Category: Reading

How to Remember What You Read

“I cannot remember the books I have read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.”

— Ralph Waldo Emerson

Why is it that some people seem to be able to read a book once and remember every detail of it for life, while others struggle to recall even the title a few days after putting down a book?

The answer is simple but not easy.

It's not what they read. It's how they read. Passive readers forget things almost as quickly as they read them. Active readers, on the other hand, retain the bulk of what they read.

There is another difference between these two types of readers: The quantity of reading affects them differently. Passive readers who read a lot are not much further ahead than passive readers who read a little. If you're an active reader, however, things are different.

The more that active readers read, the better they get. They develop a latticework of mental models to hang ideas on, further increasing retention. They learn to differentiate good arguments and structures from bad ones. They make better decisions because they know what fits with the basic structure of how the world works. They avoid problems. The more they read, the more valuable they become. The more they read, the more they know what to look for.

Think back to the books you studied in school. Despite the passage of time, most us remember a lot about them. Even if the details are fuzzy, we can doubtless recall the basic plots, main characters, notable themes, and motifs. We didn't just passively read those books. We actively read them. We had class discussions, took turns reading parts aloud, acted out scenes, or maybe even watched film adaptations. No matter how long it has been since we set foot in a classroom, we all probably remember Animal Farm.

Having a deliberate strategy for anything we spend a lot of time on is a sensible approach. But most people don't consciously try to get the most out of the time they invest in reading.

For us to get the most out of each book we read, it is vital to have a plan for recording, reflecting on, and putting into use the conclusions we draw from the information we consume. In this article, we will look at a strategy for deriving the maximum benefit from every single page you read.

First, let's clear up some common misconceptions about reading. Here's what I know:

  • Quality matters more than quantity. If you read just one book a week but fully appreciate and absorb it, you'll be far better off than someone who skims through half the library without paying much attention.
  • Speedreading is bullshit. The only way to read faster is to actually read more.
  • Book summary services miss the point. I know a lot of companies charge ridiculous prices for access to summaries written by some 22-year-old with zero life experience, but the point of reading for fluency is to acquire a repository of facts and details. Nuance, if you will. In this sense, you understand a bit more about why things work.
  • Fancy apps and tools are not needed. A notebook, index cards, and a pen will do just fine. (For those of you wanting a simple and searchable online tool to help, Evernote is the answer.)
  • We don't need to read stuff we find boring.
  • We don't need to finish the entire book. 

“Every time I read a great book I felt I was reading a kind of map, a treasure map, and the treasure I was being directed to was in actual fact myself. But each map was incomplete, and I would only locate the treasure if I read all the books, and so the process of finding my best self was an endless quest. And books themselves seemed to reflect this idea. Which is why the plot of every book ever can be boiled down to ‘someone is looking for something'.”

— Matt Haig, Reasons to Stay Alive

Before Reading

Choose Your Books Wisely
There are no rules when it comes to choosing books. We don't have to read bestsellers, or classics, or books everyone else raves about. This isn't school and there are no required reading lists. Focus on some combination of books that: (1) stand the test of time; (2) pique your interest; or (3) resonate with your current situation.

The more interesting and relevant we find a book, the more likely we are to remember its contents in the future.

For older books or those that have been translated, check which version is considered to be the best. For example, the Hayes translation of Marcus Aurelius' Meditations is regarded as being truest to the original text, while also having a modern feel.

Get Some Context
A good place to start is by doing some preliminary research on the book. Some books – for example, A Confederacy of Dunces and The Palm Wine Drinkard – have a very different meaning once we know a bit about the life of the author.

For older books, try to understand the historical context. For books written in an unfamiliar country, try to understand the cultural context. Some helpful questions to ask include:

  • Why did the author write this? (Did they have an agenda?)
  • What is their background?
  • What else have they written?
  • Where was it written?
  • What was the political, economic, and cultural situation at the time of writing?
  • Has the book been translated or reprinted?
  • Did any important events — a war, an economic depression, a change of leadership, the emergence of new technology — happen during the writing of the book?

Know Why You're Reading the Book
What are you reading this book for? Entertainment? To understand something or someone you don't know? To get better at your job? To improve your health? To learn a skill? To help build a business?

