The Simple System I Use to Find Choose Read and Remember Great Books
Years ago, I came across a story of a business professor who shared an insightful statement about studying.
He said if you spent an hour or two every day studying any field you’re actively involved in, within two to three years, you’d be in the top 1 to 5 percent of that field.
He came to that conclusion after many years of meeting, talking with, and reading about successful people. He found many of these men and women were self-taught, and all were die-hard students of their disciplines. They were always learning something new. They never felt they knew it all and in fact were more interested in what they didn’t know than what they did know.
The reason for this phenomenon is probably that consistently studying it benefits you much like compound interest. The more you learn, the more you know; the more you know, the more you can do; the more you can do, the more opportunities you have to succeed.
On the flip side, prospects are grim for people who aren’t perpetual learners. Life is complex and chaotic, and it slowly suffocates and smashes the lazy and ignorant.
In Alice in Wonderland, the Red Queen says that in her race, you have to run as fast as you can just to stay in place, and twice as fast as that to go anywhere. This is a perfect metaphor for life. You have to hustle just to pass muster, and work twice as hard as that to gain ground.
An essential part of that work is learning what to do and what not to do to achieve your goals. Piss and vinegar alone isn’t enough.
“I can just learn through experience,” many people think. And they’re right—there are many important and useful things you can learn through experience, but at what cost? How many missteps and mistakes can you make and how much pain and plight can you endure before you start to drag anchor and eventually give up?
“Experience keeps a dear school,” Benjamin Franklin said, “but fools will learn in no other, and scarce in that.”
In other words, learning through experience is expensive and learning exclusively through experience is foolish (and often deficient). And why do that when you can learn from other people’s experience, instead?
Think about it for a second.
How fortunate are we that right now, we can (often instantly) access the hard-won wisdom of hundreds of thousands of people who not only spent much or most of their lives in the trenches mastering some topic or discipline but also took the time and energy to openly and honestly share their biggest insights and lessons with the rest of us?
How phenomenal is it that for twenty bucks or less we can enlist billionaires, artists, professors, athletes, philosophers, theologians, politicians, and soldiers as our own personal mentors?
And how ridiculous is it to ignore this opportunity and insist on “figuring it all out ourselves” instead?
Well, that’s exactly what people are doing when they don’t read. Instead of climbing onto the shoulders of giants, they’re thumbing their noses at them.
Here’s how Charlie Munger put it in his book Poor Charlie‘s Almanack: “In my whole life, I have known no wise people (over a broad subject matter area) who didn’t read all the time–none, zero.”
How and what you read matters, too.
Speed-reading your way through a bunch of material isn’t learning so much as turning pages quickly, and young adult novels are great for distraction but not personal development.
Think of it like your diet. If you want a healthy, strong, vital body, it’s not only the calories and macros that matter but the nutrition as well.
The bottom line is thoughtful, intelligent, and diligent reading is one of the simplest and most effective ways to get ahead in life. It’s the ultimate “unfair advantage.”
In this article, I’m going to share my personal processes and strategies for selecting, reading, and remembering books that help me get the absolute most out of my studies.
I hope they help you as much as they’ve helped me!
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If you’re going to be a regular reader, the first hurdle you must clear is time. And to do that, you need to get specific about when you’re going to read and for how long.
For me, the two prime reading slots are early in the morning, before I go the gym, and toward the end of the workday, before I go home.
Specifically, I wake up between 5:45 and 6:15 and, after using the bathroom, drinking a liter of water, and gargling with mouthwash (so I don’t forget), spend the next 45 to 60 minutes in my infrared sauna reading.
Then, 12 to 13 hours later, I spend the final 30 to 45 minutes at the office reading (6:15 to 7, usually). And on the weekends, I usually wake up an hour or so later but still spend the first 45 to 60 minutes reading in the sauna.
Sometimes I read a bit more before bed as well but most of my reading gets done in the mornings and afternoons.
I particularly enjoy the morning reading because (assuming I’ve slept well) I’m sharp and fresh, making it easy to focus, and it’s a great way to start the day in a good mood because by the time I head off to the gym, I’ve already completed an important and meaningful task.
I used to only read in the mornings but I wasn’t getting through books as quickly as I’d wanted this way, so I added the second end-of-day reading session. I chose the end of my workday because when I get home, my wife and I have about two hours of cooking, eating, getting our kids to bed, and showering to do, and quite frankly, I’d rather spend the last hour with her than a book.
My daily reading goal is a fairly modest 40 to 60 pages per day or about one book per week. Sometimes I’m able to do more and sometimes less, but that’s my normal pace. And if that sounds low to you given the time investment, I understand—I’m not a particularly fast reader, but this is intentional (more on this soon).
Much of what I read is digital in the form of Kindle eBooks, Blinkist or Instaread summaries, and online articles (that I read in Instapaper).
As much as I like to hold (and smell, don’t judge me) a physical book, and I know research indicates we may remember more of what we read physically than digitally, digital reading is just too tempting to pass up.
Not only does it give you instant smartphone access to your books, your highlights and notes are automatically synced to the cloud and all of your devices (and easily downloadable for cataloging and review, which I’ll talk more about soon).
