This Unconventional Way of Consuming Books Will Transform How You Read
I once believed in the sacredness of books — each one deserved to be read in its entirety. I’ve since abandoned my tired practice and reinvented how I read.
When’s the last time you listened to an album from beginning to end? Yeah, right. But of course you read books that way — I mean, who in their right mind wouldn’t? Turns out loads of people. The catalyst for my new reading regime was when a friend sent me this podcast featuring Angelist founder Navil Ravikant. Frequently dubbed the Yoda of Silicon Valley, he made the compelling case for:
Having no obligation to finish any book
“I came up with this hack, where I started treating books as throw away blog posts or as bite-sized tweets or Facebook posts, and I felt no obligation to finish any book,” confesses Ravikant. Within weeks of hearing this, I’d proudly joined the proponents of this untraditional approach. I no longer feel compelled to finish a book because I’ve given myself permission not to finish. The obligation I had felt since childhood had vanished and that guilt of not finishing has melted away. With this new revelation, I no longer waste time, and will never get stuck on a book again.
Ten years ago, the average American was consuming roughly 100,000 words a day. If you visit about 200 web pages a day — a pretty easy feat — you’ll have seen a whopping 490,000 words. That’s the same length as War and Peace. The problem is that very little information, if any, sticks with you. It surges out your brain faster than it came careening in.
The goal is to convert the information you read into knowledge. Bits and bobs, anecdotes, quotes, takeaways, passages, prefaces, epilogues, and more — that resonate with you are items that you may want to do something with. Perhaps it’s to share with a good friend or broadcast to the world.
“The impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it’s destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you” — Annie Dillard
The point is not to be a hoarder of what you learn but to actively process, share, deliberate, debate, and continually adjust your thinking through feedback. Whether it’s revealing what you read or writing what you think, if you fail to do this as Dillard warns: you open your safe and find ashes.
We must take care in what we learn as this is what we’ll know. When reading, there’s often a false feeling of fluency explains Faria Sana. A psychology professor at Athabasca University, she says that the information flowing in, “Actually doesn’t stick unless you put effort into it and concentrate and engage in certain strategies that will help you remember.”
Since we tend to forget most of the books we read, I’ve made it a point to not let that happen to me. Here’s how:
Scan the table of contents, mark what you want to read, and consider jumping in wherever you fancy
Scribble in the columns, underline, and yes dare I say it, dog-ear pages
Summarise the book (relevant passages) and in your own cryptic handwriting make notes on notecards. (Part of this process is inspired from Ryan Holiday’s notecard system)
Script a blog post (if possible) like this one, or even better yet, take notes like Derek Sivers does and Share them with the world
Speak to others on what you’ve learned or incorporate the best nuggets into a a talk (if that’s your bag)
Et voilà! Scan, scribble, summarise, script & share, then speak. You won’t need to look anything up in a secondary resource, the knowledge is living, breathing, and evolving in your primary one (that gooey mush between your ears). Like a Super Jeopardy! champion, recall everything on demand but with your own unique twist to boot.
The Forgetting Curve
When I first learned that others happily chose not to read books from cover to cover, I was horrified. The nerve of those who only read the parts of a book that interested them — silently dissing the author. What I thought a misappropriation of bandwidth, an ill-fated undertaking, a foolish strategy — was, in fact, the best way to get the job done. And that job, of course, is learning.
The forgetting curve marks the decline of memory retention over time. The curve to the left shows how information is rapidly lost when there is no attempt to retain it. The curve is steepest within 24 hours after you learn something. After a few days, you’re lucky if you can recall one-quarter of what you read. A few days in, and you’re a goner.
Your only hope against this rapid deterioration of retaining things you want to remember is by reviewing. Repetition is your godsend: re-read, re-engage, and continually discuss what you’ve learned. You’ll find you recalling most, if not all, of what you intended. Goes to show you school teachers were making a good point after all.
