More Than Meets the Eye - How I Read Books

As far as I can remember, reading has never been not a chore for me. As a kid, I would bring a flashlight into my room to read well past my bedtime. That is until my parents found me out and told me that, as long as I was reading, I could stay up as late as I wanted. I was in heaven! Nancy Drew, Agatha Christie novels and a number of other series were mine to devour and devour them I did.

The only period when reading was not a priority in my life was during the latter part of my corporate career when, after hours of reading legal and business planning documents daily, my eyes were no longer interested in staring at anything written in Helvetica, Times New Roman, Garamond or any other font that resembled work-related reading. 

When I left my corporate job in 2013, one of the first things I did was feed a voracious appetite to make up for lost time and nearly four years later, the momentum has hardly slowed.

I’m not difficult to please when it comes to genres. I’ll read books of all kinds, from The Little Prince to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs and Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, though my preference is for non-fiction, which represents over 90% of my selections.

That said, it’s only over the last three-plus years or so that I can say I’ve both started keeping track of what I read and that I’ve developed a process for reading the books I’ve selected, albeit an evolving one. 

I’ve finally decided to document my book-reading process because over the last year or so, this question is popping up with increasing frequency.

For simplicity's sake, I’ve split the process into two parts:

  1. How I keeping track of what I read 
  2. How I read a book

 

Part 1 - How I Keep Track of What I Read

After a few months of reading back in 2013 I realized two things:

  1. Reading was regaining an important place in my life.
  2. Books were fuelling and informing my writing and I wanted to take better note of what I was reading and what I was taking away from each experience.

These realizations made me start tracking what books I read each month/year and start keeping notes about, and quotes from, the books I was reading, which I’ve found immensely useful as a growing reference over time.

I’ve found that tracking the books I’ve read serves many purposes, though some I’ve only come to appreciate in retrospect:

  • I get to witness my evolution as a reader, especially when I take note of bouts of reading on a chosen topic. (I may read a book and then follow it up by picking up suggested readings from that author and so on. I call this pursuit "following a gold vein" and it can go on for months.)
  • I have a full account of what I’ve read, which is useful when someone asks me whether I’ve read a title or not. This might sound silly, but after reading over 250 books in three and a half years, it’s easy to mistake one title for another or forget that I’ve read a less-than-memorable book.
  • It simplifies making book recommendations because, instead of relying on my memory, I can peruse the full list of titles and select those I think the person or audience I’m speaking with might appreciate.
  • It has helped me build up my credibility as a reader and a writer. When I make recommendations or choose to quote an author, others are more likely to listen when they know it’s based on having read a large number of books.*
  • I can tell anyone how many books I’ve read over a given period of time. As adults, many of us have a fascination with numbers. It doesn’t mean they’re necessarily useful, but they offer a universal—though limited—understanding of a given endeavour (especially for those among us who can’t easily relate to the actvitity). 

*Note: I feel the same way, as I’ve learned to ask anyone who makes a book recommendation what else they’ve read lately. Context is everything.

Statistics for the Number Nerds

Here are some statistics for any of you who care to quantify what “reading a lot of books” means. At the time of writing, I can tell you that from April 1, 2013 to January 25, 2017, I’ve:

  • Read* 268 books (about 1.4 books/week, though the quantity can vary wildly from 0 to 13 in a given month) and that they
    • Range from 50 to 500 pages long, for a current total of 
    • Over 53,000 pages read and I’ve amassed, and
  • Recorded over 430,000 words of notes in 49 electronic files, or about 1.5 pages of notes per book read.

Based on the above, as long as I keep reading, I’m likely to continue tracking what I’ve read and other related statistics, if only to feed my curiosity and that of anyone else who might enquire.

*Note: For the most part, I don’t tend to listen to audio books. I don’t find them immersive and that prevents me from getting a full appreciation of what the author is trying to share. If I listen to an audio book, I don’t count it as a book I’ve read. I think of it more as a book I’ve “sampled”.

