How to Read Non-Fiction Books

I read a lot. Many dozens of non-fiction books per year. And sometimes people ask me, how do you do that? How do you read all those books? Alright, here’s how.

Don’t watch television

I don’t watch television and I never noticed that I’m missing out on something important. I do watch some TED talks and other YouTube videos. I like watching movies (but only in the theatre), and there’s always one TV series I’m watching on DVD (right now it’s season 4 of Battlestar Galactica). But I haven’t found anything worth watching on TV directly. With people spending an average of 3 hours watching television in The Netherlands and in the USA that’s a solid 3 hours per day that I can read books.

Check the ratings

Life is too short to waste time on crap. That’s why I spend a lot of time researching the best books to read. I check the number of ratings on Amazon and GoodReads, because it is an indication of how popular or interesting the books are. I also check the average ratings because it is an indicator of the quality of the books. Of course, there’s a big difference between indicators and evidence! You should never simply trust the ratings, because they can be gamed. But you should not ignore them either. I check other people’s opinions (as Daniel Ariely says I should) but I don’t switch my own brain off either.

Read the reviews

Before I buy a book I always check the reviews on Amazon and GoodReads. And I like the critical reviews better than the positive ones. Quite often the glowing reviews have no information value, because either they are written by the author’s parents, or they are written by people who’ve never seen a book before and find any random object with words in it amazing. I want serious evaluations. And I usually find those among the critics. (And the reviews on GoodReads are more serious than those on Amazon.) When the negative reviews don’t put me off, I buy the book. And a book without critical reviews is as suspicious as a kid’s report card without B’s or C’s.

Skim and skip

Before diving into the book I check out the table of contents first. Even the greatest books have interesting and uninteresting parts (for me). My goal is to optimize learning, not to optimize reading. This means I have to know where to skim and where to skip. Some parts of a book I read word for word. Other parts I simply skim (scan the text fast), or I flip pages until we arrive at a useful section (for me). As I said, I read a lot. Sometimes 4 or 5 books per topic. So there’s always duplication of ideas in what I read. I keep checking the table of contents, so I know where we’re going in the book, and I don’t waste my time reading things I already picked up from somewhere else.

Highlight ideas

I read all my non-fiction books from Kindle, because I want to highlight what’s important to me. When I’ve finished a book I process my highlights in one of two ways. Either the highlight leads to a concrete action on my part, in which case I add a task to Remember the Milk. But more often the highlight is just an idea or text I don’t want to forget, and in that case I copy and tag it in Evernote, which acts as my out-of-skull memory. I always finish a book first before processing the highlights, because I want to have the complete picture first before deciding what to do with what I’ve learned.

Share the best

Part of the fun of reading books is sharing my findings with others. That’s why I publish Best Books lists, because I do the research for myself anyway, and it takes just an hour or two extra to turn my findings into popular posts that draw many readers. I schedule tweet-size one-liners from the books on Twitter and Facebook. And I also publish my ratings and one-line reviews on GoodReads, which apparently has turned me into one of the most followed reviewers. Which is weird, because I call myself a writer, not a reviewer. But I won’t complain. I’d rather read.


And this process goes on and on and on.

I have a separate process for organizing my work in Remember the Milk. And hopefully, in the near future, I will have figured out how best to use Evernote. Maybe I should read a book about that.

At least I’m able to say I extract optimal value out of my reading time. And I look forward to my trip back from India to Belgium. That’s 9 hours of flying time. For some people that’s at least 4 movies. Guess what I’ll be doing?

(image by: Aurelijus Valeisa)

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