Back in school, I had an affinity for math. Actually, that’s not completely true as I did almost fail an exam because I was confused about positive and negative integers (though luckily my teacher allowed me to re-take the exam). But for the most part, I had always been good at math and I think part of the reason why was because I had learned advanced math at a very early age. When you are good at something, you do not just remember things superficially, you have a deep understanding which can then be applied to different problems, problems that aren’t just from textbooks or derived by a teacher trying to test their students, but problems where it may be difficult to see how to apply things or where to ‘plug’ in formulas.

I share this math example as a segue into reading – I have been averaging several books a month for many years now and I don’t share this as a way to brag, but more of a, so what? I don’t think I am that much smarter than those that don’t read. I’m not more worldly about things than my friends (and in part, this is because I don’t pay attention to the news). I am awful in all of the fantasy leagues I’m in because I don’t manage my teams on a daily basis (only on a weekly basis really). Luckily for me, I don’t manage my investments either but when you are investing in index funds, it actually is not a good thing for you to react to the market on a frequent basis.

When I started the course “The Art of Reading” with the Farnham Street Blog, I was interested in hearing about how I could improve my reading – I already have the habit of reading down I think but what I wasn’t getting was a deep understanding of the books. I felt that I was regurgitating a lot of material, sometimes making it my own or reflecting on how it applies to my situation but most of the time just repeating what the author says in the books made me appear smart but did not make me feel like I had a deep understanding.

Here is what I learned about the art of reading:

How to choose a good book

The teachers talked about how spending a lot more time on fewer books was much better than reading many more books and spending less time on each – which on the surface, makes a lot of sense. If you can deeply understand a few books, apply their practices and theories to your life – that is much better and you are going to get a lot more out of the book than if you read 100 books and could only repeat some of the key takeaways in the books. I also learned that you do not necessarily have to finish every book that you read (something I’m still working on) although I do think there is something to be taken away from every book no matter how bad. Yet another way of actively engaging your mind is to be skeptical about the things that the author talks about. Is it true that you can get a four hour work week? Is it true that you only need to spend four hours and get a toned and fit body? Is the obstacle the way? Read with an open mind but don’t be afraid to question what the author talks about.

How to get a sense of whether this book is worth your time or not

In the movie, When Harry met Sally, Harry likes to read the last page of every book that he reads very early on because he says that if he dies, he would have wanted to know how the book ended. Similarly, if you take a look at the table of contents, you can get a sense of how the book frames their argument / story and then you can also read the parts that interest you.

One of the interesting things that the course talks about is reading synoptically, i.e., reading based on key subtopics. For example, you might have a chapter on building wealth and the author says that index funds are the best way to do that. Is it really though? To get a sense of whether index funds are the best way, you also have to read synoptically about the different ways you can invest your money and to form an argument for yourself – what about cryptocurrency? Hedge funds? Bonds? Stocks? Mutual funds? Once you figure out what topic you want to understand more deeply, do a cursory search of some of the best books on those related topics and only read what is relevant to you so that you can compare the advantages and disadvantages of each investment vehicle. It also takes great skill to figure out if / where the author may be biased due to a stake in the investment company, etc.

Okay, you have read the table of contents and figure that the book is interesting enough to spend a bit more time on. That doesn’t mean that you are now reading the book in full – take a look at the chapters that interest you OR take a look through the whole book. Read the chapter titles. Read subchapter titles. Read the first and last paragraphs of chapters. Read sentences that stand out. Do a very cursory skim of the whole book to see what jumps out at you. Only once you think that the book is worth your time to read do you actually put in the time.

How to think critically while reading

This part I’m doing semi-okay – as per what the course teaches – and it’s to every once in a while, pause and reflect on what the author has said. Be a skeptic and think about what and how the author has structured their argument. Does it make sense with what I (I personally) have seen? How does it fit or not fit with the world that I live in? If it does not fit, why not? What is it about my circumstances that make me special?

When you come across passages or quotes that really hit you – take notes. Again, you can see that I take book notes every once in a while for great books that I read but, this is something that I need to improve on, you can’t just repeat the things you see in books. Take notes on why the passage resonates with you. Note down questions that you have. Note down where other books or other authors agree or disagree.

The course also advocates that you take the Feynman approach to your reading – after reading, take a piece of paper and pretend that you are teaching someone about the book subject – what do you remember? What can you recall? What are the key things that you can note down? Compare with the book and if there is a big gap, re-read that specific passage / chapter to make sure that you really understand.

Once you have a good understanding, and I like this tip a lot, take a break from the book (the course says to take one week). After a week, pick the book back up and re-read the passage. What’s new to you now? What new connections are you making? Does the book feel differently to you? Why?

How to read synoptically

This concept was completely new to me and as such, was of particular interest to me. The course advocates reading from multiple sources – for example, if you are reading about Leonardo Da Vinci’s life, don’t just read Walter Isaacson’s biography, also read from other authors / sources. If we take the biography as an example, when reading from multiple sources:

  • Where are there gaps in the biography?
  • Where do the authors differ in opinions or stated facts?
  • Why do they differ? Is it something about the author?
  • Where are the holes in each argument?

Of particular interest to me here was the statement that if an author is a very good writer, we have to be even more skeptical – sometimes the stories and anecdotes that these great authors tell can sway us in ways that we may do not even realize.

In short, the reward for deeply understanding and reading multiple books on a specific subject can be exponential. One of the reasons why I didn’t watch the news was because I found that I was regurgitating the point of views of the reporters or articles that I read – I didn’t have a point of view or opinion of my own and a part of it was because I was not thinking critically enough about the news I was reading. So I want to change that with books – I’m still going to devote lots of time to books but I’m going to devote more time to reading synoptically about subjects that I am interested in to deeply understand the subject.

About the author:

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