How To Read A Book

For the last few years, I've made a conscious effort to read more books. Whenever I come across an interesting book that I think I could learn from, I add it to my Amazon wish list and eventually it finds it's way onto my bookshelf. But spending more time reading isn't worth it if you're not ensuring that the lessons are learnt and knowledge is effectively stored. When you comes across a section of a book that really stands out, how do you make sure that you've not forgotten about it by the following week?

The system I use is based on the one used by writer Ryan Holiday which he calls his 'Commonplace Book'. Here's how it works:

Step 1. Mark notable passages as you go.

As you read through a book, when a sentence, idea or paragraph strikes you as important then you need to mark it in some way. Ryan says that he folds down the corner of the page, but I like to use sticky tabs. (See the photo below).

One of my favourite books of 2016. You can tell by the ratio of tabs to pages!

One of my favourite books of 2016. You can tell by the ratio of tabs to pages!

The things you mark could be a great quote, a controversial argument or just something that feels significant to you. There is no right or wrong criteria, and most likely your approach will evolve over time. I have found that just the process of marking the important sections makes me more conscious of what I'm reading and helps me to recall the main arguments later on.

Step 2. Finish the book and leave it alone for a while.

Once you have finished the book, put it back on the shelf for a while and allow yourself time to mull it over.

Over the next week or so, you may find that some sections stood out to you more than others. Or you remember feeling really strongly about a story towards the beginning of the book, but the details haven't stood out. It's not so important that you come up with any particular thoughts about the book, just that you leave it alone for a while so that step three is more useful.

Step 3. Go back through the passages you marked as important on the first read through and decide whether they are still important. If they are, copy them over to your 'commonplace book'.

This is the most important step of the process. What Ryan calls 'Your Commonplace Book' is simply a central place where you can store all of the quotes, comments, phrases, arguments or ideas that you come across.

Ryan copies out each passage by hand on to individual cards and then stores them all in boxes. That seemed like a lot of hard work when I first started this so I use Evernote instead. The process of copying out the important sections allows you to review the key arguments/ideas in the book which makes you more likely to remember them long term.

Using Evernote, I collect all of the marked passages from one into a single note which means that if I ever need to quickly refresh my memory on a topic I can just look through the relevant note. I add tags to that note about what topics are covered, and Evernote's powerful search functionality makes things even easier. Say, for example, I am thinking about how to make an important decision, I can search for 'decision making' in my Evernote Commonplace Book and see all of the notes from any book I've read in the last 4 years which might have something to offer.

Step 4. Keep doing this for a long time.

This is one of those things that I'm really grateful I started several years ago. Since I've read a lot of books over those years, I now have a fantastic record of what all those books were, and what I found more important about each one. It's easy to dedicate more time reading valuable books when you can see that you're building such an incredible resource and you know that the effort won't be wasted by forgetting the whole thing.

Of course your commonplace book is not just for book excerpts. You can include things you hear in conversation, summaries of podcasts that resonated, even pictures or videos if you like. Let your commonplace become your external brain. The more you use it, the more valuable a resource it becomes.