Reading Better: Retaining and Applying What You Read (2022)

This article outlines how to get the most out of your reading. It doesn’t matter if it’s a book, article, or academic paper. We cover quitting, the levels of reading, choosing great books, improving reading comprehension and recall, and effective note-taking.

One of the benefits of reading is that it allows you to master the best of what other people have already figured out. This is only true if you can remember and apply the lessons and insights from what you read.

In my whole life, I have known no wise people (over a broad subject matter area) who didn’t read all the time – none, zero.

Charlie Munger

Let’s explore the tested insights that we’ve found to be most helpful.

Quit Books

Good books almost read themselves. Bad books are a grind.

When you pick up a good book, you feel it instantly. Not only are they well written and packed with ideas and insights, but they’re well organized. They flow. You want to read the next page.

Start books quickly and give them up easily.

Our desire to finish what we start sometimes works against us. Good books finish themselves. You can’t put them down. Trying to finish a bad book, on the other hand, is like walking through the mud with a wheelbarrow full of bricks.

Skim a lot of books. Read a few. Immediately re-read the best ones twice.

When it comes to reading, you don’t need to finish what you start.

Once you realize that you can quit bad books (or reading anything for that matter) without guilt, everything changes. You will never read a great book if your time is consumed with poor books.

Skim a lot of books. Read a few. Immediately re-read the best ones twice.

Levels of Reading

Reading the words on the page (or screen) is the easy part. We learned how to do this in elementary school. The problem is this is the only way we learned to read.

Tailoring how you read to what you read makes more sense. Not everything needs to be read with the same intensity. Some books only deserve a skim, while others deserve your complete attention. How much effort you put in relates to what you’re reading and why you’re reading it.

The Levels of Reading offer four different approaches to reading (from easiest to hardest). Most of our time will be spent between levels 2 and 3.

  1. Reading to Entertain — The level of reading taught in our elementary schools.
  2. Reading to Inform— A superficial read. You skim, dive in and out, get a feel for the book and get the gist of things.
  3. Reading to Understand— The real workhorse of reading. This is a thorough reading where you chew on things and digest them.
  4. Reading to Master — If you just read one book on a topic, odds are you have a lot of blind spots in your knowledge. Synoptical reading is reading a variety of books and articles on the same topic, finding and evaluating the contradictions, and forming an opinion.

Reading takes a lot of effort. You need to choose where to apply that effort to get the best return.

Speed Reading

Reading speed is a vanity metric. No one cares how fast you read or how many books you read last year. In the real world, what matters is what you absorb and apply.

Skim broadly to find something worth reading. Then dive in slowly and deeply.

Simple but not easy.

Choose Great Books

Improving what you get out of reading starts with selecting great raw material. Just as it’s harder to make healthy choices if your house is full of junk, it’s hard to get great insights from books that haven’t stood the test of time.

If you’re like most people, you’ll naturally be drawn to newer books. New books are full of sex appeal, marketing, and … sugar-coated lies.

While a few new books might prove to be valuable, the vast majority of them will be forgotten in months.

Time sorts the books worth reading from the ones that should be skimmed or ignored.

If you can’t tell which new books will be great and which ones won’t, let time filter them for you.

Time filters out what works from what doesn’t. And there is no need to waste time on books that don’t last.

Most of what you need out of new books (skill development, recipes, programming languages) can be found online.

Reading time is limited and should be directed at the knowledge that stands the test of time.

The opportunity cost of reading something new is re-reading the best book you’ve ever read.

Read old books. Read the best ones twice.

While this approach seems less sexy than reading the latest best-seller that everyone is talking about, most of those books will fail the test of time.

Taking Notes

The Blank Sheet

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

Over the years, I’ve tested multiple approaches, and this one works best for simplicity and effectiveness — it will 10X your comprehension overnight.

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

Here’s how it works:

  1. 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.
  2. After you finish a reading session, spend a few minutes adding to the map with a different color.
  3. Before you start your next reading session, review the page.
  4. When you’re done reading, put these ‘blank sheets’ into a binder that you periodically review.
Reading Better: Retaining and Applying What You Read (1)

Why does this work so well?

The blank sheet 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 see that understanding grow as you add new knowledge to the foundation.

Not only will you add new knowledge, but equally valuable, you’ll remove things you thought you knew that were not so.

Reviewing what you know about a subject, as well as what you have already learned before a reading session, not only improves memory and recall but helps connect ideas.

Most of the early connections come from putting the authors’ raw material onto your foundation. If you don’t know anything about the subject before you start, don’t worry. You’ll be able to borrow the scaffolding in the book to get you started.

As your 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 with the book, put the page into a binder. Review the binder every few months. This last step is essential for establishing deep fluency and connecting ideas across disciplines.

Conventional Notes

Forget the teacher that yelled at you for writing in your book when you were a kid. You bought this thing. It’s your property.You need to write in the margins.

Here is a very simple process to take notes while reading:

  • At the end of each chapter, write a few bullet points that summarize the main idea or specific points. Use your own words and not the authors. Try and connect it to something in your life — a memory or another idea. Also, make note of any unanswered questions you had while reading.
  • When you’re done with the book, put it down for a week.
  • Pick up the book again and go through all your notes. In a lot of cases, reading your notes will be as good as reading the book again.
  • On the inside cover, write out the main idea of the book using your own words. If you find yourself stuck, review your notes. (This is called the Feynman Technique). Writing is the process by which we often discover we don’t know what we are talking about.
  • You can even make a custom index on the back cover with themes or topics.
  • (Optional) Copy out the excerpts by hand and put them on the back of your blank sheet from above, or type them out and put them into Evernote. Tag accordingly.

The point of both conventional notes and the blank sheet is to connect new knowledge to old knowledge and point out gaps in your understanding.

Writing about what you read is the key to turning the experience of reading into knowledge you can use. Writing is reflection.

Reading More

You can’t get where you want to go if you’re not learning all the time. One of the best ways to learn is to read.

Reading habits don’t need to be complicated; you can start a simple 25 page a day habit right now. While it seems small, the gains add up quickly.

Above all else, remember that just because you’ve read something doesn’t mean you’ve done the work required to have an opinion.

More Articles on Reading

  • The Ultimate Guide to How To Read A Book —In How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler teaches us the four levels of reading to become a more effective reader. Learning how to read is more than just picking up a book and starting to read.
  • Choose Your Next Book —If you’re wondering what to read, here are two simple ideas that we can combine to help us choose what to read next.
  • The Feynman Technique: The Best Way to Learn Anything — The best way to learn absolutely anything. Devised by a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, it leverages the power of teaching for better learning.
  • Arthur Schopenhauer on the Dangers of Clickbait—Arthur Schopenhauer Schopenhauer reminds us that the existence of words is no indication of their truth and offers timeless insights on clickbait.
  • Why You Should Stop Reading the News —We spend hours consuming news because we want to be well informed. However, the news is, by definition, something that doesn’t last. As news has become easier to distribute and cheaper to produce, the quality has reduced.
  • Learning How to Think: The Skill No One Taught You —One of the best skills you can learn is how to think for yourself. Only we’ve never been taught how to think. Read this to learn how to think better.
  • Five Percent Better: The Compounding of Consistent Incremental Progress —Most of us think getting better is a binary process. The best people in the world, however, view improvement as compounding and adjust accordingly.
  • Arthur Schopenhauer: On Reading and Books —German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer offers a timeless meditation on reading, exploring what it means to read and whether it’s a path to acquire wisdom.

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