Reading Better

This page pulls together my most essential information about reading better (non-fiction). It doesn’t matter if it’s a book, article, or academic paper. I’ll share how to choose great books, improving reading comprehension and recall, book recommendations, effective note-taking and how to create meaningful work by learning how to make reading a habit. I’ve tried to present the basics of everything you need to know to start reading better, even if you don’t have much time.

“It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.”

― Oscar Wilde

There are many benefits to reading more books, but perhaps my favorite is this: A good book can give you a new way to interpret your past experiences.

This works as a powerful way to make better future decisions and think clearly.

Of course, this is only true if you internalize and remember insights from the books you read. Knowledge will only compound if it is retained. In other words, what matters is not simply reading more books, but getting more out of each book you read.

Let’s explore the tested insights and frameworks that I’ve found to be most helpful.

At the end of this page, you’ll find a complete list of all the articles I have written on reading better.

Choose Books You Can Use Instantly

One way to improve your reading is to choose books you can immediately apply. Putting the ideas you read into action is one of the best ways to secure them in your mind.

Choosing a book that you can use also provides a strong incentive to pay attention and remember the material. That’s particularly true when something important hangs in the balance. If you’re starting a business, for example, then you have a lot of motivation to get everything you can out of the sales book you’re reading. Similarly, someone who studies philosophy might read Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, more carefully than a random reader because it connects directly to their daily work.

Of course, not every book is a practical, how-to guide that you can apply immediately, and that’s fine. You can find wisdom in many different books. But I do find that I’m more likely to remember books that are relevant to my daily life.

Quit More Books

If you are not getting anything out of the book, put it down, and pick another book.

When it comes to books, quitters finish more.

Don’t read every book page-by-page. You can skim the table of contents, chapter titles, and subheadings. Pick an interesting section and dive in for a few pages. Maybe flip through the book and glance at any bolded points or tables. This will give you a reasonable idea of how good it is.

Then comes the crucial step: Quit books quickly and without guilt or shame.

Start more books. Quit most of them. Read the great ones twice.

-Shane Parrish

Create Linked Notes

Creating notes is one of the best ways to read better. There are three steps to take notes that are helpful.

Writing in the Blank Page

The single biggest change you can make to getting more out of the books you read is using the blank sheet method.

Here’s how it works:

  • Before you start reading a new book, take out a blank sheet of paper. Write down what you know about the book/subject you’re about to read — a mind map if you will.
  • After you finish a reading session, spend a few minutes adding to the map with a different color.
  • Before you start your next reading session, review the page.
  • When you’re done reading, put these ‘blank sheets’ into a binder that you periodically review.

Why does this work so well?

The blank sheet¹ primes your brain for what you’re about to read and shows you what you’re learning.

When you first start with a blank sheet, you’re forced to search your memory and put on paper what you know (or what you think you know) about a subject.

As you read, you start to see that knowledge grow as you add new knowledge to the foundation. Often, you’ll even remove things you thought you knew.

Reviewing what you knew about a subject, as well as what you learned before a reading session not only improves memory and recall but helps connects ideas. While most of the early connections come from putting the authors structure onto your foundation, most the later ones come from you connecting ideas across disciplines.

If you don’t know anything about a book or subject going in, don’t worry. You’ll be able to borrow the authors scaffolding to get you started.

As your cognitive fluency in a subject grows, you’ll start connecting ideas across disciplines, disagreeing with authors about specific points, and even developing your own ideas.

When you’re done the book put the page into a binder. Review the binder every few months. This is essential for establishing deep fluency and connecting ideas across disciplines.

Interacting with the material

In order to understand what is written, you need to first interact with the material. You can do this by highlighting and recording what you are reading.

  • Highlight I categorize my highlight into 5 ways. I use a highlighter or a pencil.
    • */Yellow Highlight → General Highlight that I want to draw my eye to later on.
    • Ex/Pink Highlight → Example that is backing up main point I want to remember. I’ll mark that with Ex.
    • F/Blue Highlight → For further writing
    • Q/Orange Highlight → Quotes
    • ?/Brown Highlight → Passage that I disagree with or confuses me.
  • Record and Connect
    • I use Notion and Obsidian for my note-taking process. They work as my second brain. I like obsidian because it makes creating and following [[connections]] frictionless.

Synthesizing Inter-Linked notes

The point is to connect new knowledge to old knowledge and point out gaps in your understanding. Writing about what you read is a great way to see what you’ve learned.


Footnotes:

  1. This method was inspired by Shane Parrish