You have to have some idea of what you want to get from the book. You don't just want to collect endless amounts of useless information. That will never stick.

Skim the Index, Contents, and Preface
Before starting to read a book (particularly non-fiction), skim through the index, contents page, preface, and inside jacket to get an idea of the subject matter.  (This article on how to read a book is a brilliant introduction to skimming.) The bibliography can also indicate the tone of a book. The best authors often read hundreds of books for each one they write, so a well-researched book should have a bibliography full of interesting texts. After you've read the book, peruse the bibliography and make a note of any books you want to read next.

Match the Book to Your Setting or Situation
Although it's not always practical, matching books to our location and circumstances can be powerful. Books will have a greater resonance as they become part of an experience rather than just supplementing it.

When choosing books, take a look at your own situation and decide on genres or authors that might help you overcome any current challenges. Whatever your state of affairs, someone has been in the same place. Someone has felt the same feelings and thought the same thoughts and written about it. It's up to you to find that book.

For example:

  • Traveling or on holiday? Match books to the location — Jack Kerouac or John Muir for America; Machiavelli for Italy; Montaigne’s Essays, Ernest Hemingway, or Georges Perec for France; and so on. Going nowhere in particular? Read Vladimir Nabokov or Henry Thoreau.
  • Dealing with grief? Read When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, Torch by Cheryl Strayed, or anything by Tarah Brach.
  • Having a crisis about your own mortality? (It happens to us all.) Read Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life or Theodore Zeldin’s The Hidden Pleasures of Life.
  • Dealing with adversity? Lose your job? Read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations or Ryan Holiday’s The Obstacle Is the Way.
  • Dissatisfied with your work? Read Linchpin by Seth Godin, Mastery by Robert Greene, or Finding Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

If I were a Dr., I'd prescribe books. They can be just as powerful as drugs.

While Reading

You'll remember more if you do the following seven things while you're reading.

Make Notes
Making notes is perhaps the single most important part of remembering what you read.

The best technique for notetaking is whichever one works for you and is easy to stick to. You need to create your own system. Some people prefer to record notes on index cards or in a commonplace book; others prefer a digital system. Notes are especially useful if you write on a regular basis, although everyone (not just writers) can benefit from making them.

Start by writing a short summary of each chapter and transcribing any meaningful passages or phrases. If you are unsure how to simplify your thoughts, imagine that someone has just tapped you on the shoulder and asked you to explain the chapter you just finished reading. They have never read this book and lack any idea of the subject matter. How would you explain it to them?

In The 3 Secrets That Help Me Write and Think, Robert Greene describes his notetaking process this way:

When I read a book, I am looking for the essential elements in the work that can be used to create the strategies and stories that appear in my books. As I am reading a book I underline important passages and sections and put notes … on the side.

After I am done reading I will often put it aside for up to a week and think deeply about the lessons and key stories that could be used for my book project. I then go back and put these important sections on notecards.

David Foster Wallace recommends a similar form of active reading (for more, see Quack This Way: David Foster Wallace & Bryan A. Garner Talk Language and Writing):

Not just reading a lot, but paying attention to the way the sentences are put together, the clauses are joined, the way the sentences go to make up a paragraph. Exercises as boneheaded as you take a book you really like, you read a page of it three, four times, put it down, and then try to imitate it word for word so that you can feel your own muscles trying to achieve some of the effects that the page of text you like did. If you're like me, it will be in your failure to be able to duplicate it that you'll actually learn what's going on. It sounds really, really stupid, but in fact, you can read a page of text, right? And “Oh that was pretty good…” but you don't get any sense of the infinity of choices that were made in that text until you start trying to reproduce them.

Stay Focused
Decide that for the time you will be reading, you will focus on the book and nothing else. No quick Twitter checks. No emails. No cell phone. No TV. No staring into midair. Understanding and absorbing a book requires deep focus, especially if the subject matter is dense or complex. Remember, we are aiming for active reading. Active reading requires focus and the ability to engage with the author. (Focus is hard work. If you're lost, start here.)