That said, many worthwhile books aren’t available as eBooks and so I’ll read hard copies when I have to.
I used to supplement my reading with audiobook listening while I drove, made food, walked my dogs, and did other unthinking activities, but I stopped for a few reasons:
- Information retention was lower, and especially if the book contained many facts and figures.
- More sophisticated books were hard to follow and digest, especially when driving. I often found myself having to rewind to relisten to denser packages.
- Whenever I wanted to make a highlight or note, I’d have to pause the audiobook and flip to the Kindle version, which was fine, but if I was driving, that meant pausing and waiting for red lights.
- If the author had a robust vocabulary, I’d often have to pause to clarify words I couldn’t define. If I was driving, I could use voice search on my phone (“define vexing”) but if the first definition served up wasn’t the correct one, I’d have to wait for a red light to look for it.
So now instead of listening to audiobooks during downtime, I listen to lectures, interviews, and the like as they require less focus, there are no highlights or notes to make, and I rarely have to spend much time in the dictionary.
I used to choose books to read based on whatever was most on my mind or caught my eye at the time.
As a result, my book choices would cluster around a single topic or genre for a while until my initial questions were answered or interest was exhausted, at which point I would move on to the next topic.
In short, I was reading mostly to satisfy my intellectual whims, which ranged from ancient history to political intrigues, war, writing, philosophy, marketing, storytelling, and more.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with that—it certainly led me down some interesting rabbit holes—but my purpose for reading has evolved and so have my habits.
I read for the following reasons (and in this order):
- To expand my vocabulary.
- To challenge myself intellectually.
- To improve my fluency.
- To get better at my work (and working in general), business, and making money.
- To better understand other people and the world around me.
And to accomplish those things, I follow two topical rotations in my reading, one for my morning slots and another for my afternoon sessions.
The morning rotation looks like this:
- Biography or history
- Be smarter/better
- Fiction, literature, or poetry
- Financial or misc.
And the afternoon currently goes like this:
- Art, creativity, or writing
- Marketing or persuasion
- Business or work
- Health, diet, or fitness
As you can see, my morning reading is devoted to non-professional pursuits and my afternoons are for getting ahead in my work.
I prefer this two-track approach over reading one book at a time simply because I enjoy reading two books simultaneously.
As far as how the rotations work, it’s simple: I read one book on a given topic and then move on to the next on the list, eventually coming back to the beginning.
As to selecting specific books to read, I tend to prefer older books to newer ones and fundamentals to complexities. This is especially true when I’m new to a subject or discipline or mostly looking for practical knowledge.
The reasons for this are twofold:
- Deeply understanding the basics of something is far superior to lightly understanding more complicated ideas. And if you don’t really get the basics, you’ll never really get the rest.
Older books still in currency often have stood the test of time for a reason: they usually deliver the goods. Hence, they’ve been able to survive the scrutiny of decades or even centuries and still earn new readers each and every day
In other words, the longer books have lived, the more valuable they likely are (and according to the Lindy effect, the longer their lifespans will likely be).
This is why I expect to get more from a book written 30, 50, or 100 years ago that’s still around than a book on the same topic written just a year ago. It doesn’t always work out like that, of course, but it’s a valuable rule of thumb.
And so I often first read older, classic books on subjects written by people who made the original discoveries and breakthroughs themselves before moving on to more modern books that may or may not add anything significant to the seminal works.
For instance, in the case of marketing, you can learn more or less everything you need to know in the way of fundamentals by reading the following older books:
- Scientific Advertising
- Tested Advertising Methods
- Breakthrough Advertising
- The Robert Collier Letter Book
- How to Write a Good Advertisement
- The Ultimate Sales Letter
There are many other great marketing books, of course, but if you ignored them all and just carefully read and applied the information in those seven books, you may not become a world-class marketer, but you’d never struggle to make money as one.
The same goes for many interests and activities.
The key to competence isn’t in the quantity of information you consume but the quality, how well you comprehend it, and ultimately what you can do with it.
Once I’ve worked through the top timeless books on a subject (and any other time-proven ones that have stood out), I’ll move on to books recommended by people I admire, and especially the books they feel most changed their minds, shaped their careers, and informed their character (“quake books,” as Tyler Cowen calls them).
To find these books, all it usually takes is a little Googling but if that comes up empty, a quick email or social media message will often get a reply (and especially from authors). Here’s a good place to start.
Lastly, if I can’t find or am out of personal recommendations on a topic, I’ll check out “best books on” lists online and poke around Amazon or my local bookstore to find potential reads.
To choose one book out of a number of worthy candidates, I usually pick one that “feels” like the best fit for my current needs or circumstances or simply interests me most.
Before starting, however, I first see if there’s a summary available on Blinkist, Instaread, or GetAbstract. If there is, I read it before the book because if I don’t find the summary interesting, chances are I won’t find the book interesting, either.
I don’t, however, substitute reading book summaries for reading books themselves. Perusing a twenty-something’s book report is not the same as getting the information—all of it—straight from the horse’s mouth.
