This week, we’re talking about reading habits and skills since I’ve been getting a lot of questions about it the past few months. I’ve found there are a lot of misconceptions out there about how to read well, mostly picked up from when we were in grade school. In today’s blog, we’ll cover the three most common questions I get in regards to reading non-fiction:
1) How do you remember what you’ve read?
2) How do you read faster? And
3) How do you read more?
Let’s get into it.
1. Remembering what you’ve read
Let’s start with remembering what you’ve read since this is probably the most common question I get. “You read so much, how do you remember all of it?” Easy. I don’t. Nor do I expect me to. And neither should you. Think back to the last time you traveled to a new city for the first time. Maybe it was on vacation. Maybe it was a business trip. But chances are when you think back, you don’t remember a whole lot about that city. In your mind, it’s probably just this generic blob of sensation—visual memories and sounds and maybe even a smell or two. Now, let’s ask ourselves a couple of questions about this city. Where did you stay? Was it a house or a hotel? Do you remember what the street looked like where it was? Do you vaguely remember what part of town it was in? Did you eat anywhere near where you stayed? If so, do you remember what the restaurant was like? What kind of lighting did it have? What kind of table did you sit at?
What you’ll notice is that once you start drilling down into these more specific questions, memories appear out of thin air. You suddenly remember the dinner you had on the first day of your trip and strangely that the waiter screwed up your drink order. You remember that you met an Argentinian man at the bar and talked about cows. Weird shit like that. That’s because human memory doesn’t exist in a vacuum—it’s based on association. Most of your memories are dormant. You can’t actively access them whenever you want to. Instead, they must be unearthed by relevant events in the present. Books are the same way.
Most of the information you pick up in books, you won’t even realize you remember it until it becomes relevant to your life somehow. Someone mentions German unification and suddenly that book you read about Bismarck four years ago comes rushing back and you find yourself discussing things you thought you had completely forgotten two minutes ago. The problem is that most of us learn to read books for school. And school conditions us to assume that we should be able to actively recall most things we read. We shouldn’t. Human memory doesn’t work that way. We just did that to make decent grades on the tests we took. But this is not real life. You’re not being quizzed on any material. And if you do forget something, you can always walk over to the shelf, pick the book up and read the relevant sections again. Nobody is going to penalize you for forgetting.
So, in that sense, you don’t actually need to remember all the information in each book, you simply need to remember what information is in each book. All the stuff I write in these newsletters and on my website, I don’t remember it, I just remember where I saw it. And then I go pick the book up, flip to the appropriate chapter, refresh my memory, and write it down again. Voila. I “remember” shit.
2. You don’t have to read everything or read it sequentially
Since we’ve established that our reading should be optimized for usefulness and not cramming as much crap into our brains as possible, then it follows that we shouldn’t necessarily finish every book we start reading either. In fact, I go into new books with the attitude that they need to earn my attention, either through the quality of writing or the quality of information.
I have a personal rule if I get 10% of the way into the book and am still not enjoying it, I put it down and move on. Life is too short and there are too many books in the world. Or sometimes, what I’ll do is scan the table of contents and see if there’s a chapter later in the book that looks more promising. If so, I’ll jump to that chapter. Many books that I’ve “read,” I’ve actually only read chapters 1, 5, 6, 11, and 12. The rest of the chapters didn’t interest me, so I skipped them. And that’s fine. Remember, there’s no quiz! Similarly, if you run into a section in a book that isn’t interesting to you or that you already know a fair amount about—skip it! I can’t tell you how many psychology books talk about the damn “Marshmallow Study” from 1972.
I’ve read about it a dozen times at this point, so when I see it in a book, I skip it! I jump 3-4 pages ahead. And if I get 3-4 pages ahead or 3-4 chapters ahead and I realize there’s information I skipped that’s important, then I flip through the pages I skipped looking for the important information. In this way, sometimes I’ll read pages 1-25, skip to 55-65, realize I need to understand something on pages 32-36, read those, then go back to page 66 and carry on. Sometimes I’ll even do this on the same page. I’ll hit a paragraph that is repetitive. I’ll skip it. Then realize that I missed something, jump up halfway through the page, skim a few lines, find the info I need, then go jump back to the end of the page again.
The point of reading a book is to maximize the processing of interesting information. Reading sequentially and processing every word of every book is rarely the most efficient way to do that. In fact, unless the book is really interesting and/or really well-written, it’s never efficient to read it sequentially. Train yourself to learn how to skip and skim well.
3. How to read more stuff
And finally, like with most long-term activities, I find that people vastly underestimate how much time it takes to read “a fucking lot.” For many years now, I have consistently read 60-75 books each year. A lot of friends and family hear that and look at me as if I have some sort of superpower. But the fact is, my reading speed is only slightly above average.
My secret is that I schedule a time to read every day and rarely miss a day. Think of it this way. The average person reads a little less than a page a minute. The average book is about 300 pages. If you implement some of the non-sequential techniques above (and also don’t feel obligated to highlight or memorize everything), then you probably only end up reading 150-250 pages in an average book. That’s 180-300 minutes or 3 to 6 hours per book. If you budgeted thirty minutes a day to read and consistently hit it, that’s a book every ten days… or 35 books a year!
Add in flights, commutes, lunch breaks, or that occasional book that you simply cannot put down, and then that’s easily 50 books a year, or about one book a week. Not to mention, the more you read, the faster you become. Not just because you become a better reader, but because you’re able to skip over more stuff to get the point. I end up skipping through about half of most psychology books these days, simply because I’ve already been exposed to so much of the research in other books I’ve read. Reading a psychology book for me today probably takes half the time that it did five years ago.
So, no, it’s not some Herculean effort to become an insanely well-read person. It’s like anything else: do it intelligently, and consistently, week after week, year after year, and one day you’ll wake up having read a few hundred books and everyone will look at you like you’re some sort of freakish encyclopedia who knows and remembers everything—but really you remember nothing—it’s just that someone said triggered a memory about a book you read four years ago and a bunch of associated ideas came flooding back into your mind and now you sound super fucking smart.
See you next week,