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Great question! In my fourth decade of life I’m finally figuring out the optimal way to do this myself. I’ve forgotten so so many books over the years that I supposedly read.

Read How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading by Mortimer Adler. (https://www.amazon.com/How-Read-Book-Classic-Intelligent/dp/...) I’ve given this book to a bunch of people on my teams as it also helps with communicating ideas which is vital as a programmer.

The wikipedia page for it is a good place to get an overview of what it’s about. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/How_to_Read_a_Book

Since reading it I’ve been keeping a notebook, some people might call it a Commonplace Book, with interesting stuff from the book. I find that I get a lot more from books from the act of writing it down and then reading those notes later when I glance at them while looking something else up in the notebook.

One big big big thing I learned from the book is to not read a non-fiction book like it was a novel. There’s nothing wrong with skipping ahead and finding out what happens later, in fact you should absolutely skim the book first. I end up finishing a lot more books by doing this since so many books aren’t actually worth careful reading. I am able to systematically skim a book including the TOC and index and determine if it’s worth reading carefully. A lot of books are so sparse with ideas that you can get most of them through this method. Only the good books are worth going on to the second and third stages and only the great ones the fourth stage.

Somebody wrote "Not to sound rude, but how can one judge what idea one needs to see as 'important' while skimming through the book if they have no clue of what the book is about?" and then deleted it. I'd still like to reply because it's a good question. Here goes...

That's a perfectly good question. I used to think that skimming was worthless, only something that people who didn't actually care about information did.

But if you think about how you are constantly judging the value of information everywhere throughout the entire day then you can see how we have to make some filtering decisions.

Systematic skimming is just another filter. If I'm going to dedicate 10 hours to reading the book carefully it makes sense to get an overview of the ground first. If the books I'm reading are from Alan Kay's list of greatest books you should read then I'm going to not worry so much about the filtering aspect of the skimming. If it's a shitty book with a catchy title in the business books section of the library I'm going to be much more skeptical and the filtering part of skimming is essential to not wasting time on crap.

Judge a book by its cover. Then judge it by its table of contents. Then judge it by some passages you read that looked interesting. Don't commit to a book until you've gotten a better feel for what's inside.

I recently started using kindle highlights along with https://readwise.io/ and it works like a charm!

Thank you very much for that tip! Tried it, fell in love with it immediately. It imported my highlights from my Kindle and from my iBooks library and shows me my Highlights in a much better way than Amazon's web interface is able to do (https://lesen.amazon.de/notebook?ref_=kcr_notebook_lib)

Also, it allows me to export all of my highlights.

Finally it adds a gamification dimension, showing me random five hightlights from my books.

PS: Through this site I learned that my Kindle highlights reside in a in file called `My Clippings.txt` (in /Volumes/Kindle/documents/My Clippings.txt) This is something I always wanted to know, because I have many books I uploaded to my Kindle device via USB (so no clound sync available).

What is the format of the 'My Clippings.txt' file? The reason I am asking is because I use Google Play Books most of the time. All highlights in Google Play Books is stored in Google Docs under "Highlights _Book_Name_" and I am wondering if readwise works for those.

Hey there, Readwise founder here.

Unfortunately 'My Clippings.txt' is a narrowly (and honestly, pretty awfully) defined format that Kindle devices generate. So that won't work for Google Play Books.

That being said, we want to build a separate Google Play Books importing tool -- it's on our roadmap!

What do you think about https://booxia.wensia.com ?

Do you mind expanding how you use that service?

I like this methodology, it’s like you’re dating a book before deciding to commit!

Indeed, that makes a lot of sense.

Also, while sometimes this could backfire, it's often useful to come to a book with some idea of what you want to get out of it and go digging for it specifically.

Skimming and evaluating a book, chapter or paragraph quickly is a skill that can be acquired with practice.

One of the reasons I love the kindle. I highlight my favourite quotes and phrases regularly and then after I finish the book I summarise it into an essay.

For instructional books I make a bullet point list of key learnings.

Amazing advice! I use a Kobo reader because it can be used without registration (do a quick search engine search on how to do this), and I transfer my epub books via usb using rsync. Turns out you can edit the Kobo's config file and turn on a feature that will export your highlights and annotations to a text file on the Kobo's root:


I never would have thought to look this up without reading your comment. Absolute game changer. Cheers!

I annotate my Kindle books as well. But at least twice now, I've lost all my annotations because the publisher "updates" the book.

I'm sure that problem won't exist forever (and it doesn't exist for titles that are never updated). But it certainly reduces my trust in the platform. Which reduces how much I take advantage of it.

Automatic updates can be turned off.

Under Manage Your Content and Devices, Preferences, there is an Automatic Book Updates item which you can turn off. Then if you want you can update books individually, or not.

I had no idea updates could erase highlights. I apologise for being lazy but do you know if all updates will erase highlights?

They do, yeah. As an author I'm desperate to get into a continuous deployment/iteration cycle for books, but the fact that kindle works this way really discourages it.

This is primarily how i built my english vocabulary. Seeing words in context and connection makes them stick better.

Wow this a game changer for me, did not know you could do this, thanks!

