have on hand to revisit, but more than that, they articulate valuable knowledge that’s worth pondering.

So:

In the case of an audiobook:

  • Be aware of important passages. When an attention grabber comes up, pause and write a note on a separate app  (presuming you’re using a tablet or a mobile phone).
  • Try to summarise the book in 1000 words or so, no more than a week after you’ve finished listening.
  • Even better: after finishing each chapter, summarise it in 200-250 words.

In the case of a digital book:

  • It is simple to emphasize important passages. Sometimes even too simple, which results in highlighting whole pages. This is not productive. If one page – and the next – seems super important, bookmark it.
  • Consider leaving a small note with each highlight, with a word or an acronym that characterizes what the passage pertains to. For example “Leadership”, “BQ” (beautiful quote).
  • Of course, larger notes are always good, but it is not always productive to take a break from reading to ponder and write extensively about a passage. The great advantage of this format over the audiobook is that you can return later to do that sort of thing.
  • Using Amazon’s Kindle, you can access and copy all your underlines and annotations at Kindle Cloud Reader; using Apple iBooks, there is an option to send all the highlights and annotations by email; I send an email to myself, and then I copy it to my notes application.
  • The value of crafting your own abstract remains, but there is not as much urgency as in the case of audiobooks – we can always follow our notes and highlights later, and leaf through the pages preceding and following to remember the context.

In the case of a paper book:

  • Almost everything described above is still valid. To make it easier to find my highlights, I usually leave a sign (X for a highlight, O for a particularly important concept) or an acronym (again “BC”, etc) in the corner of the page. So later, I just flick through the corners.
  • I also use an empty page at the beginning or end to create my own “index”; I write the numbers of the pages that I highlighted, with a descriptive word at the front.
  • The practice of marginalia – writing on the margins – is an art in itself. Space constraints force us to be concise with notes. It is always good to revisit these brief remarks later and try to expand them to a few paragraphs, on a separate page. But do not neglect the exercise of doing them in the page itself.
  • Again, summarise the book. We can only say that we master an idea once we can explain it in our own words.

Bonus: A fantastic way to expand knowledge about any subject is by cross-referencing information from multiple authors. I use two acronyms to note this: VS. “Author” when there is disharmony, and CF. “Author” when there is agreement. (versus and confer )