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Sunday
Feb262006

How to read a lot of books in a short time

Pile of booksWe now accept the fact that learning is a lifelong process of keeping abreast of change. And the most pressing task is to teach people how to learn. -- Peter F. Drucker

As part of my self-planned Master's Degree in Personal Productivity I've been reading non-fiction rather voraciously [1]. For example, I usually have 3-5 books going per week, with replacements arriving regularly [2]. The topics cover productivity, personal growth, consulting, networking, and creativity. However, a significant problem I've encountered is a certain "tyranny" of reading for education (rather than for entertainment), and it has threatened to turn the process into a form of aversion therapy.

Naturally, because my goal is to learn, the reading involves work. But the question is: How can one read efficiently, capture relevant ideas in a usable way, and keep the process sustainable and enjoyable? The rest of my post summarizes the best solutions I've found, but the most useful technique comes from Jason Womack [3], and synthesizes nicely the most common ideas. In a nutshell, he says he reads the book four times:

  1. Table of contents, glossary, index.
  2. Anything in bold, titles, and subtitles.
  3. First line of every paragraph.
  4. Entire book

Here's the twist: Steps 1-3 should only take about 10 minutes. To capture relevant information he uses a note-taking scheme involving putting dots in margins, and cross-referencing them in an index in the book's front. When done, he transfers them to a text file.

After adopting his system with a slight variation (I dictate my notes into an inexpensive cassette tape recorder, then transcribe them into my system [4]), I've found it works great. I can very quickly scan a book, decide if it's worth reading in depth (steps 3 and 4), and which sections are likely to be most relevant to my goals. My only other point is to note that I seem to need a balance between non-fiction and fiction. (My current ratio of non-fiction to fiction is about 5:1, but should probably be more like 3:1.)

I'd love to hear your suggestions and tricks!


Related methods

Following are related articles, each with its own twist. The common point, though, is to efficiently find ideas that are relevant to your goals, usually via some sort of skimming. The big change for me (some slight embarrassment here) was the realization that I didn't have to read the entire book word-for-word!

In How to read a business book, Brendon Connelly suggests marking up (tagging) interesting passages with a master index at the back of the book. He also contributes tips on where to read, pens to use, etc.

The classic How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life (by Alan Lakein), suggests reading books like newspapers. The main points:

  • Put a new book into your inbox every day, and take the old one out, even if unread.
  • Then read the 'headlines' on jacket (most significant points).
  • Then glance through it quickly, noting items of interest, taking about the same amount of time as reading a newspaper.
  • The goal: Find the key ideas and understand their applicability to your situation.
  • Use the preface, table of contents, and summaries at beginning and end of book.
  • Read details only if a) it's meaningful, and b) it's involved.

This approach allows gaining value in a surprisingly short time. It's good because you see more books, and are more likely to see really good ones. Also, you get efficient at skipping lower quality works.

In Open Loops: A Quick and Dirty Reading Strategy When Time is Short, the section "How To Find the Essential 20%" lists these points:

  1. Read the title of the material.
  2. Read the introduction.
  3. Read the Table of Contents.
  4. Flip through the material, scanning the chapter titles and sub-headings.
  5. Look at the illustrations and captions.  Look at the charts and diagrams.  Read the pull-quotes and sidebars.
  6. Scan through the index looking for your particular business’ buzz words.
  7. Now read the first chapter (or in a shorter work, the first paragraph).
  8. Flip through the book and read the first sentence of each paragraph.
  9. Read the last chapter (or paragraph in a shorter work).  If there is an executive summary, read it.
  10. Read any other information on the cover or dust jacket.

In How to Study and Make the Most of Your Time, an approach is presented that I found was commonly recommended to students:

  • Schedule important work.
  • Ask yourself questions as you read - read to answer questions.
  • Use SQ3R: Survey, Question, Read, Recite, Review.
  • Try to develop an overall concept of what you have read in your own words and thoughts. try to connect things you have just read to things you already know.
  • Every paragraph contains a main idea - make it a habit to find the main idea in each paragraph you read.
  • Think!

