Reading is a super power. I’m lucky that from as early as I can remember, I’ve always read. It’s a tremendous source of knowledge, insight and learning. In an age when most people don’t have the attention span to read, those who do will invariably have an edge.
But to get the most out of reading, it’s not enough to just read. Sure, that’s good on it’s own but the best results come from reading those books that challenge you mentally, that you have to give a lot of thought, attention, effort to get through because those are the books that really unlock the next levels for you. I remember years ago when I was struggling with unbelief. One of the books that explained the natural world and the necessity and logical consistency of the supernatural was Tractatus Logicus-Philosophicus by Ludwig Wittgenstein. It was no easy read. It took me weeks just to cover the first ten pages. I had to read sentences over and over and over. However, by the time I cracked the book, I knew I had become smarter and when I finally came to the place of belief that I walked away from, I knew no atheist could ever sway my belief again. My understanding was deep and fundamental. That’s what great books do for you. My life has been helped tremendously by several biographies, classics, difficult but very helpful books.
But like I said, great books are not easy to read. So my goal is to share some tips with you that should help you lose that feeling of intimidation that comes with great books and start getting the most out of them.
- Break out of the school mindset.
School forces you to remember bullshit obscure details so you can pass an exam that just proves you read the text. Take Things Fall Apart. School wants you to remember that Okonkwo’s village is named Umuofia, or that Nworie was his second wife and all such unhelpful things that you forget as soon as the text is over. Don’t worry about those things, they’re unimportant. Get the story behind those details, understand the principles on display. Okonkwo resisted and tried to fight change instead of accepting its inevitability and following it. That’s something, among many, you can get out of that story that is more helpful than the extraneous details school forces you to remember. Read for you. Read for meaning. Read for applicable principles and big picture understanding. Don’t sweat small stuff.
2. Ruin the ending
Google the book, read the Wikipedia entry, try to understand what it’s about even before you start reading. What you want is to have a framework on which to hang the contents you’re about to devour. I remember when my tutor tried teaching me Calculus by starting with differentiation, integration, dy/dx. None of it made sense. I had to go back and understand why calculus as a subject exists, what it attempts to do. Once I understood the big picture, that it’s trying to track motion of circular bodies and measure curved spaces, I could then see how differentiation and integration fit in. Do the same for great books. Understand them conceptually even before you start getting into their contents.
3. Read the Preface, Author’s Notes and All that
I know, I skip that too in most books, but this isn’t reading for entertainment. Go and read those things. Get what the author/editor/curator is trying to do so that when you eventually start reading, you get the context and the content becomes more useful for you. It becomes more of a conversation. If you don’t do this, you may not be getting out of the book what the author wants you to.
4. Look things up
Don’t skip over that word you think you know what it means. Look it up and then reinsert that meaning into the text. If the book is discussing an event, Google it. If it’s discussing a place, try to research to get a better picture of it. You want to do this so that you’re speaking the same language and seeing the same things as the writer, mentally speaking.
5. Mark passages
This is something I’m just getting into myself, learning how to use Post Its to mark spots for reference. It’s better than just highlighting or underlining because you can go back to specific parts to grab what you need, not just scan the whole book for all your highlights.
It’s not a great book if you grab it the first time. Always schedule time to read it again and this time, you’ll likely flow with the writing and the lessons and meanings will sink in better. Some people recommend writing out passages that stick out on an index card, classify them with a theme and store them in a box. This is something I’ve never done but it might just be necessary because it preserves some of the knowledge you’ve gleaned in an easily retrievable way. I’ll try that myself and tell you how that worked out.
This is another thing I’m only just getting into due to me taking my Bible reading a little more seriously. But there’s no reason to limit your memorization to just Bible passages. Quotes from great books can be applied in so many contexts and it’s good to have them handy in your mind. This is another area I’m new to so I’ll have to do it for a longer time to share my experience with it.
You were taught to read and write for a reason. The two complement each other. When you read, write down the points as they occur to you, write on the margins of the books, sketch out ideas and illustrations on a rough paper. These are not items you necessarily have to keep, but just aids that help you more easily synthesize the ideas you’re encountering.
All of this sounds like a lot of work, because it is. Learning to read above your level will involve going the extra mile but it has so much to recommend it. Truth be told, school will only teach you so much. To truly get the knowledge you need to achieve your goals, you have to embrace life long, largely self directed learning. I hope the tips above will help you do better with that.
If you have tips that work for you, do share them as well.