The Trouble with Tracking and Statistics

Grown ups love figures. When you describe a new friend to them, they never ask you about the important things. They never say ‘What’s his voice like? What are his favourite games? Does he collect butterflies?’ Instead they demand ‘How old is he? How many brothers has he? How much does he weigh? How much does his father earn?
— Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

I often cringe when I talk numbers. The trouble with statistics is that, though they might represent interesting sound bites, they don’t speak to the quality of the experience. 

When I tell someone how much I’ve read, it gives that individual virtually no information of real value. All it speaks to is volume and it says nothing about the quality of the reading and reflecting that occurred during the reading process, both of which should be the whole point of reading in the first place!

Note: A recent article by Shane Parrish (from farhamstreetblog.com) explains this idea beautifully. 

Reading a book should feed the mind, not simply feed the need to amass bragging rights. That’s why I want to offer my reading process in this post, because that’s where the value lies.

 

Part 2 - How I Read a Book, Free-to-Pursue Style

I go through a number of steps with every book I read:

  1. Selecting the book
  2. Reviewing the book’s contents
  3. Reading the book
  4. Revisiting the book
  5. Selecting quotes and taking notes about the book
  6. Counting the book as “read”
  7. Sharing my thoughts about the book (topic, ideas, writing)

I expand on each of these steps below.

1. Selecting the Book

It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.
— Oscar Wilde

There’s no shortage of books to read and that can make selecting the next book to read feel overwhelming. I’ve given up keeping a formal wish list, as the list I was keeping was exponentially outpacing my reading capacity and I found that fact a discouraging reminder that I’ll never manage to read everything I’d like to.

That’s why I don’t tend to seek out books anymore. I let books come to me via:

My alma mater was books, a good library...I could spend the rest of my life reading, just satisfying my curiosity.
— Malcolm X
  • Verbal recommendations
  • Comments I receive on freetopursue.com and on rockstarfinance.com
  • Recommendations I receive at various speaking engagements
  • Recommendations I've received at conferences and seminars I've attended
  • Recommendations from some of my favourite online sources, including:
  • Authors’ in-book recommendations
  • Visits to book stores and the library (both online and in person)
  • The mail (I receive a number of books from authors wanting to market their latest book and I receive many of these, despite making it clear I may not even read what I'm sent.*) 

Notably absent are lists of top sellers. I tend to stay away from these because they tell me nothing about the value of a book, only about its popularity and they are far from the same thing.

*Note: Early on, I vowed not to read a book out of obligation—we do enough of that in school, which is a shame. If I choose to read a book, it’s because it sounds interesting enough to read, either because I just like it or because it either came highly recommended by a trused source or it’s frequently quoted—though I’m growing increasingly suspicious of the latter.

As I become aware of books I’d like to read, I do one of the following:

  • Add them to my mental reading wish list—one that purges itself regularly whether I want it to or not;
  • Make note of it in my book notes if it’s referenced in a book I’m currently reading and I’m curious to know more about the topic/idea/story in question;
  • Immediately request it, reserve it or buy it if I’m particularly interested;
  • Take a picture of it as a reminder of my interest; or
  • Take note of it for near-term follow up.

It’s not a rigid process and I’m fine with that. If there’s a book I’m meant to read, it’ll find me eventually.

2. Reviewing the Book’s Contents

I have to admit I used to do the following inconsistently until this year, thanks in part to having read “How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read” and a portion of “How to Read a Book”: I systematically read the book’s jacket and the table of contents, if present. This is the author’s main way of communicating his/her intentions regarding the work that awaits me inside and I regret not giving it the attention it deserves sooner.

I then leaf through the book to get a sense of its layout before I start reading to get a feel for how each section within each of the chapters is organized and to get a sense of the tone of the book itself (headings are great for this).

3. Reading the Book

Now the rubber hits the road, so to speak. I start reading. 

I read just about anywhere, as I find I can get lost in a book no matter where I am: sitting in my favourite reading chair at home, at a coffee shop, at the kitchen counter, in a busy shopping mall, in a hotel room, at the airport, on a flight, or in bed before falling asleep.

