It happens all the time. You read an amazing book, one so packed with wisdom that you think it’s going to change your life forever. Then…it doesn’t. Why? Because when you’re finally in a situation where you could use its insights, you’ve completely forgotten them. Time is our most valuable resource, so we shouldn’t waste it. The investment we make in reading should have a positive, lasting impact on our lives.
Consuming information is not the same as acquiring knowledge. No idea could be further from the truth.
Learning means being able to use new information. The basic process of learning consists of reflection and feedback. We learn facts and concepts through reflecting on experience—our own or others’. If you read something and you don’t make time to think about what you’ve read, you won’t be able to use any of the wisdom you’ve been exposed to.
One of the reasons that we read books is because they offer a rich tapestry of details, allowing us to see the world of the author and go on their journey with them. Our brains can learn not only the author’s ideas but also when their conclusions about how to live are likely to work and when they are likely to fail (thanks to the vast amount of details that authors share about their experiences and thought processes).
But if you only remember six things after reading this article, it should be the following truths about reading:
- Quality matters more than quantity. If you read one book a month but fully appreciate and absorb it, you’ll be better off than someone who skims half the library without paying attention.
- Speed-reading is bullshit. Getting the rough gist and absorbing the lessons are two different things. Confuse them at your peril.
- Book summary services miss the point. A lot of companies charge ridiculous prices for access to vague summaries bearing only the faintest resemblance to anything in the book. Summaries can be a useful jumping-off point to explore your curiosity, but you cannot learn from them the way you can from the original text.*
- Fancy apps and tools are not needed. A notebook, index cards, and a pen will do just fine.
- We shouldn’t read stuff we find boring. Life is far too short.
- Finishing the book is optional. You should start a lot of books and only finish a few of them.
* (By the way, the book summaries we write for Farnam Street members are definitely not in the same class as the standard fare. We make a significant time investment in each one, including reading the book several times and doing background research on the author, context, and content. And we still don’t pretend they’re as valuable as reading the book!)
In this article, we’ll explore multiple strategies for getting more out of what you read. You don’t need to use all these strategies for every book. Using just a couple of them, whether you’re trying to learn a new philosophy or reading a work of fiction, can help you retain more and make deeper connections.