Note: this article is for people looking to learn and read more non-fiction books. Many of these ideas may not translate well into fiction.
"Chance only favors the prepared mind." - Louis Pasteur
Reading: If you go on YouTube and look for inspiration on reading more, it will look something like this.
Now, this is very inspiring. So I don't disregard it. But one very important question comes up that I will try and answer by the end of this article.
Great! You read a 100 books a year or a book a day, but do you actually retain what you read?
In this conversation below, we will pull from some experts in the field about the topic of reading - with an intent on learning. Here is my process of how I read a book a week and what I actually aim to retain from that.
And as a little disclaimer - Many people will say that you don't need to read a book a week, but when you see this approach you may understand the value of it differently. Stick with me to the end.
Act #1: The art of reading
Tiago Forte, founder of Forte Labs and the PARA method and so much more good stuff in the world of productivity tweeted this below.
You will see, this is his process of retaining a book by distilling it.
Check it out:
I love this.
It's clear and we could all probably agree, with never trying it, that it sounds like a great way to learn.
Distill the book from everything to smaller parts and then those smaller parts into smaller parts.
In an interview, he once talked about highlighting your highlights and from there highlighting your highlights again. So that overtime, the main points of the book are refined again and again until they are deeply embedded into your understanding.
So, this approach is about crystalizing the book. But there is another appraoch.
Derek Siverrs talks about his process of reading a bit differently. His approach: take notes purely to learn and understand, not to distill the book. In an interview with Shane from the Knowledge Project, he said in the podcast (abbreviated)...
"Yeah, I don't skim...
But, for the most part, I hear them out. I go start to finish. And, most importantly, which we can really nerd out on if you want, is I underline every surprising or interesting idea that I want to think more about later...
Later I reflect on these ideas. That’s why I saved them. I’m never trying to summarize the book. I actually don’t care about the book. I just want the interesting ideas inside so that I can reflect on them later and ideally add more to them myself."
"I actually don't care about the book."
Wow, I love that simple reminder. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter so much about the book title as much as the ideas inside the book.
So I fall more on the side of Derek Sivvers approach but believe Tiago & Derek would both find lots of value from this appraoch.
I mainly read through the Kindle app, with the audiobook alongside it. From there, my highlights are synced via Readwise to a seperate Notion account. *I use the Kindle app on my phone, not a Kindle device because the Kindle device does not sync live with the Audible narration. Basically, the words will not highlight as you listen to the audioversion of the book on a Kindle device. It will however do that with a phone app!
Let's break this down into 3 parts: Cognitive load, highlight, and reflection.
When we read, we are doing two key activites that for most of human history was inseperable in the very definition of reading. That is, the first activity is the mental energy required to process letters into words into phrases into sentences into ideas. Which leads to the second activitiy understanding - your ability to connect what you are reading to what you already know and grow in capacity.
2 parts to Cognitive Load
- Cognitive: Turning letters on a page into ideas.
- Associative: Understanding the meaning words in the book and connecting it to other ideas you know and developing your neural plasticity
My assumenption (no research on this) is that we spend probably 80% of our mental resources while reading on reading. In 2021, that is just a poor execution of resources. It makes reading 4x harder than it needs to be. Using the Kindle the audible narration, by my guess, 5x your reading time with just one simple step.
(Ps. it was originally hard to go away from paper books and physical highlighting but in the end, I was sold on all the benefits that Kindle offered me)
Now, for the next part: highlighting
How do you retain so much information? Well, you don't.
But the idea here is that you actually don't need to retain all the information. If the goal is to do a book summary for a teacher in school, well then - Yes, you ought to try and retain the authors writing style and flow and breakdown of chapters.
But in normal life, in day-to-day learning, what's important in retention is what grabs your attention most.
The question I ask as I highlight is does this interest me or does this surprise me?
It stems from this principle: What most grabs my attention without me trying to pay attention.
Often, it's the things that surprise me.
It's so clear when it happens.
I don't feel forced to pay attention.
