The first book I remember reading was Selma Lagerlof’s Adventures of Nils Holgersson; a dusty copy in Romanian, the yellow jacket standing out in my parents impressive collection of books they never read.
I grew up with a solid library - substantial enough, anyway, for a two bedroom communist-style railroad apartment large as a box of matches, as we’d say.
In freshly post-communist Romania of the 90s, it was common to see a large library on the back wall of the living room that doubled as master bedroom, colorful volumes neatly decorating a modest living.
Thinking back on it, I never saw anyone read growing up. But everyone had books.
The books were always old, dusty, but in unfailingly excellent shape.
By my teens, I had exhausted the library, including copies of Proust I remember nothing of, and Stendhal’s Red and the Black I read at 13.
I remained a voracious reader up until college, when reading became a job. I became adept at extracting meaning from a minimum viable reading of whatever was assigned.
To be frank, I probably read more now, by sheer volume, than I ever have. It's just mostly online, which makes it easy for me to pick up books often, get a taste of what I come in curious for, and leave them unfinished.
My identity as an insatiable reader lived inside me for long after I stopped living up to it. It’s only been in the last year or two that I realized, admitted to, no longer being that person. And I miss him dearly.
So here I am, learning how to read again.
Old tactics, new tactics
I’ve long mastered the confidence of reading more than one book at a time and knowing that I need not wait until the last page to decide I’m done with a book.
But for many years, I was ashamed of it. My partner is a voracious reader who will not put a book down, and won’t bring herself to begin another, until she’s read it cover to cover.
Aware of my failure to live up to the voracious reader identity, I joyfully said yes, I'll pay to join the Farnam Street learning community, when I learned they offer a course called “The Art of Reading.”
Farnam Street is one of my happy places online - their blog and especially their podcast “The Knowledge Project” have been some of my brain food staples for years.
So, in the spirit of their mantra “mastering the best of what other people have already figured out,” I wanted to see how do smarter people than me read.
What to read?
For most of my life, unless reading specific assignments for school or a course, I didn't have an intentional reading funnel.
My reading decisions were easily swayed by whatever title wedged itself at the top of the reading list in the back of my mind, usually through articles I'd read, podcasts I'd listen to.
Sapiens is getting a lot of mentions - I should read that! Atomic Habits? Coming up next.
Two of my favorite apps are Scribd (a sort of Netflix for books) and Libby (which lets you check out a limited number of digital library books at a time).
Scribd doesn’t have all the books I want to read, but it’s often the first place I check a book’s availability because it costs me less than buying a book a month.
However, it became a long reading list more than a place where I actually read - I have over 600 titles saved (a veritable case of digital tsundoku.)
With Libby, the books are rarely available immediately, so I would use it for fiction more than non-fiction, and would read whatever was up next. The issue was often books would become available at the same time, and because it's a library app, and I can only check things out for 21 days at a time, I would often run out of time on one title or another.
I knew I needed a better way to keep a running list.
So I decided to try designing one in Todoist, which I use for my daily task tracking.
- The master project is Reading;
- Tasks = book categories (either thematic, or, more often, groups of books I'm reading with a specific purpose, such as instructional design);
- Sub-tasks = book titles;
- Comments on each subtask to remind myself of why it's on my list.
The key transformational tactic here is the comments. Because reading lists tend to grow at a much faster pace than my ability to read (see my 600 title list on Scribd), if I just read in the order I saved them, by the time I would get to a book I would forget why I wanted to read it in the first place.
Comments allow me to not only keep track of why I added a book, but also, who recommended it? What was I curious about? What did I think I was going to learn?
What I need to set up next is a rating system of some kind, or a way to simplify decisions on what to read next. Maybe I should try getting books on my calendar?
How to read?
There are two types of intentional reading I learned from Farnam Street that I find helpful: inspectional reading, and syntopical reading.
Inspectional reading is skimming.
There are two ways to skim a book - reading fast and superficially, or skimming systematically.
Farnam Street recommends reading the structure, the first and last chapters of a book, and perhaps the first and last paragraphs of every chapter.
Only then decide whether to read the whole thing, or only a handful of chapters, or no more.
Syntopical reading is reading books in conversation with one another.
I’m already used to picking up multiple books on a topic I want to learn about, but I never took the time to sit with a group of books and actively pit arguments against each another. Mortimer J. Adler defined this as syntopical reading.
Two keys to doing this:
- identify the core argument (and terminology) of each book or chapter;
- run the books you're reading through a list of questions you're trying to find answers to.
Finally, I've realized for a while that the mechanics of reading are also important. The way most of us are taught to read is largely passive - going from cover to cover, flipping pages and let the words swim before our eyes.
But I would often find that, when trying to recall the core argument of a book I'd read years ago, or particular anecdotes I found intriguing, my memory would fail me.
I also rarely read nonfiction cover to cover - there’s a lot of fluff. But there's a cost to jumping around - I lose focus, and over time I feel like it makes my memory even worse.
Read with a pen in hand, highlight often, review and summarize the highlights.
I’ve been using Readwise to integrate all my reading apps and save all my highlights for a couple of months, and it’s a godsend.
What I need to next is set up periodic check-ins to review and summarize what I save, and discard what’s no longer relevant).
Admitting that I'm a bad reader wasn't easy to do, but it put me on a journey to filling the gaps.
Some of these "tips" probably feel ridiculously obvious to many of you, but I'm frankly shocked I got through what many would consider some of the best education one can get, without so much as a nudge to read on purpose.
Do you consider yourself an intentional reader? What are your tricks and tactics to read with purpose, and remember what you're reading?