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A reading workflow based on Leveen's "Little Guide"

The best of a book is not the thought which it contains, but the thought which it suggests. -- Oliver Wendell Holmes
Many of my subscribers are active readers and book lovers. My post How to read a lot of books in a short time is my most popular, and I've even had the pleasure of receiving surprise copies in the mail! Along those lines, Steve Leveen's book The Little Guide to Your Well-Read Life is a great meta book, and one of those "I have to give copies to friends" works that leaves a lasting impact.

There's a lot to the diminutive tome, but here I'd like to share his suggested workfow, an example of a specialized system [1] (unlike Getting Things Done, which is a general one).

Overall Flow

Here's the staging Leveen recommends (a "shelf flow," if you will [2]). The basic idea is repeated reviews over time (including during reading and after) help strengthen recall. (Note: "*" indicates my additions.)
  1. Pre-candidates list* (desired books, i.e., your wish list)
  2. Candidates library (acquired books - a Someday/Maybe list)
  3. Currently reading stack
    • Castaways*
  4. Après reading 1 shelf
  5. Après reading 2 shelf
  6. Après reading 3 shelf
  7. Living library
Briefly, you have three concurrent phases happening: Collecting (managing your pre-candidates list, and buying from it - steps 1 & 2 above), Reading ("activating" one or more of your candidates - step 3), and Reviewing (steps 4-6). Finally, you continue to return to your living library over time, re-reading favorites, or using it for reference or inspiration (step 7). Of course if the book doesn't pass the 50 page test (see ), it gets rejected as a castaway [3].

In addition to these phases, Leveen suggests keeping a reader's journal or annotated bookography [4], which I've generalized to include tracking your candidates (including who recommended each one (and why), the books you've read (just the ones you're really glad you read), and your notes from them. (He recommends writing in the book itself, but I prefer a voice-dictation-to-electronic-storage model. I use a simple text file, but a wiki or something like stikkit would work as well.)

I think most stages are straightforward, but let's look a bit more carefully at reading (step 3) and the Après reading shelves.


Leveen has us approach reading with two things in mind. First, read actively: Ask questions of yourself and the author. Engage in a dialog by asking:
  • Why am I going to read now?
  • What do I want to get out of it?
(For more see the SQ3R method - Survey, Question, Read, Recite, Review. I like the Mind Tools summary.)

Second, he has us read the book at a high level (skimming), and gradually come in closer, i.e., starting with superficial reading then zooming into analytical reading.

The stages:
  1. First tour: In this cursory inventory you preview the book by asking questions about the author, her background, the index, table of contents, and bibliography. Spend a few minutes looking at the overall book and thinking about what that means - what you know about the subject, what you expect to learn. This stage should only take a few minutes.
  2. Second tour: Read the front and back matter, think about intended audience, scan the major index headings, and look at reprint/revise info.
  3. Third tour: Read a few introductory and concluding paragraphs from each chapter, where Leveen says most writers sum up their major points. This allows you to create a customized outline in your head, and to better target where the book's meaning lies for you (often the real meat of the book is somewhere in the center).
  4. Finally: Fully read the book. This may be the entire work, or just the parts that looked useful to you from previous scans. Importantly, don't be afraid to give up on the book. Leveen reminds us there are so many other great books awaiting, so why spend time on ones that don't speak to us?
Note: You should pause between each stage to reflect on what you learned, and to sharpen your focus/questions. Note-taking is highly recommended.

Après Reading Shelves

I'd not seen the term après before (my education's been very technical up to this point), but basically it means stages of review after you've read a book. Leveen says this is important - it's where we cement our understanding and make the ideas relevant (and applied) to our lives. He recommends three shelves:
  1. This shelf holds books that you've just finished reading and awaiting your first review. Note: They should only sit there a few days before you review them.
  2. The second shelf is for second-round reviews (they should sit maybe a week or so).
  3. The third shelf is for six-month or later reviews.
After these stages, your books go into your living library.

My Status and Comments

Right now I have:
  • Pre-candidates: about 500 (they're here, FYI).
  • Candidates: about 80.
  • Après: haven't set it up yet!
  • Living library: about 50.
Applying Leveen's workflow takes discipline, as does keeping up with reading. In my case, I read while exercising in the morning, which gives me a guaranteed 1/2 hour a day on either books or articles. However, my flow is slowed down when it comes time to notes processing. And I've not tried the review at all, except when (like here) I blog about a book, or include ideas from it in related posts.

I'll wrap up with this wonderful notion from Leveen: "Instead set out to always being able to answer yes to the following simple question: Are you reading something great right now?)"

So how do you manage your reading workflow? Do you use Leveen's ideas? Any tips or tricks you'd like to share?



  • The Forum | Steve Leveen in Readerville | June 13-17, 2005
  • In the same thread Leveen shares some permissions he gives out on a sheet to workshop participants, including permission to...:
    • ...make my own reading plan to the extent that feels right to me. (Just as you are free to have no plans, you are also free to develop lists of candidate books and better yet, a growing library of candidates.)
    • ...acquire books without the requirement of reading them.
    • ...define being well-read as a journey rather than a destination.
    • ...love, or not love, any book whatsoever.
    • ...read more than one book at a time.
    • ...give up on a book and abandon the "clean-your-plate" mentality.
    • ...debate, argue with, agree with, and write to an author.
    • ...write in my books.
    • ...listen to books, knowing that listening is just as good, and sometimes better, than silent reading with my eyes.
    • ...share my reading experiences with others.
    • ...read a classic, for the first time, much later in life.
    • ...improve at reading my whole life long.
    • ...linger in a library even if I prefer to buy books.
    • ...spend as much on books as I do on other great passions of my life.
    • ...make my own reading rules. (Seize your own well-read life as only you can and you will likely be an inspiration to others.)
  • Leveen's detail on après reading is found here.
  • Here's someone who has a short bookography on-line.

Reader Comments (8)

Thank you for sharing this. Reading is so important to personal success:

- I had heard, just in passing, of Leveen's book; your mini-review is helpful.

- I always seem to have several books open at once. It is nice to know that I am not alone -- and learn of a system that can help me to better handle this.

March 29, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterVentiDarkRoast

Hey Daniel - I'm glad it was helpful. I agree re: reading and success - well put. Thanks for reading!

March 29, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

1. I do highlight the parts I like, this is done while reading.

2. Basically all my books go right into my living library. when I read I just pick intuitively the one that I crave most for or ist the 'right' one to read at that point in my life.

3. I have a 'dead' library of books I liked to much to give away but that are to worn out for the living library.

P.S. My living library contains about +60 books not counting some ebooks on the pc.

March 31, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterChristopher K

Hi Christopher. Thanks for your comment, and for reading.

March 31, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

One of my GTD files is "new reading" where I file one-page AMAZON printouts of the books I want to read. One additional procedure that I have found useful is that I will go ahead and outline an entire book if I like it, based on portions I have highlighted. then I can "re-read" the book in an hour if I choose. Among the recent books I have outlined are Keith Ferrazzi's "Never Eat Alone" and Ben Stein's "How Successful People Win". Very inspiring to 're-read"

May 6, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterManny

Thanks for sharing how you handle reading, Manny. I like how you outline the work; I can see how it proves handy for review. Neat!

May 11, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Hi Matt, we just discussed this post during the Productivity Mastermind call today. Thanks for such an inspiration!

Glad it helped, Stephen.

November 14, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

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