How to read a book

Books compress a lifetime’s worth of someone’s most impactful knowledge into a format that demands just few hours of our time. They provide the ultimate ROI – Michael Simmons

The following is a summary of many reading techniques that I’ve read and implemented, including my own personal trial and errors that suited my temperament.

An average book takes 5 to 7 hours to read, at a normal speed. Break it down into 1 hour a day (or about 15% of the book each day), and we’ll read 1 book a week or 52 books at the end of the year.

Now 1 hour a day might sounds like a lot, but you can break it down further to 30 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes at night, or 3x of 20 minutes, etc. And if you miss your daily 15%, you can always catch up over the weekend. You can also read more than 15% to compensate the low days when you can only read little or nothing at all.

Just like we need to train our muscle before we can lift heavy weights, reading a book needs a mental muscle, which is also trainable. Stop using it, and you’ll lose it. So discipline and consistency to reach that 15% each day are the key. Remember that famous saying, we don’t have time but we make time.

But before you do any of that, start small first. From 1 book a month (around 15 minutes/3.5% reading per day that culminates with a total of 12 books a year), then 1 book every 2 weeks (30 minutes/7% reading per day, which totaled 26 books per year), then 3 books every month (45 minutes/10% reading per day, that’s 36 books per year), and eventually 4 books every month.

As we speak I started to throw in a 5th book for each month, with the 5th one usually a long book that needs a month to read (hence my magic number 60+ books read over a year).

In addition, to reach 1 book a week you can read 1 book at a time for a week, or 2 books at the same time for 2 weeks, or 3 books for 3 weeks, etc. I personally read different types of books in the mix of 2 or 3, so that I can switch between 2 or 3 different topics to avoid boredom. In this way I keep on reading forward, instead of taking a break altogether from reading.

Reading techniques

Now, after the logistics, let’s talk about the techniques. A toddler starts reading by learning to identify one letter. A slightly bigger child learns how to read a word. An older elementary school student learns how to read a sentence, which a majority of us stays in this level for the rest of our lives. But professionals go further, they learn how to read a paragraph in one go.

The speed in which we read should also varies. Just like driving a car, we should speed up in a dull highway, but drive slower in a place with the nice views. In other words, when reading a paragraph that is just full of gibberish space-filling words, you can go ahead and skim read it or skip it. But whenever there’s an impactful sentence, slow down, take notes, and re-read it if you must. That’s why the best books I’ve ever read are also the books that I read the slowest.

Moreover, there are some books that deserve to be read word by word, from cover to cover. There are some that only useful as a reference book and we read them to specifically find some findings or sentences. While there are others that only amount to be skim-read. And be careful with sunk-cost fallacy, where just because we have invested our time and money into this book, doesn’t mean we must finish the book when it’s no longer serve any purpose for us.

So, learn to read one paragraph at a time, skim read it, slow down when you hit upon good sentences, take a lot of notes, but you don’t need to read it word by word if you don’t need to. After all, do you remember the last paragraph that you read? It’s more about understanding the concept or the story, and not the word count.

Comprehension and retention

Jim Kwik says the best way to learn from a book is by teaching it. Because what’s the point of reading a book if you don’t understand it enough to explain it.

Now, teaching what we know from a book can either be direct, or indirect through mediums such as a book review. I tend to choose the latter, using the notes that I gathered as I read the book and turn them into a summary review. Hence, my ever growing book reviews (100+ reviews in just two years alone).

This is where we get our maximized Return On Investment (ROI) from the books, when we understand it enough to explain it to others, find gaps in our explanation, read the book back to find the answers to our knowledge gaps, and then refine our summary (this step is also known as the Feynman Technique).

And the best part of writing a review is when we forgot what’s the book is about, we can just read our summary review to refresh our memory.

How to buy a book

Physical book is the best form of books, where we can touch it, smell it, and use them to decorate our little home library. But they might not be the most practical form. At first I too was a fundamentalist book reader, but then I downloaded the Kindle app in my phone and bought the same book that I already have the physical form, to compare them.

And it’s not hard to see the many advantages with using Kindle. I can spread my reading further throughout the day, such as while waiting for the lift, queuing at the supermarket cashier, and most importantly, when meeting with my friends and I’m the first to arrive (I’m always the first to come, in many different groups).

Furthermore, note taking becomes so much easier, all I do is to highlight the particular sentence that I want to note down, and it will appear in the notes section of the app. I can then copy them into the note-taking app. Using a kindle device also function the same way, where any reading that I left in Kindle for mobile I can immediately pick up where I left off in the Kindle device.

The kindle price of books also fluctuates like stock prices. So put all your targeted books into a wish list, and monitor that list closely. For me, when the price drops below $4.99 I might start to consider buying. Unless, of course, those books that I just must read now, I’ll buy it at the normal price.

With this strategy, around 2/3rd of the books that I own now is in the Kindle format, where in average I bought them at $2.99 – $4.99.

In conclusion

Reading is a form of habit. It requires a mental muscle and discipline, one that can be developed gradually like physical muscles. Once you stop using it, you’ll eventually lose it. But if you stick with the habit, an abundant range of knowledge come pouring in. All the dots suddenly become connected, all the orders appear between the chaos, and the world just makes a little bit more sense.