The article Leading Forward: How to Read and Digest a Book! (apparently gone, but still in - Google's cache) recommended five steps: Selection, Preparation, Read Actively, Reflect for Insight, Systemise for implementation. This was in the minority in that it addressed how to use the information after reading.

Finally, from The Great Big Book of Personal Productivity, by Ron Fry: To summarize the skimming process:

  1. Read and be sure you understand the title or heading. Try rephrasing it as a question for further clarification of what you will read.
  2. Examine all the subheadings, illustrations, and graphics. these will help you identify the significant matter within the text.
  3. Read thoroughly the introductory paragraphs, the summary, and any questions at chapter's end.
  4. Read the first sentence of every paragraph.this generally includes the main idea.
  5. Evaluate what you have gained from this process: Can you answer the questions at the end of the chapter? Can you intelligently participate in a class discussion of the material?
  6. Write a brief summary that capsulizes what you have learned from your skimming.
  7. Based on this evaluation, decide whether a more thorough reading is required.


References

  • [1] In his article Read a Book a Week, Steve Pavlina explains a meta reason for reading voraciously:
    But the actual knowledge and the new distinctions you gain from reading are not the main benefit. My experience has shown me that the real benefit comes not from what you read but rather from the habit of reading. When you read a new book every week, you condition your mind to keep taking in new knowledge. Your thinking remains fresh and sharp. Your brain is always churning on new ideas, looking for new distinctions it can make. Every day you pour in more ideas, which your brain must find a way to integrate into your existing knowledge base. Frequent reading fires up your neural activity, even during the periods when you aren't reading.
  • [2] Preferred sources: 1) My local library (which supports web-based requests), 2) Amazon's used marketplace, and 3) Amazon's new books. However, I've recently been exploring ebay's books section. I'd love to hear others' experiences buying from ebay...
  • [3] Via personal correspondence.
  • [4] See My Big-Arse Text File - a Poor Man's Wiki+Blog+PIM and Pickle jars, text files, and creative idea capture.

References (1)

References allow you to track sources for this article, as well as articles that were written in response to this article.
  • Response
    In addition to all the excellent suggestions above, I'd add my post: How to read a lot of books in a short�time: http://www.matthewcornell.org/blog/2006/2/26/how-to-read-a-lot-of-books-in-a-short-time.html . One key is not reading the entire book!

Reader Comments (64)

Matt -

This is a fantastic post! Like you, I usually have several books going at once. I'm not a very effective reader, however, so I don't get the greatest value out of them. These pointers look great. Thanks!

Don

February 27, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterDon

"The big change for me (some slight embarrassment here) was the realization that I didn't have to read the entire book word-for-word!"

Matt,

I really struggle with this. I feel that I will miss something if I skip any part of the book. I bet that this is especially difficult for a programmer like yourself who has learned to pay close attention to all the details.

great post.

Tom

February 27, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterTom

Thank you very much, Don. I really appreciate the encouragement. Please let me know if you find something that works well for you - we could all use some good tips, I think.

February 27, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

I really struggle with this. I feel that I will miss something if I skip any part of the book. I bet that this is especially difficult for a programmer like yourself who has learned to pay close attention to all the details. It's helpful to hear I'm not the only one. And yes, I admire your insight - I tend toward a black-and-white view of things, which this current exploration is helping with.

great post Thanks a ton, Tom!

February 27, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Best book on how to read a book: How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler. This is the standard by which all others are measured and required reading in many college courses.

You can also find some good overviews of the book online.

February 28, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterJustin Smith

Thank you very much, Justin. I'm very interested in reading [ How to Read a Book | http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0671212095/sr=8-1/qid=1141149672/ref=pd_bbs_1/102-4918507-0313735?%5Fencoding=UTF8 ], and I appreciate the solid recommendation.

February 28, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Great post. I am not a fast reader, so these tips are very useful.

fyi - I was able to find the new location of the "How to read and Digest a book!" post here:
[ The Practice of Leadership | http://www.thepracticeofleadership.net/?s=read+and+digest ]

Lots of other interesting stuff on his site as well.