I much prefer reading paper books. They feel more real. I like the feel of a book: its weight, how it rests in my hands and the ease with which I can move through it visually if I want to go forward or backward though it (though tablet software is getting better at mimicking this experience). If paper is not an option, I will read a book electronically but I try to avoid it whenever possible.

When the book I’m reading is a physical book, I’m armed with sticky notes and a pen. I use sticky notes to mark passages I want to come back to and use the pen to, on occasion, write my thoughts about what I want to do with that passage. 

Here are the various ways I mark sections or passages:

  • I angle the sticky note to point to a given sentence I might want to save as a quote or to a book reference that indicates it’s a book I might want to read.
  • I keep the sticky note (or set of notes) square to the page if I want to reread a longer passage on my second go around.
  • I add the sticky note to the top of the page if there is a longer list or a graph/table/image I want to reference, either as I read or after I’m done with my first read.
  • If the information I’m reading informs other work I’m doing or intend to do soon (an article or book I’m working on or an idea I want to share with someone else in short order), I ensure the sticky notes jot out a lot more than the others.

Note: *I use sticky notes because I don’t keep many books, either because most of the books come from the library or because I tend to pass on most of the books I’ve purchased, unless they are AMAZING and I want to reference them regularly. I only have a few dozen books that have been important enough for me to keep, many of which appeared on my first Top 12 Book Recommendations list.

When I’m reading an electronic book, I’ll use the highlight feature to highlight quotes or passages in different colours as a way to differentiate the types of highlighting I’m doing:

  • Yellow is for regular quote highlighting.
  • Pink or blue is for quotes I might want to use right away or that I found particularly inspiring.
  • Orange is to take note of the typos and other hiccups I might want to send the author, especially when the book hasn’t yet been released.

I’ll also use the application's notes feature if I want to remind myself of why I’ve highlighted the quote if it involves further action, though I don’t find I need to do that very often.

Reading for me is synonymous with active reading. I ensure I’m focused and actively taking in what the author is trying to share with me. If my mind wanders, I backtrack to the last passage I remember thinking about. It’s usually not the author’s fault that my mind wanders—we’re all preoccupied from time to time—but, if I find that a book doesn’t capture my attention sufficiently for me to actively read it in its entirety, I’ll abandon it.

I allow myself to choose to abandon a book at any point. I don’t feel the need to “add to my count” by forcing myself to finish a book. Life's too short to read a bad book!

I’ve abandoned many books from as early as the first few pages to a third or even three-quarters of the way through for various reasons:

In the case of good books, the point is not to see how many of them you can get through, but rather how many can get through to you.
— Mortimer J. Adler
  • Lack of interest, 
  • The book was a poor selection for me,
  • I only intended to read a section of it for a specific purpose,
  • I don’t believe it’s the author’s true voice or beliefs,
  • The author hasn’t suffiicently thought through the book’s content,
  • Something else has caught my eye for the moment, or
  • The lender needed the book back and I have yet to request or obtain it again. 

I eventually revisit some of these abandoned books and others I’m virtually certain I never will. I’ve kept track of all the books I haven’t finished so far, but I can’t yet share with you the statistics on that category of books, though I’ll likely eventually compile them just to feed my growing curiosity. What I can say is that I currently guestimate my abandon rate is a healthy 30% or so.

4. Revisiting the Book

Once I’m done reading the book, I reread the passages I’ve marked or highlighted. Doing so feels as though I’m reading my own customized summary of its contents as I only revisit parts of the work that spoke to me for various reasons. 

This is my favourite part of the book-reading process because the content is more condensed and I find I'm better able to internalize the “so what” that I imagine drove the author to write the book in the first place—or so I like to believe.

5. Selecting Quotes and Taking Notes About the Book

Once I’ve revisited the book to my satisfaction, I document my favourite passages along with any additional explanations I want to document for my future self to ensure the there’s sufficient context to make the quote or referenced ideas comprehensible.

