How do I read a book

November 5, 2020·6 mins read

I'm soon to become twenty-seven, and I complain almost about everything. One of my recent realizations is having no idea how to read a book. I had many skilled teachers, leads, mentors, but none of them taught me anything about that. I suppose I didn't ask the right questions, and they were as clueless as me. I want to believe it's about the system and people in charge who don't even know I am alive.

Well, hello? 👋

The Effortless Aphorisms

I try to solve my problems by attempting radical changes to trigger a chain of reactions. Everyone has a limit on the changes they can make at a time. But we never learn unless we push for it. Starting to do something from nothing wouldn't count as a revolution. It's a reformation of how we live.

I tried to start a new way of doing things when I moved to a new country two years ago. I began to walk around the neighborhood while listening to podcasts like The Knowledge Project and Tim Ferriss Show. I still recognize the cobblestones I was stepping while getting astonished by the wisdom of people like Naval Ravikant, Seth Godin, and Derek Sivers. Every sentence that came out from their mouth was like effortless aphorisms.

Wow! How do they know this much stuff? It must be something related to prosperity! Or the opposite.

Their most inherent trait is being uttermost aware of why they are doing what they are doing. Do I know that? I guess no; that's what I should get to find out first. How can I get better at what I am doing? Well, I suppose I need to know what's happening in the world and why I am here.

Why do I read

Like most decent accomplishments, wisdom doesn't arise overnight. As you can predict, another trait of the names mentioned is reading. They are quite skilled at learning and making use of the things they capture along the way. Combined with many other ingredients, they become more qualified and improve the execution factor.

As a start, I took several topics to get better and use reconnaissance along the way.

  • Self-help/productivity: to keep the lights on.
  • Creativity: to build things and solve problems of people like me.
  • Product/service design: to understand both people and issues.
  • Software engineering: a great form of leverage and absorbs all the points above.

During the past two years, I tried to read every day and take notes with a roughly 60% success rate. That made me read around 50 books and learn many things, which I attempted to integrate into my life. Some worked well; many I haven't figured out how to use.

I'm at the beginning and feeling like there won't be any spot for me to say "halfway there." No matter what, I rejoice in the process. It's more pleasant than playing 300 games of League of Legends with a bunch of 12-year-olds. I also did that during the quarantine and lost half of them.

I appreciate the existence of more people like me. A good nudge to get out of bed is to find a way to help them solve their problems.

Here we go.

"This is my original storino, please no copy pasterino."

The note-taking ceremony started by underlining everything that made sense to me. I was new to the literature, that means a lot of highlights. After finishing a chapter, I was either copy-pasting highlights from the Kindle to a document or rewriting what the book says.

In summary, that's how the process looked like:

  1. Start the book, read a chapter, highlight/bookmark.
  2. Carryover the highlights into a digital document.

The next day

  1. Skim the notes from the previous chapter.
  2. Read the next chapter.

Following days

  1. Repeat 4 and 5 until I get bored in the loop at some point.
  2. Stop taking notes in a place where things got intense.
  3. Finish the book.
  4. Now I have to go through it again because the note-taking part left behind.

Learning through repetition is a good idea. But that was a bit dull and easy to give up.

The best-case outcome of this approach:

  • Having a reference for the first X percent of the book.
  • Bunch of left-alone highlights waiting for someone to carry them over.
  • Few ideas of my own about the topic.
  • An example of this method, from Company of One

That was a positive start for awareness, yet not practical.

"Do you read me?"

Like the beginning of this story, it didn't take long to conclude that my method was inefficient. I could understand what I'm reading by the time I'm reading. Yet, little remnants after a couple of months. The time-sheets were filling up, but my notes were unavailing.

They lacked two things: interpretation and internalization.

Then I decided to try more concrete approaches.

Shorter notes, with my own words

Trying to retrieve an answer that doesn’t yet exist in your mind is like laying down a road leading to a building that hasn’t been constructed yet.

Scott Young (Ultralearning)

We memorize our actions better compared to what we perceive. Connecting the dots is much easier if we are the one who place them. So the intention is to build a simple mental modal of what each chapter says.

So here's what I'm trying to do:

  1. Take byte-sized notes while reading.
  2. Chunk by topic.
  3. Marinate them somewhere visible like in a wall or notebook.
  4. After several weeks, carry things over to text documents while skimming the book.
  5. Publish notes in this website.

To bring joy to the process, I ditched the keyboard-driven documentation. Now I have an iPad with Apple Pencil to feel more papery.

Here's an example from Make Time.

Random page from Make Time

This approach works better. Still, sometimes I get side-tracked by the rabbit hole called the internet. The other strategy is going all-in on paper. Sticky notes are great for logistics.

Here's an example from User Friendly, which I'm currently reading.

Sticky notes from User Friendly

Besides that, I started tagging the highlights based on their topic. It's helpful while taking action, which is a learning from another book: How to Take Smart Notes.


Listen to what other readers say

The social aspect is sabotaged by the pandemic, and there's not much to do about it. I read online discussions and listen to podcast episodes related to the books I'm reading. It also helps to discover new mediums to get recommendations.

Those try-outs are making an impact. I remember and think more about what I read and what to do with them. Yet, I haven't done much yet. That brings the next adversity: awareness of insufficient use.

Taking action

Now we arrived at a decent spot to sneak in this famous quote.

If I had eight hours to chop down a tree, I'd spend six hours sharpening my axe.

Abraham Lincoln

Do you remember what those heroic people I bowed at the beginning had in common?

Good, now it's our turn. The most effective internalization happens when we craft tangible things with what we learn. We have to make use of them. There's no other way than taking action.

A great book would make us want to do something, and there are many out there.