How I read nonfiction books

Early in my adult life, I was not an avid reader. I knew how to read, but it was more mechanical, not an enjoyable pastime. I believe part of the problem was that I didn’t really know how to read a book–sure I could read each word and understand what they meant, but I didn’t really have a good strategy for reading a book and was approaching every type of book in the same way.

After reading more books and figuring out my reading style, I’ve become a much more active reader and now enjoy reading more than television and movies.

The following is the process I use to read nonfiction books. I would not recommend using this method for novels or other types of literature that follow a linear narrative structure, but this is how I approach nonfiction books such as business, spiritual, technology, self-help, and political books.

  1. Skip the introduction: as a general rule, introductions are inconsequential and often self-congratulatory. They can be insightful when they provide detail about the author’s writing process, but I generally don’t read them at the beginning and may come back and read the introduction after finishing the book.
  2. Read the first chapter: this is where the author should answer the question “why does this book matter?” If I get to the end of the first chapter and do not care about the topic or have a real interest in learning more, the book is probably not worth my time to read. This is where the sample chapter feature of Kindle is great–you can read the first chapter and see if it is worth your investment of time and money before you buy it.
  3. Read the last chapter: The last chapter shows the author’s conclusions and frequently will summarize the main arguments from the book. Many popular books (like The Four Hour Workweek) have their best ideas in the first and last chapters and significant repetition in between. Reading the last chapter first helps me identify:
    • Do I agree with the author’s conclusions? I’m not suggesting that you only read books that you agree with–some of the best books that I’ve read have been books that I disagreed with. In reading books from different perspectives you will shape your thinking and perspective.
    • How strong are the author’s arguments? Are they interesting enough to read more?
    • Is this worth my time? There are many things that you can do with your time. Will this book make good use of your limited time? On several occasions, I’ve found that books rehash the same topics that other authors that I’ve read on the same topic–read any book about statistics and you will read about the fox vs hedgehog theory. If the last chapter reads like a retread of other books on the topic, it is likely not adding much to the conversation and can be skimmed or ignored. If the last chapter is highly repetitive from the first chapter, there is a good chance that the rest of the book is overly long and repetitive.
  4. Read the table of contents: at this point, you have determined that the book is interesting, that the author makes convincing arguments, and you want to find out how he or she reached those conclusions. by reading the table of contents you can learn how the book is structured and get an idea of the areas on which you will focus. I recently read a book called Seeing Like a State by James C Scott. The book was about how governmental social engineering projects often fail, and the reasons why. The book was an interesting topic but somewhat dry and repetitive. After I read the first and last chapters, I read the table of contents. Some of the topics like the story of Brasilia and the history of Soviet communism were of high interest to read them closely, while the chapters about planned horticulture were less interesting, and I skimmed them.
  5. Read the rest of the book: focus on the chapters identified in step 4. For the others, I still read them, but generally, skim them. But be willing to give the other chapters more attention if they deserve it–in The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver, I initially had little interest in the chapter on weather prediction, but upon initial cursory read, I found that chapter to probably be my favorite from the entire book.

Bonus: Turn your ebooks into audio books

Sometimes when reading a book, I feel stuck. I’m in a tedious part of the book and it’s hard to force myself to push through. One trick I’ve found when reading an ebook is to use my phone’s accessibility features to read the book to me.

In IOS, go to Settings>General>Accessibility>Speech>turn “Speak Screen” on.

speak text

If I get stuck on a dry section and have trouble pushing my way through it, I can start the Kindle app on my phone, swipe down with two fingers, and my phone will read the book to me (including changing pages). It takes a while to get used to the text narration robot voice, but this can be an effective way to push through or a good way to make progress on a book while you have to do other activities (like lawnmowing or driving).

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