Thomas

March 1, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterThomas Wolfe

Thank you for the updated link, Thomas. I agree - a great site. Thanks for reading!

March 1, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

FWIW, here is my process: a key to remember is that most books are several hundred pages long, not because they have that much material, but because there is a need to provide perceived value for money, and that seems to be measured by the pound rather than by the dollar (computer books especially.)

1. As before, read the table of contents, and try to get a model in your head of what the book as a whole contains. (Also recognize that most books have very poorly written tables of contents.)

2. Skim the whole book, looking at display material such as titles, diagrams, graphs, tables (lightly) and so forth. Again try to incorporate that into your cognative model of what the book is about.

3. Many books have summarys at the end of each chapter (and sometimes at the beginning), for many of these books you don't need to read anything except the chapter, the rest is just fluff or supporting material.

3. Begin with the earliest chapter that seems relevant to your needs. Before reading the chapter, reskim it as above, and try to build a more detailed congative model of what this chapter is about.

4. Read the chapter. However, this is the most important thing: write at the top of each page, as you go, what information is on that page.

5. At the end of the chapter (feel free to skip bits you don't want to read), reskim the chapter to reestablish the cognative model, then write at the beginnging of the chapter a summary of what is in there. (I often also write this summary on the table of contents.)

6. Go the the next relevant chapter.

It is important to write on the page, as you read the page. Don't turn until you have written. This is a simple practice of re-establishing in your mind what your read. It also provides a summary for the future. Most people forget nearly everything they read in a book within a week.

One final tip is to write a summary of the whole book.

Of course, only write in books you own!

4. As you

March 1, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

Thanks a bunch, Anonymous. I appreciate your tips.

March 2, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Some great ideas here! I'm a pretty slow reader, and don't have a great memory. One of the best ways I find to get the most out of a book is to blog about it -- an extension of the idea of writing a summary ... only making it public. By making it public, it forces me to get clearer about what the main points are ... and if I get them wrong, or miss some, others are sometimes willing to help out via comments.

My first attempt at this was Tim Sanders' book [ Love is the Killer App | http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1400046831/ref=ase_gumption-20 ] ( my blog entry about my take on the book was entitled [ BizLove | http://gumption.typepad.com/blog/2005/12/bizlove_is_the_.html ] ). I've since applied this to [ a few other books | http://gumption.typepad.com/blog/books/ ], and plan to continue this practice.

March 3, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterJoe McCarthy

Great comment, Joe - thanks. I guess that's part of why I get so much out of blogging; at first, just writing (and the requisite thinking), then deepening through interactions.

Well said.

March 3, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Matt,

Great article!

The "Leading Forward" link to the Google Cache has apparently expired. However, [ it's available | http://web.archive.org/web/20050331061755/http://leading-forward.blogspot.com/2005/02/how-to-read-and-digest-book.html ] via the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine.

The Wikipedia entry on [ How to Read a Book | http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/How_to_Read_a_Book ] has some links to early editions of the book, available online for free. I attempted to tackle the print version, but ultimately I felt that the long-windedness of the writing warranted skimming instead. There's definitely some good information in there though.

When reading, I like to use the Post-It flags to mark sections I want to return to for note taking. Another trick that I've found useful is to put some key phrases or headings from the book into Google. Often, I can find someone else's notes to use as the basis for my own. And I agree with Joe that once you've taken notes, making your [ book notes | http://www.minezone.org/wiki/MVance/BookNotes ] public can be useful to others.

- Matt

April 3, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatt Vance

Hey Matt - Thanks very much for the compliment, for the improved link, and the Wikipedia article with links to free copies. Very helpful.

Regarding long-windedness, I'm in agreement. I've heard others make the claim that authors are encouraged to write a lot so that their books will provide more "words/pound." I prefer the small gems that get the big idea across efficiently. Thus the skimming technique...