But this only works because the next step, reflection reduces the need to try and force your brain to go from letters on a page to comprehensive memorization and understanding all at the same time.
Reflection is where the magic happens.
This is where most of us have no formal training. And school, for the most part, didn't teach this to anyone.
Many are taught on how to read a book to complete a home work assignment. Very few of us are taught on how to go back to the book to further digest & absorb the ideas.
In the same interview from above with Derek, Shane asks Derek:
"Talk to me about the reflecting on them later part. I mean, a lot of us highlight a whole bunch of things in a book. We’re like, oh, that was amazing. This is great. And then, we’re onto the next book. We never sort of like go back and think about, or digest, or do the mental work of sort of like making those ideas our own."
"So now, if I’m thinking on a subject like commitment, or regret, or hedonism, or memory, or pain, then I can just search for my notes around that subject. I can pull up like 173 ideas that came from 28 different books instantly, but just browse these ideas. Because again, I don’t care what books they came from anymore. I just want the ideas. So, I’ve separated them from the book and I’m keeping them as their own little atoms to play with. The main thing I do now is to pull up all my notes on a subject like this, like say hedonism. Then, with all of these notes in front of me, I open up my own text document to start from scratch with my own thoughts on this. So now, it’s almost like I’m in a room of some really smart people talking around this subject. It’s inspiring really interesting thoughts of my own that are often like a reaction. It’s like I’m joining the conversation of these thinkers. I want to see what I can add."
This is where Readwise + Notion come into hand. Readwise will automatically pull all your notes from Kindle to your Notion account so that you have all your highlights with easy and quick access.
This means we end up with a Notion database of all our favorite parts of our favorite books, accessible anywhere, at any time, with the ability of search.
I read a book in a week quickly, so that I can reflect on the things that matter most to me after the fact. When I am journaling in the morning, I will pull up one of my books and start to read the highlights.
From there, I will highlight more. At the end of the day, I have a firm believe that the things that need to stick, will stick. The stuff that doesn't need to stick, won't.
Pablo Coelho, the author of the best-seller The Alchemist said in an interview with Tim Ferriss, "Let what is important remain."
Memorization leds to short-term wins. Peaked interest leads to long-term growth. My goal is peaking interest.
Back to the original question: Great! You read a 100 books a year or a book a day, but do you actually retain what you read?
Retain the books by using your best abilities of learning, digesting, and reflecting. In this, you will create your own version of the Lourve, with the most amazing artwork (ideas) at your finger-tips.
Surround yourself with all the best thoughts ever, that resonate with you most, place them in easy access, and you create your own Google goldmine.
A few tips:
Some people who read 100 books a year recommend listening to audiobooks while driving or getting ready in the morning. For the most part, I do not do that. Primarily because I want to be ready to highlight at a moments notice and that's not safe while driving. It would invalidate the process if I listened and was limited on my ability to highlight.
Look for the little checkbox underneath the purchase button that says, "Add Audible narration to your purchase for just $x.yz."
Be mindful of your eyes: Spending all day on a computer for work and then time on your device when you want to read can lead to a lot of eye-strain (it happened to me!), so be thoughtful of that.
With Notion, you can add this to your already existent notion account or you can add it to a free notion account. The purpose of adding it to a free Notion account is that it separates out all the quotes from your own content when you want to search your personal notion account. For instnace, if I want to search my personal notion account for every-time I use the word learn, that would mean literally everything I ever highlighted with the world learn could show up, which is not an ideal case.
Never question the price of a book for the value it can create. I never sweat spending an extra $10 to get both the digital & audio version. And if I really love it, I'll even buy the physical copy.
Pro-tip: If you want to then listen to your highlights, download speechify on your desktop and mobile and you can add a document to speechify and the app will read you your highlightins while you are on the go!
If you like more on this process, please leave a comment below.
More about David
I'm David, a search specialist, & beginner YouTuber from Orange County, CA. My motto is: Whatever you do, do it beautifully. I enjoy teaching around website design, tech, productivity, and faith.