Note: I’ve improved my ability to do this over time as I better understand my needs in this area, which now saves me a lot of head scratching.

As much as I try to select the best of the best quotes of any given book, I find that what catches my attention is contextual. It’s affected by:

  • What else I’ve read recently, 
  • What my current interests are,
  • What’s taking place in my life at the time, and 
  • My own personal biases. 
The only important thing in a book is the meaning that it has for you.
— W. Somerset Maugham

Evidence of this last point abounds when I reread a book and compare my first set of notes to the second. There is always significant overlap, but I learn most about myself in reviewing how my notes differ. This exercise serves as a good reminder for me of the fact that we all change over time and that much of this change is unbeknownst to us.

6. Counting the Book as “Read”

I record the book as “read” by adding it to that year’s list of titles, which appears in the Books section on Free to Pursue. I then increase my tally of “Books Read to Date” in that same section.

In order for me to count the book in question as “read”, I have to have:

  • Read it cover to cover,
  • Read it in hard copy or electronically—as mentioned, audio books don’t count,
  • Made some notes about its contents and captured some quotes for future use, and
  • Not counted it previously (if it’s a book I’ve read previously).

I also recently started maintaining a visual reminder of the books I’ve read over most of the last four years, which I’m referring to as my “Wall of Books”. There are definite reading themes that jump out at me whenever I look at it (personal finance, blogging, behavioural economics, psychology, philosophy, happiness, writing, speaking, giving, education, simplicity, minimalism).

7. Sharing My Thoughts About the Book

Many books I read inspire further exploration, which means I might read more on the topic, write a book review or critique, write or speak about my own thoughts on the topic or, ideally, all of the above—which means it’s a really good book.

Reading furnishes the mind only with materials of knowledge; it is thinking that makes what we read ours.
— John Locke

It doesn’t happen all the time, but when it does, I find I appreciate the act of reading even more. Doing something about—or with—what I’ve read reinforces for me that what I read helps me grow. It also serves as a reminder that what I choose to read matters because it affects how and to what extent I'm growing. Heavy stuff.

BONUS - 8. Reviewing a Book

As you may know, in December of 2016 I started officially reviewing books on Rockstar Finance, though I’ve provided readers with some forms of book critiques and recommendations on Free to Pursue and in person since I started blogging and speaking in early 2014.

When I prepare a book review, it’s often for a book that I’ve read some time ago, sometimes years ago if I’m reviewing a classic. Depending on how much of the book I remember, I’ll do one or more of the following to refresh my memory:

  • Review the table of contents and leaf through the book.
  • Reread my notes on the book.
  • Read anything I’ve written about the book in the past to get a sense of how it made me feel when I first read it.
  • Reread the book itself if I don’t feel the above provided enough information for me to write a reliable review.

Once I start writing the review, I ensure I:

  • Take notes or review my notes on the key ideas or takeaways it contains.
  • Identify a few key quotes that best highlight and support what I found most useful/insightful in the book.
  • Identify what type of reader might most appreciate the book and why.
  • Consider how easy or difficult of a read the book is, relative to other books of that type.
  • Record both what I liked and didn't like about the book (style—writing, organization and consistency—ideas, layout, quality, voice, message).
  • Identify other similar books someone reading my review might appreciate knowing about, all of which have to be books I have both read and would recommend.
  • Try to be mindful to critique the work itself and not the writer, as typically “good” writers sometimes churn out "bad" work and vice versa.

No matter my chosen process for a given review, one thing is a constant: I try to never knowingly let another person’s critique inform my review because I believe it would be a disservice to both my audience and to the author to not let my review stand on its own. I may read reviews and critiques after the fact, but I endeavour to never do so as part of the process.

There you have it: my reading process in a nutshell. It’s a process that I know adds value to my experience as a reader an that I hope helps me add value to whatever I may do with the insights I’ve gained and continue to gain from one of my favourite activities.