Are you a lazy reader? I confess I am—and I love, LOVE, reading. When I dive into a book, I neglect of my family. My husband knows me well enough to forget about communicating with me on any meaningful level for a day or so until the book’s done.
But as much as I love books, somewhere between university and now I stopped reading critically. Like many people dealing with information overload, I consume as much as I can as fast as I can.
Shane Parrish, who writes the excellent blog Farnam Street, makes the case against a steady diet of blog posts and news bytes. His blog is about reading deeply on a wide range of topics, and presenting ideas that lead to meaningful understanding. Basically, how to be a better thinker through reading.
Blog posts are not enough to generate the deep fluency you need to truly understand or get better at something….
This goes just as well for book reviews, abstracts, cliff’s notes, and a good deal of short-form journalism.
This is a hard message for some who want a shortcut. They want the “gist” and the “high level takeaways”, without doing the work or eating any of the broccoli. They think that’s all it takes: Check out a 5-minute read, and instantly their decision making and understanding of the world will improve right-quick. Most blogs, of course, encourage this kind of shallowness. Because it makes you feel that the whole thing is pretty easy.
Here’s the problem: The world is more complex than that. It doesn’t actually work this way. The nuanced detail behind every “high level takeaway” gives you the context needed to use it in the real world. The exceptions, the edge cases, and the contradictions.
Two types of reading
Parrish (with help from Mortimer Adler in How to Read a Book), says there are two types of reading. Reading for information (or entertainment), and reading for understanding.
Reading for information is what you’re doing right now. Reading, or most likely skimming, the page for the key points. You’re trying to get the facts quickly. And that’s good! Skimming is an essential type of reading that gives you a sense of where the author is going, orients you to the content, and helps you decide if you want to read more. It’s only a problem if that’s all you do…scan and skim.
Reading for understanding is what you do to increase your knowledge. The content is more dense, and probably (but not always) comes in the form of a book. To really understand, you have to be an active reader.
Active reading begins with marking up your book with notes; underlining passages, words you don’t know, questions you have for the author. I used to read this way in university (I called it studying), but I very rarely do it now in day to day reading.
Caution, advanced training: How to read a book for understanding
So how do you read a book anyway? According to Parrish’s reading system, here’s what you do:
- Mark up the text. Yes, if it’s a physical book that means write IN THE BOOK. (some of you may be horrified by this idea, I know.) Underline things, make notes in the margins, and summarize each chapter. Become a Master of Marginalia like these guys: Mark Twain, Charles Darwin
By the way, my dad has read non-fiction this is the way for years. I can still find books and magazines in the house that are flagged with bits of paper (before yellow stickies), handwritten notes, and summaries taped to the front cover.
- When you’ve finished the book, set it aside for a week. No, you’re not done yet.
- Re-read all your notes cover to cover. Add more notes, questions, cross references to other works, and transcribe everything into a notebook or front-of-the-book summary you can easily access later.
- If it’s a really good book, read the best parts again, or the whole thing if you like. You’ll have a different perspective the second time through, which will help cement your understanding.
Are you kidding me? That’s takes too much time!
Reading for understanding sounds like a ton of work! Who has the time for that?
I’m not going to get into where to find the time to read. You all know the answer, so do what works for you.
And, I agree that you can’t do this for everything you read, but you can start to be choosy about the subjects that matter to you, and then step up your game for some real learning.
Some final tips for reading that makes you smarter
Because I’m on a learning curve of my own, trying to break out of a creative and professional rut, I’ve started reading this way again.
- Make sure you’ve got a balanced diet of informational and idea books. Don’t confine yourself to blog posts or newspapers. Read widely and deeply.
- Actively read by underlining important passages, making notes in the margins, summarizing key points at the beginning of each chapter.
- Ask these questions about a book:
- What is it about
- What are the key details
- Is it true? Are the facts fairly presented? Are there any holes?
- So what? What’s the significance?
- Commit to uncovering what you don’t know. Don’t skim over the tough words and concepts.
- Transcribe your notes from the book and decide on a simple system to keep track of them. Trust me, you won’t remember the important details no matter how much you convince yourself you can. Parrish uses Evernote and so do I, but a basic notebook will do, or a fancy reading journal.
As an experiment, I created this reading summary page you can print out. Stick it in a binder, or fold in half and slip inside the front cover.
Books that Changed My Life — From Farnam Street, and what an interesting question! Which books have changed your life?
How to read a book — Summary of Adler from The Art of Manliness
Podcast interview with another great curator of ideas, Maria Popova of Brain Pickings — Scroll down for timestamps from the audio
A Year in Marginalia: Sam Anderson — a peek into someone else’s notes
How do you read and keep track of what you read? What books have made an impact on you? Let me know.