How I get the most from reading Nov 13, 2016

One of the most rewarding things I've done in my adult life has been becoming a more proficient reader. I've been intentional about improving in this area, and it's led to a lot of my personal and professional growth. I want to share my process so that others can benefit from what I've learned, and get the same reward from reading.

Here’s my system for reading. There’s two main paths - physical books or Kindle. I don’t listen to audiobooks much. My tools:

Before starting a book, I read all the chapter headings. Then, if I know it’s a heavy book, I’ll look for a summary. If there’s no summary, I’ll read the first and last sentences or so of each paragraph near the end of a chapter. The goal is to grasp the argument the book is trying to make so that I can think about the broader context through each chapter.

Physical Books

With physical books, I underline as I read. I also write notes in the margins, but usually not too much. A sentence or two in the right place helps capture what I thought about the passage when I was reading it. I try to stick to main ideas and quotes that stick out.

Sometimes I’ll write a few sentences in the margins summarizing the chapter I just finished. I get a lot out of this, but it requires more time and discipline.

Once I’ve finished the book, I’ll leave it for a bit. Maybe a week or two, maybe longer. Then, I’ll come back and start entering my highlights into Evernote. For this, I use Mac’s speech to text. I find it to be accurate and far, far faster than trying to type it out. Saying the text out loud also adds a different dimension to it, and likely helps with recall.

Kindle

Like physical books, I make highlights and take notes on the most important ideas and quotes in the book. I’m a bit more liberal with Kindle because highlighting is easier (particularly on Android or iPad). Ironically, I’ve lately been preferring the Kindle app for Android over the actual Kindle. Money well spent.

Once I’ve finished and left the book for a bit, I’ll come back to it to pull out the notes. For this, I use Bookcision. Install the bookmarklet and go to your Highlights in the Kindle web admin. Find the book, and click the bookmark - voila, a plaintext version of your notes!

From there, I’ll copy the notes into Evernote. All my reading notes in Evernote are in a notebook called Reading, tagged with “.reading notes” and “.book name”.

A pro-tip for Kindle - highlight sub-headings. The headings will be included in your reading notes, making it easier to re-create the structure the author used and orient yourself later on.

The Summary

After putting the highlights into Evernote, the next step is writing a summary. I try to keep them grouped by the arguments in the book or by chapter to help build mental chunks. I pare out any filler and work the highlights into complete sentences and thoughts. Writing a summary does a few things. First, it makes you re-engage with the material and forces you to figure out how the pieces all fit together. Second, it create reference written in your own language - useful when it's 8 months later and you want a refresher.

Next step

The next step that I want to embark on is bringing my book notes into Anki for spaced recall. I get frustrated when I read a book and a few months later can’t recall core concepts, so hopefully this helps.

Resources

I've collected my favourite resources for getting better at reading here.