Like most of the things I do in my life, my approach to reading books is often seen as counterintuitive and sometimes bizarre. Still, if you have trouble building a reading habit and have tried all the other solutions out there, taking out tips from my playbook may help you. Let’s dive in.
Use Book Diversification (aka the 50/50 Rule)
Typically when you see pundits talk about their favorite books online, they go in one of either direction: a big focus on non-fiction (typically businessmen and thought leaders) or a big focus on fiction (typically creatives and artists). This should give you the hint that there’s a big gap waiting to be exploited for people who read both. I personally use the 50/50 rule — whatever I read, 50% of it must be fiction, and 50% of it must be non-fiction. Within fiction, certain parts must be poetry, prose, short stories — within non-fiction, certain parts must be business, science, biography, etc. etc. This makes sure that I’m getting a good helping of everything that’s out there. Remember, specialization is for insects.
Start with the Classics, Work Up from There
But what do you read? Well, I prefer to start with the classics — books that are highly recommended across the field by people who specialize in that branch. For fiction, this is easy — there’s an entire genre of fiction just called classics! For non-fiction, I use aggregators like Read This Twice to find books that are recommended across a wide variety of folks. I typically don’t trust individual recommendations since those are typically driven by individual taste, though if I recognize that the person and I have a lot in common in book taste I may pay closer attention.
Now, here’s a little secret I’ll let you in on: a lot of classics you won’t like. Just because a book is classic, doesn’t automatically mean that everyone likes them — it just means that a lot of people do. What focusing on classics does is instead filter out a lot of the not-so-good books, giving you a better chance of enjoying what you read but not necessarily a perfect chance. This filtering process is what some people refer to as the Lindy effect, though I believe it isn’t just tied to the amount of time in existence. If you aren’t vibing with a book, feel free to drop it!
The Book Should Make You Pay Attention
Now, here’s a controversial one. It is the belief of most “high class” readers that — particularly when it comes to classics — you should be paying close attention to what is being written. I spurn this idea. I believe instead that a book should make you pay attention, to justify its own work. If you’re reading a book and begin to doze off, that’s not the fault of you — that’s the fault of the writer failing to keep you interested.
But when you doze off, you fail to retain so much information! What will you do about that information you lost?
This is why we read widely. If I had a nickel for every time I read a concept in one book, didn’t get it, then read it in another and suddenly understood, I’d have enough to buy my entire Goodreads backlog. What you’ll notice over time in reading is that the majority of books talk about the same few concepts, over and over again. These concepts are called mental models. If you read enough, you’ll find that you get most of these ideas naturally — and you’ll get them from the writers that drive your attention the most.
Highlighting is the Best Form of Book Notes
There are a lot of theses in the world of book note taking. Some people say to always have something nearby where you can take close notes over everything you read. If I did this I would tear my hair out and never end up reading anything. Others say to never take notes, and read naturally. This I still don’t agree with, because there are a lot of connections that aren’t made if you don’t catalog them for later. So, what I’ve developed is something in the middle: the best of both worlds that is both simple and smart. The handy-dandy method goes as follows:
- I read a book. Duh.
- While reading, something catches my eye; a particularly poignant sentence or paragraph. I get out a highlighter, highlight it, and stick in a book marker for later.
- After I’ve finished the book, I take all the sentences I’ve highlighted and add them to a list. I call this list the “distillation” of the book.
I experiment a lot with how I do things like reading and working, but this highlighting method has stayed with me for three years now and I have no intention of changing it. It is shocking how effective it is, and especially so given the second step — and the last tip.
Use a Knowledge Base
A knowledge base, or a zettelkasten if you really want to sound like you know what you’re talking about, is a personal database that accounts for all the information you’ve learned over time. This process has been especially popular as of late, and I’m surprised it took this long to do so. Once I get a piece of knowledge into distillation form, I then split off the distillations into their respective “topics” in my knowledge base. From there, I use the sentences to build an actual article for that topic. For example, I may read a book on neuroscience. Most of those distillations from that book will go into the neuroscience topic on my knowledge base. I then re-read the sentences, and use the information to build out my own interpretation of the scope of neuroscience. It is a very handy way of making connections in what you read and then returning to those connections at later times. For many years I just used Google docs for my knowledge base, but I’ve recently switched over to Obsidian due to its nice interface and linking features.
Anyway, that’s a short summary of my reading process. Unlike other processes that I have, this one is pretty much set in stone, so I think it’s a good idea to write an article on it. Anyway, I’ll see you in the next post.