You didn't know you could highlight on the Kindle? Do you primarily use the Kindle web app? If you have an actual Kindle reader it sounds like you should read the manual in case you are missing some other nice features. I can't imagine using a Kindle without the highlighting or dictionary lookup.

There's a manual ? I will read it, good call.

How to Read a Book is great, and so is the sarcastic response How to Read Two Books: http://scriptoriumdaily.com/how-to-read-two-books-erasmus-ad...


I'm considering writing How to Read Ten Thousand Books, as mentioned to a friend in a similar discussion earlier. Once I complete the preliminary research.

Adler's book is indeed highly recommended.

I would be the first one to read it, maybe you'd really do it? Because I have a lot of books around mu house which I started reading, one is 1/2 finished, the other 1/10 finished, then there's another one that I started reading and left somewhere at work etc... And I have no idea how to deal with it because it's really hard to concentrate on one book, but when I switch to the other I have to go a bit backwards in order to remember the idea.

I'm at least half serious. The epigraph would of course com from Ecclesiastes.

An upshot is that you cannot in any meaningful sense read 10,000 books in a short period of time, though it's a tractable option over, say, a lifetime: 10,000 books in 60 years is 160 books a year, or about 14 a month. That's considering a new book every couple of days.

To which you could apply the techniques described in Adler's book. To add to that, you need some sort of information capture system that scales, such that you're aware of the books you've attempted to read, and what your quick-perusal impression was.

I'm also convinced that more information is useful only in a general sense. Information as with all else follows a Zipf or Power function fo significance and utility, both in area and time of impact. Much of what we are exposed to either doesn't concern much by subject, area, or time, with news being very high up on that list. News matters when current events have a high probability of impact on your life. The fact that newspaper readership in the US peaked during WWII, and has declined at a virtually constant rate ever since, has much to do with this. During the war, small events in faraway places could have a significant impact (and did). Since then ... not quite so much, and focus on individual events has proved largely less productive.

(Hrm: maybe the news is grossly misdesigned? That thought's occurred to me for quite some time.)

What you describe in terms of maintaining state and sense of place within a book is something I struggle with. The idea of learning and forgetting curves, and of paced repetition, should probably play into that. A key issue being "does this material warrant paced repetition?" Because if you've got to repeatedly process the information you hear, that's going to put a cap on what you can learn.

So, the idea of progressive reading not only of a given topic, but over the entire corpus is something you've got to consider. What's a reasonable progression through a set of works? Which is pretty close to saying "what is an effective pedagogy?"

The benefits of reading a wide range of works is that patterns, similarities, and patterns emerge. The disadvantage is that there's a great deal of repetition, and of course, a large amount of bullshit, some accidental, some intentional.

Not all bullshit is useless. Bullshit that's become culturally relevant and/or integrated is useful not because it's true, but because it explains and describes that culture. Reading with this in mind is useful, though also difficult.

And there's the problem of exposing yourself to repeated bullshit and/or toxicity. At a certain point that becomes damaging even when you're aware of it. The biggest problem with propaganda isn't that it's false, it's that it's effective even on those who create it. "Drinking your own Cool Aid" is a phrase because reasons, and some of the most harmful doctrines are harmful because their originators are fully convinced or swayed by them.

There's probably a rough structural outline of the work in these paragraphs, FWIW. Anything you'd add/remove/change?

There is also a nice short guide http://pne.people.si.umich.edu/PDF/howtoread.pdf which looks similar in approach to the 500 page linked.

This gives a nice, quick summary of different techniques!

I feel like there's a bootstrapping issue here, though. What do I read in order to learn to read How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler? Or do I merely read that book once, in order to learn the technique, before re-reading it?

Pick a section of a book you like and do an “Adler read” on that section. Identify the main question, supporting points, and conclusion of each of those sections in the margins.

Short passages or a couple chapters can be really rewarding. “What is the author actually connecting this to?” “Are these questions being addressed one at a time, or too many at once” etc.

We used Adler as a starting point for a bunch of school books and did these as assignments - while it was painful it upped my game and brought so much more out of the book.

I'm in the process of reading Adler's book now, and I've found it's pretty bootstrap-able. I've been able to apply the lessons as I go along, and I've even gone back to earlier sections and increased the "resolution" of my understanding so to speak by applying later techniques.

Yeah this was my EXACT complaint. Hopefully there’s an audio book version, or a 1-800 number you can call to ask to have it explained to you.

There is an audio book version: How to Read a Book, narrated by Edward Holland [0]

[0] https://www.audible.com/pd/How-to-Read-a-Book-Audiobook/B003...

Sadly not available in the UK

If you use audible.com, all you need to do is change the billing country to US. Suddenly all books previously unavailable can be purchased.

Country doesn't affect card payments in my case (Monzo) but worse case scenario you can use points.

Very interesting, thanks.

Hope that it’s designed to work even for people who don’t know how to read yet

I’ve been thinking about something along these lines. One example might be that the book contains a lot of information that you already know. In that case, skimming through might tell you which chapters or sections to skip, instead of having to read lots of stuff that you already know, or worse yet, get discouraged by the repetition of things known to you and never finishing the book, thus missing out on the good stuff that was “hidden” in the later parts of the book.