If there isn’t a summary available, I’ll screen the book by skimming the preface, table of contents, index, and inside jacket to see if it deserves more of my time and attention.
Once I’ve started a book, I consider the first 50 pages as probation (or dating, if you want a softer metaphor). In other words, if by page 51, I’m thoroughly unimpressed, I quit the book and move on to another one.
I used to never quit books, but that was a mistake. We’re only going to be able to read so much in our lifetimes so why waste any of that opportunity on mediocre material?
Although I don’t abandon many books these days (mostly due to everything I’ve explained so far), unsurprisingly, most I’ve quit have been newer ones that simply didn’t live up to their promises.
Choosing the right books is half the reading battle, and the other half is how you read them.
There are more and less effective ways of reading, and from what I’ve seen, most people read rather ineffectively.
Namely, they make one or more of the following mistakes:
- Skimming or “speed reading”
- Glossing over words they don’t understand
- Reading passively (no highlighting, note-taking, reflection or internal dialogue, or connecting information dots)
- Failing to focus (checking social media, email, texts, etc.)
To read better, I do the opposite.
1. I don’t skim or speed read because while they allow you to get through books quickly, they don’t result in first-rate learning. If you want to misunderstand and forget just about everything you read, skim and speed read.
2. I’m always on the lookout for words that I don’t fully or correctly understand and always stop to clarify them in the dictionary. This makes for fewer pages per hour but greatly increases my comprehension of the material as well as increases my vocabulary, which, I believe, is one of the primary reasons to read.
Paying close attention to your understanding of words has another very practical benefit: it forces you to slow down and absorb and analyze what you’re reading word by word and sentence by sentence, as opposed to sailing through sentences and paragraphs believing you’re understanding and retaining more than you really are.
In case you’re wondering, here are my three favorite dictionaries (in this order):
3. I read actively by highlighting important and memorable passages, recording interesting thoughts, perceptions, and sometimes epiphanies as notes in the margins (if reading a hardcopy, otherwise saved as notes in the Kindle app), and striving to connect what I’m learning with other things I’ve already learned.
4. I focus on what I’m reading and nothing else. I don’t check social media or email, I don’t send text messages, I don’t have a TV on in the background, and I don’t stare off into the distance. Reading on a Kindle Paperwhite helps with this as there are no opportunities for distraction like with a smartphone.
I also save words that tickle my processors to Google Keep and later move them into a Google Sheet that I use to create SRS flashcards (I use Anki) that I go through every day or two for 15 or 20 minutes as a custom vocabulary building exercise of sorts.
Then, once I’ve finished a book, I’m not done with it. What comes next is the dessert.
Repetition is a powerful way to increase the “stickiness” of information. The number of times we see, hear, or read, something, the better we’ll understand and remember it (and the more influence it’ll have over us).
That’s why I extract all highlights and notes from every book I read and put them into Google Docs (one document per book). As I mostly read digitally, this is quick and easy, but in the case of hard copies, I have to type everything out by hand.
Some people, like Ryan Holiday, prefer to handwrite highlights and notes onto notecards, while others prefer to handwrite into notebooks. I say do whatever works best for you.
I prefer my digital system because it’s faster, safer (virtually no way to lose the work, and especially considering I save everything digital that I care about on an external hard drive every 6 months), and easily searchable (which comes in very handy as your library grows).
After I’ve dumped all my highlights and notes into a Google Doc, I read through everything again and separate out the key takeaways—the highlights and notes that struck me the most. I also save any particularly interesting quotes, passages, and anecdotes in Evernote and tag them accordingly, so when I’m writing and want to include something about, let’s say, courage, I can quickly pull up interesting tidbits and information.
This process may sound like drudgery, but I’ve come to enjoy it because it not only immediately boosts my comprehension and retention of the material but also a) makes it very easy to later review a book’s key points without having to fully reread it (which is warranted in some cases, but often not) and b) helps me produce higher quality writing.
In his book Principles, Ray Dalio said the following:
It seems to me that if you look back on yourself a year ago and aren’t shocked by how stupid you were, you haven’t learned much.
Things either get better or worse—they never truly stay the same—and so if we’re not continually getting better by educating and improving ourselves, it’s safe to assume we’re continually getting worse—dumber, lazier, and, quite frankly, less valuable as people, even if by small degrees.
If you agree, you also have to agree with the importance of persistent studying. Similar to exercise, it’s not a luxury but a necessity for living a highly productive and fulfilling life. And accordingly, neglecting such a fundamental inevitably leads to underperformance, stagnation, and dysfunction.
So, neglect reading and studying at your peril.
But let’s not end there—let’s go out on a positive note. Here’s what Henry David Thoreau had to say on the matter:
Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations. Books, the oldest and the best, stand naturally and rightfully on the shelves of every cottage. They have no cause of their own to plead, but while they enlighten and sustain the reader his common sense will not refuse them. Their authors are a natural and irresistible aristocracy in every society, and, more than kings or emperors, exert an influence on mankind.
What’s your take on the system I use to find great books? Have anything else you’d like to share? Let me know in the comments below!
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