How to Learn from Non-fiction Books

#1 Is it really worth reading?

Here’s this book a friend recommended you. Or that person you follow mentioned as being a good book. Or of which you saw some good reviews. But is it really worth reading… for you? To know that you need more info.

  • Read several Amazon/Goodreads reviews (read the 2-4 stars reviews, the 1 and 5 tend to be very biased or emotional).
  • Watch book video summary in 1.5-2x speed
  • Read book summaries / quotes

If you spend 1h doing this, and the book would take 10h to read, this 10% is a great investment. Not only are you getting a lot of learning going, but you could save 9h of your time. If you do decide to read, then you already get a headstart and will see the same things again (good for learning). Either way, this pre-reading time is never wasted.

#2 Know the whole first, progressively get into details

Study the table of contents to get a feel for the content, the main parts of the book and how they’re related.

Know the broad strokes of the book – What is the book about? What problems is the author trying to solve? How is it divided in chapters and the main structure of the content? Pre-skim the contents and the inside of the book to get the feel of what it is. Skim a few paragraphs here and there from start to end.

(Optional for in-depth studying of a book/text) read a first time in quick skimming speed, without concerning yourself with understanding.

Look for conclusions, and highlighted quotes. Few authors resist the temptation to sum up the chapter or book at the end.

In the book “How to Read a Book” the author divides the activity of reading a book in 3 main activities:

Inspection reading: to know the broad strokes about the book to assess whether it’s worth it to study it;
Analytical reading: to study the book.
Syntopic reading: to study a subject by comparison of books on the subject (for this it helps immensely to clarify what do you want to know, and what do you want to get from the reading

#3 Read and Listen

A trick to increase reading speed is reading while listening to the audio version at 1.5-2x speed. – You can get through most books like this in ~5-8h. However remember that speed reading ≠ speed understanding.

#4 Change Reading Speeds

Careful reading (speed understanding) and skimming (speed reading) according to how relevant/interesting the information appears to be. Variable speed reading, not speed reading, is the way to go. How many times have we started reading something because the title was interesting but after a while we find ourselves somewhat disappointed about the content? We then try to get to the end, because we don’t like to feel the icky feeling of leaving it half read. On other occasions the text has interesting gold-nuggets juicy paragraphs, but also many filler ones. Then there’s the fact that there’s simply too much information out there for us to consume, which means we need to be extremely selective. We need to be able to come to grips with the fact that not all information is equally useful, so we might as well accept that some things are simply not worth reading, considering the vast amount of better alternatives. Remember the 20/80 rule (finding the small things that yield most of the results). So in boring uninteresting parts practice reading only the beginnings (intros) and ends of paragraphs (conclusions), with the occasional middle just so you have a rough idea about what’s being talked about, but without really digging through the details.

To properly read something the reading speed must be adequate to the text. We should therefore, not always read at maximum speed, but know when it’s appropriate to read at which speed.

#5 Summarize

Method 1

Step 1: Copy the most important parts to a document. The gold nuggets.

Step 2: After you’ve read the whole book, and all the nuggets saved somewhere, color in red the crucial words which best represent the idea. – When we read we may copy the same idea expressed in different ways because we found them both interesting. The point here is to color unique crucial things. Here’s an example of when I was doing that for the summary of the book The 50th Law

Step 3: Rewrite, in your own words, those red parts, but do not limit yourself to what is there – Put things that you remember that are related to that, not necessarily from the book.

Method 2

Step 1: While you’re reading, write the parts you find the most interesting in your own words. It’s as if you were doing the previous method live, as you read.

Apply to either of the two methods: Write bullet points of what comes to mind that you can apply somewhere.

In a short paragraph, write/think what the book/text is about, kinda like a synopsis. The synopsis of Odyssey could be: “A certain man is absent from home for many years; he is jealously watched by Poseidon and left desolate. Meanwhile his home is in a wretched plight; suitors are wasting his substance and plotting against his son. At length, tempest-tossed, he himself arrives; he makes certain persons acquainted with him; he attacks the suitors with his own hand, and is himself preserved while he destroys them.”

As Aristotle says, “This is the essence of the plot; the rest is episode.”

#6 Don’t be a tape player

The spectator, listener or reader is many times presented with a series of elements, from ingenious rhetoric to carefully selected data and statistics to make it easy for them to make up their mind with minimum effort. But the packaging is so well done that they never really took active part in making up their own mind. Instead, they fed a pre-formed opinion in their mind, like inserting a tape in a tape player. Then they play that tape whenever appropriate to do so, without ever questioning it.

Judge only when you understand. Someone at some point may have said to you “i don’t know what you mean, but I don’t agree.” In this case, ask them to state your position for you, the position they claim to be challenging. If they can’t do it satisfactorily, then you are justified in ignoring their judgement. As all judgement that is not based on understanding, it is irrelevant. Note that this judgement can also be positive (agreeing). This happens a lot when people are approval seeking, or when the words and argument makes sense in a superficial review. Agreeing to a position we cannon express intelligibly in our own words is as bad.

A simple recipe for (dis)agreeing

State the proposition in your own words (to make sure there’s no miscommunication and that you understood the position), then (dis)agree, stating the reasons why.

Ways a person could be wrong (and by extension the argument they’re making):

  • uninformed (the person is wrong because they lack information)
  • misinformed (the person is wrong because even though they have information, it is wrong)
  • incomplete (the person is wrong because even though they have information, and it is correct, they didn’t analyse it completely, thoroughly)
  • illogical (the person is wrong because despite having all the right information and doing a complete analysis, they made mistakes in that analysis)

Many people regard disagreement as a matter of opinion. I have mine and you have yours, and I have as much right to have it as I have to own a property. But is it so? I would argue it depends on the subject, how subjective or objective it is.

#7 Don’t treat reading a non-fiction book as a passive activity

Since reading is an activity, by definition it can’t be truly passive. We can’t read with our minds asleep and our eyes immobilized. Reading is thought of as passive in the sense that it is receiving. But reading can be more or less active. One reader can be more active in the sense that they demand more of themselves and of the text before them (where it deserves that effort). There is one simple recipe for that – asking questions while reading, explaining and summarizing what you read in your own words, giving your own examples.

  • If i believed this, how would it affect my decisions/life in the next week? In the next 6-12 months?
  • I (don’t) agree because … (it is important to state good reasons when (dis)agreeing because not only it helps to make sure we understood, but to make our position clear and refutable/agreeable, and that we’re not simply disagreeing based on emotion/prejudice)
  • this chapter of the book was about… the synopsis of the book is…
  • What are the main arguments of the author? If they’re not explicit, make them.

#8 Remember that the author is human

There’s sometimes a tendency to accept a book as superior to criticism. You are a finite mortal defective creature. And so are the creations of such creatures. All things man made are defective in a way. A book, as a creation of such a creature is by extension also not perfect. Read, neither to disagree and refute, nor to agree and believe as the truth, nor to speak and argue, but to ponder and consider.



How to read a book

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