There is also sound logic in taking your sweet time getting through a book. Research suggests that if you want to remember what you read, space your reading out and let all the information slowly soak into you. We need to train our brains. We have to regularly take them to the gym for a mental workout. We shouldn’t outsource our minds, relying on Google, Wikipedia, Evernote, algorithms or AI to do the job for us.
Marketing legend Seth Godin has long argued that most non-fiction books can be summed up in just a few short pages (if not paragraphs). The core idea is sandwiched between a bunch of filler only to please publishers. Indeed, that’s why so many of Godin’s reads are exceptionally thin. Brevity also plays a large role in why his blog, with one simple new entry a day, is one of the top-rated in the world.
Plato wasn’t a fan of letters because he thought that writing would kill our need to remember. He was right. Writing did alter, if not murder, our memory. But I wouldn’t be writing this (nor would you be reading it) without the invention. Our duty is to do the best with what we’ve got.
Continuous Partial Attention
“To be busy, to be connected, is to be alive, to be recognised, and to matter,” writes Linda Stone. She coined continuous partial attention which is our vain attempt to not miss out on anything. Where attention is the currency du jour, we are cajoled to be always-on. It leaves us in a heightened and pressurized state of anxiety and with an “artificial sense of constant crisis.”
Consuming bits on the web — so often in a hectic and fractured fashion — is rewiring our brains (and not in a good way). In depth reading which usually takes place offline (in books) is where the real transformative media lives explains creativity expert Jocelyn K. Glei. Yet for modern humans, books in particular are notoriously difficult to read because our attention spans have dropped below that of a Goldfish’s whopping nine-seconds.
You have little hope of getting through Sapiens not to mention this very article. And rather ironically, this is precisely why Ravikant reads 10–20 books at any given time. If something isn’t relevant to him or doesn’t hold his attention, he simply returns to it later or abandons it altogether.
True, there is a “cognitive cost” in rapidly switching from one task to another. But having many books on the go is not multi-tasking — it’s just reading — and it’s a pretty darn good strategy too. While the churn of your book intake becomes remarkable, the most striking benefit is the connections you make between disparate topics.
Books seem to find you at the right moment in your life (and on occasion make more than one appearance). You decide to read the parts of a book that feed (and fuel) your curiosity — not to win a book tally championship. Reading is a tool to help you build skills over a lifetime.
Walking into a friend’s flat, I was happy to see my favourite books lining his shelves. “Wonderful books you have,” I casually remarked. “Oh I haven’t read most of them.” So were they just eye candy littered there to impress visitors like me? No, it was his reference library — a window into his aspirational self.
The mere presence of books could work their secret magic on you over time. Just today I was thinking about the father of economics, Adam Smith, and as a result I flipped open Work: The Last 1,000. For month’s it’s been reclining on my shelf anxiously waiting for me.
Keep your unread books around, buy more and spread them throughout your house — on the floor, coffee table, nightstand, kitchen counter, toilet tank — you name it. You’ll eventually get round to perusing that book. Or perhaps its contents might just flow into your brain through some form of osmosis.
Making it Stick
“How much of reading, then, is just a kind of narcissism — a marker of who you were and what you were thinking when you encountered a text?” writes Ian Crouch in The New Yorker. If it is a brand of self-absorption then so be it.
If you’re able to transmit what you’ve learned to others (or even recommend the book you just read) you take a selfish act and flip it on its head. In the process you become wiser and more generous — and I think that’s a winning combination.
For many like myself, one of the best ways to make information stick is to repeat it by teaching it to another. I often find myself quoting statistics that seem lodged in my brain. It happens frequently enough that I’ve become known to friends, colleagues, and students as ‘random fact guy.’ Did you know that more people are dying from selfies than sharks? Of course you did. But the quirk goes far beyond frivolous facts like this; one particular revelation — the rampant disengagement we see in the workplace — has upended my career.
Iget it, this reading regime might work for me but it ain’t going to fly for you. A leopard can’t change his spots you say. Ah, but he can change his dietary habits. If you don’t like your new practice, you can always go back to reading one book at a time from beginning to end. It’s alright. Perhaps I’m missing a trick. Or perhaps, you shouldn’t knock something until you’ve tried it.