It's interesting to me to hear how you use Post-Its. I gave this a try with the book
[ The Success Principles | http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0060594888/qid=1144096884/sr=2-1/ref=pd_bbs_b_2_1/104-8085125-4087950?s=books&v=glance&n=283155 ] (by Canfield and Switzer), but I stopped at around 30 notes because it was getting a bit much. (The book has its limitations, but I found lots of things I wanted to remember the time.) I'd be curious to hear if you've encountered this problem.

Finally, I'm really glad you mentioned your "Google the key phrases" idea. I immediately realized I do the same thing, which sometimes transcribing time as well!

Thanks for reading, and for your excellent book notes.

(Other readers might not realize that Matt's got a ton of great [ book notes | http://www.minezone.org/wiki/MVance/BookNotes ], and his [ Getting Things Done | http://www.minezone.org/wiki/MVance/GettingThingsDone ] page is an oft-linked-to classic.)

April 3, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Hey Matt,

I REALLY enjoyed your post, and your overall blog. Could you please post (and keep a running list) of the books that you are reading as part of your new education?

I have gotten semi-involved with the [ Personal MBA | HTTP://WWW.PERSONALMBA.COM ]. I have found that some of those books may make it onto your list as well. The actual list of books is at creator Josh Kaufman's HTTP://WWW.JOSHKAUFMAN.NET/PERSONALMBA .

Thanks and keep up the good work that you do for the GTD community.

April 7, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMichael

Sorry...I screwed up the links in my post above. I have never posted URL in a Blogger post before.

The Personal MBA link should be http://www.personalmba.com/.

The last sentences should end Josh Kaufman's SITE with the link to http://www.joshkaufman.net/personalmba/.

Sorry for screwing it up. :S

April 7, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMichael

I REALLY enjoyed your post, and your overall blog.

Thanks very much, Michael. I always appreciate your comments.

Could you please post (and keep a running list) of the books that you are reading as part of your new education?

That's a great suggestion - thanks for asking. I've been asked a few times for this, so it sounds like it's time to add it!

Regarding the Personal MBA, thanks for the links - [ The Personal MBA | http://www.personalmba.com/ ] and [ Josh Kaufman's site | http://www.joshkaufman.net/personalmba/ ]. Would you recommend a good starting book for someone like me who's getting into business and wants to understand how it works? I need to understand where my clients are coming from...

Cheers!

April 7, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

I believe that I would start with http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0609608398 by Ram Charan. It is a VERY small book, but PACKED with great information.

Next might be [ First, Break All the Rules | http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0684852861 ] by Marcus Buckingham & Curt Coffman.

Of course, you will be interested in [ Flawless Consulting | http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0787948039 ] by Peter Block. This is the standard for people who want to share what they are passionate about...just like you and GTD.

I have only read about 1/3 of the books (including the ones mentioned above) and I look forward to getting to the others in time.

April 12, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMichael

Thanks very much for the pointers, Michael. They were all on my [ wish list | http://www.amazon.com/gp/registry/wishlist/IZZMVJXF5IQO/104-8085125-4087950?reveal=unpurchased&filter=all&sort=priority&layout=compact&x=10&y=14 ], and are now top priority. More grist for the mill.

April 12, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Great post! Like you, I want to read word-for-word, but that's not always best.

April 27, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterNels

Thanks for the comment, and for reading, Nels. I appreciate it!

Love the academic blog, BTW.

April 27, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

This is quite useful summary of this approach. At the risk of being non-topical, I would also recommend Harold Bloom's 'How to Read and Why' for a slightly different take and inspiration (perhaps). Bloom is a literary critic of considerable experience and writes engagingly and clearly. He is passionate about reading and has many (strong) opinions, mostly about fiction, but also poetry.

May 29, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterDulcinea

Thanks for the support and the recommendation, Dulcinea. I'll definitely check out Bloom's book.

May 29, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

What's all this about the title, subtitles and first lines of paragraphs? Have you never heard of the blurb? Here's what you do: Buy the book; ditch the book; keep the dustjacket with all salient details thereon. Easy!

July 27, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterChris

Thanks, Chris - You've saved me hours of work! :-)

July 28, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell
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