An Expanded Definition of Reading

We tend to think of “reading” as the time we have a book in front of our face, but when you stop to ask why you are reading, a number of other activities suggest themselves as part of the bigger enterprise. If you are reading to learn, simply passing your eyes over the words will only get you a fraction of what’s there. I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about how to make reading as effective as possible, and below I share my current thinking.

To get some idea of what might fall under this broader umbrella, it’s helpful to ask “what exactly are we trying to get out of reading?” You might read for fun or to kill time. You might read to practice a particular language. You might be looking for inspiration on crafting prose. I have read for all of these reasons and plan to continue to do so, but for today, I want to talk about reading to learn. When I read non-fiction (and some fiction), I am looking to take someone else’s insight and wisdom and incorporate it into my own understanding. This focus makes it clearer what activities support the goal of “reading”: picking the right material, engaging with the text actively, and reflecting on what we’ve read.

Before we ever pick up a book we can make our reading more effective by what we select. Nasim Taleb advocates giving heavy preference to older books. He reasons that books that stick around for a long time have shown that they’re worthwhile, whereas the jury is still out on new stuff. I share a lot of sympathy with this approach, especially when it comes to reading about “wisdom”, but if you want to learn about new technologies and scientific discoveries, Montaigne might not be your best bet. 

So, how do you make sure you’re reading high quality stuff? That’s a tough question, and one I continually think about. Right now, I’d say that the best filter for high quality is recommendations from a trusted source - preferably someone you know who has enough overlap in tastes and interest to know whether you’d like something or not. I’ve started cultivating these kinds of recommendations by inviting my more readerly friends to an Inverse Book Club. In a normal book club, everyone reads the same book. In this one, we all read different books and share our thoughts. It does a remarkable job of exposing you to material that is at once interesting to you but not something you would have picked up on your own.

The next best qualifier is a source whose tastes and preferences you know pretty well, but you don’t necessarily agree with. Think of Siskel & Ebert: you might not have shared their tastes, but they were pretty clear about what they liked, so you can make informed decisions based on what they think. I had a friend in high school with the opposite taste in movies from me - if he hated something, it was a good bet I’d like it, and vice versa. This same filter can apply with recommendations from bloggers and podcast hosts and other people that you engage with less actively than your friends.

Finally, there’s the crowd - what’s this book’s Amazon rating? Was it a best seller? Is everybody talking about it? There’s nothing wrong with this approach, but it’s less likely to direct you to exactly what you need. It also works better when you have some idea what you’re looking for already, like “hmmm, I want to read about physics, what’s the best popular science book on physics?” If you are trying to find wholly new material that you wouldn’t have considered, you’re less likely to get it from looking at what’s popular. 

However we evaluate a book’s worth, we also want to give thought to what we want to read about. Do we want to go deep on a topic and read five books in a row on the same subject? Or do we want to introduce some new models into our thinking and read something totally outside of our comfort zone? I think that both are worthwhile, but I have trouble getting the exact right ratio and rhythm down. I mostly go by what I’m interested in, but that introduces the danger of getting bored with something right on the edge of pushing through to real insight. It helps to know your own quirks: I tend to enjoy learning about a lot of things, so I probably need to push myself to pursue depth more. If you are an expert on a narrow field, maybe you need to read outside of that field. 

Once we’ve selected a book, we’ll get more out of reading by actively engaging with the text. It turns out that simple highlighting doesn’t actually do much to improve recall. Taking notes, on the other hand, does. It’s a delicate balance to keep up with the flow of what you’re reading while also stopping to think enough to make connections and help things sink in. My current approach with physical books is to make notes in the margins and to underline quotes or references to other works. With electronic books, I type notes with the date and page number in an Evernote note and highlight anything I want to come back to and record later (like references or good quotes). When I take notes, I try to focus on making connections with concepts I already know, other books I’ve read, and differing points of view. It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of passively nodding along with a book in a way you never would with someone in a conversation. So try to put yourself in the mindset of an intellectually stimulating conversation with your smart friend that you don’t always agree with - be ready to challenge, learn, and find commonalities that aren’t obvious. 

After reading, we can improve recall and strengthen connections through reflection. With some very important books, I’ve gone so far as to go over all my highlights and type them up, cluster references by theme and pull out any exercises or instructions into their own section. Doing this on every single book would probably be overkill. More recently, a friend has turned me onto a very simple approach as a bare minimum per book: when you finish, write a paragraph or so of your thoughts in a journal, either paper or digital. Another technique is to ask Scott Young’s retention questions. However you do it, reflection is really just an extension of the active engagement you cultivated while reading the book and strengthening the ties you’ve made with other material. As you get into it, this reflection and thinking bleeds into the selection we discussed and becomes a cycle. You read a book that makes you think about something else you’ve read, the intersection of those two ideas suggests a new area to explore, and so you ask a friend for a recommendation in that field, and you’re off again. 

If you’re a motivated person that cares about reading, it’s easy to focus on maximizing something like pages read per week, but if that’s your entire definition of reading, you may be missing out on the actual purpose of the activity. I hope that expanding your definition of reading helps you to apply those same skills to carving out time to pick the right books, actively engage with them while you read, and to reflect on what you’ve read so it sticks.


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