But as of yet I tend to read books cover to cover and either finish them or give up on them along the way. But I do take notes about interesting things, and sometimes I do little experiments with them also. My notes are a bit lazy in that often my notes consist of taking a picture with my phone, but I categorize the photos into certain albums.

That book also totally changed how I read for the better.

I tend to have two books going at a time. One I read seriously, usually in the morning and take notes etc. The other is purely entertainment band is usually an evening or weekend mornings book.

Regularly come back and flip through the notes you made, like what was most striking, it can weave a lot together even after days months or weeks have passed. Every book needs a notebook beside it to become the verbatim abridged version of what's valuable (at that particular time of reading).

> One big big big thing I learned from the book is to not read a non-fiction book like it was a novel.

I did a double-take until I read 'non-fiction'. Yes, absolutely, I agree. Large non fiction books need to be approached strategically for time saving's sake.

Fiction on the other hand, I adore taking my time :)

I lost my Commonplace Book with all my notes from my previous readings in a trip to a hospital. I'm still devastated even though I have a partial backup from photos I took before hand with my phone.

I'm sorry. I've found a Neo Smartpen (with tweaks) to help back up my notes.

> One big big big thing I learned from the book is to not read a non-fiction book like it was a novel.

Do you mean to say: "is to read a non-fiction book like it was a novel"?

The opposite. Non-fiction books should be read in multiple passes, like a video encoder.

- First pass: Understand the structure, important words (from index), some interesting passages.

- Second pass: Read it all the way through, don't worry if you don't understand stuff

- Third pass: Look up stuff that you didn't understand from the previous pass and read it again in order to understand them.

- Four pass: Read it concurrently with other related books to try to truly understand the topic

I would go so far as to say all books should be read in an iterative manner, fiction or not. Good stories will reveal previously-missed tidbits again & again as you explore the deeper structure of the work.

Deep reading should be saved for books worth the effort.

There's far more written than you'll ever be able to read. The cost of discovery is a large impediment to that.

Skimming / scanning (contents, index, bibliography, intro/conclusion chapters) is part of the informational assessment. If the book holds up to that, keep digging into it. If not, set it down, and feel no guilt.

I'm reading a lot of material, though I'm not satisfied with my methods or progress. I've found Adler's book highly useful. The principle problem is that my interests have both breadth and depth sufficient that the volume of relevant material is enormous, and quality assessment is complicated. I'm doing the best I can.

I should clarify- I fully agree with your assessment. Sturgeon's law holds true with books as much as anything, and there is plenty that can be tossed aside after only a cursory glance.

My point was aimed along the lines that if a book is worth reading once, you will benefit from rereading it at a future date.

On that point I agree entirely.

What's impressed me is how much a book can change ... or was it me ... over time, as I've learned and been exposed to more things and experiences.

Some improve, some are less impressive.

No, the comment was suggesting to not read a non-fiction book like a novel.

When reading a novel, you wouldn't skim it and skip ahead to find out all the plot twists and surprise ending and spoil all the suspense and fun.

With a nonfiction book, you're not worried about plot spoilers. You want to learn from the book. So skimming through it to pick up some of the gist before reading it in detail is a fine idea.

In general, I agree, but this is not always true. Some non-fiction books read very much like fiction. An example that I recently finished is Endurance by Alfred Lansing, which tells the story of Ernest Shackleton's failed mission to cross Antarctica on foot in 1914 (they got stuck in the ice only a few miles from land and spent the next year and a half stuck drifting on the ice before making an escape attempt when they finally reached open water).

Lansing spent years doing research for this book, including interviewing all the living crew members, and it is 100% true. But it has a proper plotline, fantastic character development, and a very climactic and happy ending. Reading ahead won't exactly ruin the story (the basic points of the mission are commonly known anyway), but there's no advantage to doing so.

In other words, some non-fiction books are novels too, and they should be read like novels.

Your example is technically not fiction, but as you point out, its main purpose is to enthrall the reader with a compelling story, not to convey a large amount of dense information in the way that textbooks, manuals, and academic papers do.

If a reader wanted to extract and retain as much information as possible from Endurance (say, if they were studying it in school, or read it but found they didn't retain a lot of the key points), they would still benefit from skimming, skipping around, taking notes, and other advice provided in this post. This advice applies to anyone who wishes to extract and retain information and understanding from any given piece of text, fiction or non. Just don't spoil compelling stories for yourself unless you really want to.

Oh ok! I skip through long-winded details in the novels all the time, hence the confusion. Thanks for the clarification!

"How to Read a Book" prescribes reading a book 3-4 times. Just the sheer repetition will help you get more out of it.

What does your commonplace book look like? Is it a tome you keep on your desk, or is it portable?

I personally like the Baron Fig, it's exactly the same size as the iPad mini, so portable, but not pocketable. I actually keep two: one for scribbly notes and the other for my more thoughtful notes. Took me a while to get over making mistakes in the nice one, but I'm fine with it now and it doesn't hinder my writing.

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