« Marcel Krčah  « All entries

Can you read a non-fiction book?

I used to read non-fiction books the wrong way.

I would read a book. I would take notes. I would discuss parts of the book with my friends and colleagues. Then, I would close the book and move on to another one.

After a few weeks, I hardly remembered anything. Maybe the general idea, but I forgot the in-depth arguments. Perhaps I would need to re-read the book and relearn the facts.

This was not an optimal solution.

I have discovered an approach, based on the ideas of Mortimer J. Adler, which has been a game changer for me.

Instead of quantity, I now focus on quality and depth. Instead of facts, I focus on critical assessment. Instead of passive reading, I work proactively with pen and paper.

Here's how it looks in practice:

  • I sit behind a table. I have a pen in my hand and a blank sheet of paper next to me.
  • I read no more than one hour at a time before my focus drifts away. It gives me enough time to understand a cohesive piece of a book, such as a chapter.
  • To discover the boundaries of my knowledge and to clarify assumptions, I answer the following four questions before I start reading (I write them down on a sheet of paper):

    • What is this chapter about?
    • What does it say in detail?
    • Is it true? How do I relate to the things mentioned in the chapter?
    • What of it? What tangible action can I implement out of it?
  • When reading, I mark sections, use marginalia for notes, and draw diagrams on paper. When an author poses a question, I write my answer down before I read the answer in the book. I project new concepts to various aspects of my life (work, family, sports), and write down emerging implications.
  • After reading, I repeat the exercise with the four questions.

... understanding is a two-way operation; the learner has to question himself and question the teacher, once he understands what the teacher is saying. Marking a book is literally an expression of your differences or your agreements with the author. It is the highest respect you can pay him. - Mortimer Adler

Using this technique, I have observed the following:

  • I remember and can argue about a topic in-depth, even after a more extended period.
  • The impact of reading a book is stronger and broader.
  • My critical thinking ability has improved dramatically.

I have found the aspect of physically writing my thoughts down to be of critical importance, so much so that I spent 30-50% of the total time with the paper, pondering new ideas. I take time and don't rush.

Reading this way might seem harder at first. However, I have discovered that working through books this way has been more satisfying that sprinting through multiple books as fast as I can.

If you want to know more about the topic, check out the following: