I often get questions on book recommendations. People will ask me, “What book do you recommend for learning about XYZ historical event?”
Or they will say, “What book do you recommend for learning about XYZ philosophy?”
And this is fine. I always am happy to give my opinion. I like to discuss, to critique, and to analyze, because this is how the forward movement of knowledge works.
But I often can’t help thinking something else. And this is: before you get into the details of what books to read, you should first make sure that you know how to read.
That’s right. How to read.
But Quintus, I already know how to read. I can hear you say this. You’re saying this right now.
But do you really know how to read? Yes, you know your phonetics, your morphology, your grammar, your sentences.
But I’m talking about reading for information and comprehension. I’m talking about extracting as much useful information from a book as possible.
Because, you see, information management is at the heart of modern reading. There is so much information out there that the key thing is to be able to navigate through the information minefield without losing your sanity.
With this in mind, consider the following.
Step 1: Not all books are created equal.
I begin with a basic proposition, one that we must first internalize and appreciate. It is this: not all books are created equal.
- Class A: Some books are meant to be thoroughly read, studied, and digested.
- Class B: Some books are meant to be browsed through at a brisk pace, and “strip mined.”
- Class C: Some books are meant to be glossed over quickly.
All right. So we’ve established that there is a hierarchy of books. Not all of them are created equal. So then we move on to the next step. How do we tell the one from the other? Well, it’s pretty simple, actually. You know it when you see it.
You know a work of classic literature when you see it. You’ve heard about it. You already know something about it. The other two categories will take some discernment.
Step 2: Categorizing the book
The books that should be studied intensely (Class A) don’t really need much of an introduction. These are the classic works of literature, history, or philosophy. Or, they can be works that you yourself already value highly. You yourself know what these books are. You know because you’ve done your research on them.
But the books in Class B and Class C…what do we do with them?
This is how you decide if a book in this class is even worth looking at. Pick up the book. Thumb through the pages, scanning the titles and the first sentences of each paragraph for about one minute. Once you have done this, you will know what category this book belongs in.
I should say at this point that some books are simply not worth reading at all. Many of them (maybe most of them) are pure junk.
Step 3: How to read a book in each class
So now we know which class a book belongs in. What then. This is what we do.
Let’s talk about how to read a book in Class A.
If you know a book is in Class A (work of serious literature), you already know it’s going to take some effort. You can’t just dance through it. It will take some effort and some concentration.
The first thing you should do is read a commentary on the book. Why? Because works of literature of serious writing can be complicated and difficult to understand. You won’t even know what the author is talking about unless you do some basic research into the book. You will be totally lost.
The second thing you should do is read the actual text. If it is a work of foreign literature, make sure you have a good translation. Make sure it is understandable. While you read the text, take notes in the margins of the book about concepts and questions you have. It will help you remember things.
The third thing you should then do is re-read the book quickly. Now that you know what the author is talking about, blast through it one last time, quickly, and refresh yourself with the main points.
The final thing you should do is to quickly re-read the commentary again. Now you will know all the nuances of the book and the ideas contained in it. It goes without saying here that this is going to take some time. But that’s just how it is.
Sometimes, even if you do all this, you still won’t really understand the book. But that is all right! Sometimes, we need life experiences to make things understandable. Sometimes we’re just not ready to hear a new voice. And that is what good books are: new voices, calling us in new directions.
As the old saying goes, “There is no royal road to geometry.”
There is a story told about the great mathematician Euclid. He was instructing King Ptolemy I of Egypt (323-281 B.C.). The king asked Euclid if there was an easier way of understanding the axioms of geometry. And Euclid said that there was not: even kings need to do the grunt work to learn worthwhile knowledge. “There is no royal road to geometry.”
There is no shortcut to knowledge. Everyone has to pay his dues.
If you can do this, you will be the master of the material.
Now let’s move on to how you read books in Class B.
These are the types of books that are worth reading, but have a limited amount of useful information. There will be some veins of gold, but most of the rest will be filler.
Go through the book page by page. Read the first and last sentence of each paragraph, and scan your eyes over the middle part of each paragraph. If you do this, you will be able to identify the parts of the book that are worth retaining.
When you find a useful part of the book, mark the margin of the book in pencil with the key point in the text. This way, you will retain the useful information. Don’t be afraid to mark up books. I do it. It won’t hurt them. Just use pencil.
Just the act of writing in the book will help you remember the information. If you’re studying a foreign language, an added thing you can do is make your margin comments in the target language. That way you get some writing practice.
Remember, you are “strip mining” this type of book. It doesn’t matter if you forget a lot of the filler. Most of the filler is not worth retaining anyway.
Now we’ll talk about how to read books in Class C.
This is the category of books that is meant to be glossed through quickly. This category includes pulp novels, true crime stories, and things like that. When it comes to books like this, you will find yourself getting emotional. And that is fine. Even though these books may not have a lot of useful information, they often contain good stories.
And that’s fine. Knowledge is nothing without imagination. Cultivate your imagination. You can blast through this type of book quickly, and if it’s worth keeping, fine. If not, toss it.
So there is it. This is how we read. If you follow these basic guidelines, you will retain more information from the books you read. You will also not waste time on books that don’t deserve your attention.
One last comment. Some people will want to know if they should get hard copies of books or electronic copies. This debate is an old one, and not one I want to get into here. But my short opinion is: for good books, get the hard copy. You will always refer to them, and it’s worth it.
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