Referring to the time before the internet, Nicholas Carr writes in The Shallows: “In the quiet spaces opened up by the prolonged, undistracted reading of a book, people made their own associations, drew their own inferences and analogies, fostered their own ideas. They thought deeply as they read deeply.”

If you're struggling to stay focused on a particularly difficult or lengthy book, decide to read a mere 25 pages of it a day. It takes only a few minutes to nibble away at a challenging text. Completing a long book in this manner might take months, but at least you will have read it without getting overwhelmed or bored.

Mark Up the Book
Most of us were taught as children to treat books as something sacred – no folding the page corners, and no writing in the margins, ever. However, if you want to remember what you read, forget about keeping books pristine. I've spent a lot of time helping my kids unlearn the rule that books are not to be written in.

In fact, go crazy with marginalia. The more you write, the more active your mind will be while reading.

Jot down connections and tangential thoughts, underline key passages, and make a habit of building a dialogue with the author. Some people recommend making your own index of key pages or using abbreviations (Maria Popova of Brain Pickings writes “BL” next to any beautiful language, for example).

The first time you write in a book can be unnerving, but in the long term, it leads to a rich understanding and a sense of connection with the author.

Billy Collins has written a beautiful poem on the joys of marginalia: “We have all seized the white perimeter as our own / and reached for a pen if only to show / we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages; / we pressed a thought into the wayside / planted an impression along the verge. /… ‘Pardon the egg salad stains, but I'm in love.'”

Stop and Build a Vivid Mental Picture
Building vivid mental pictures is one of the most effective techniques for remembering anything, not least what we read. When you come across an important passage or concept, pause and visualize it. Make the picture as salient and distinctive as possible.

Make Mental Links
Books do not exist in a vacuum. Every concept or fact can be linked to countless others. Making an effort to form our own links is a fruitful way to better remember what we read.

Nicholas Carr writes in The Shallows:

The bond between book reader and book writer has always been a tightly symbiotic one, a means of intellectual and artistic cross-fertilization. The words of the writer act as a catalyst in the mind of the reader, inspiriting new insights, associations, and perceptions, sometimes even epiphanies. And the very existence of the attentive, critical reader provides the spur for the writer's work. It gives the author confidence to explore new forms of expression, to blaze difficult and demanding paths of thought, to venture into uncharted and sometimes hazardous territory.

Keep Mental Models in Mind

Mental models enable us to better understand and synthesize books. Some of the key ways we can use them include:

  • Confirmation bias: Which parts of this book am I ignoring? Does this book confirm my opinions? (Okay, but does it actually affirm your beliefs or are you just seeing what you want to see? If you cannot think of a single point in the book that you disagreed with, confirmation bias is perchance distorting your reasoning.)
  • Bayesian updating: What opinions should I change in light of this book? How can I update my worldview using the information in it? Keep in mind the words of John Maynard Keynes: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”
  • Pareto principle: Which parts of this book are most important and contain the most information? If I had to cut 99% of the words in this book, what would I leave? Many authors have to reach a certain word or page count, resulting in pages (or even entire chapters) containing fluff and padding. Even the best non-fiction books are often longer than is imperative to convey their ideas. (Note that the Pareto principle is less applicable for fiction books.)
  • Leverage: How can I use lessons from this book to gain a disproportionate advantage? Can I leverage this new knowledge in a tangible way?
  • Incentives: What motivates the characters or the author? What are they seeking? What is their purpose? Here’s how Kurt Vonnegut described the importance of incentives in books: “When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away – even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.”
  • Availability bias: Are the books I have recently read affecting how I perceive this one? How are my neoteric experiences shaping my reading? Am I assigning undue importance to parts of this book because they are salient and memorable?
  • Stereotyping tendency: Am I unconsciously fitting the author, characters, or book in general into a particular category? Or is the author stereotyping their characters? Remember, there is no such thing as a good stereotype.
  • Social proof: How is social proof — the number of copies sold, bestseller status, the opinions of others — affecting my perception of this book? Is the author using social proof to manipulate readers? It is not unusual for authors to buy their way onto bestseller lists, providing social proof which then leads to substantial sales. As a result, mediocre books can end up becoming popular. It’s a classic case of the emperor having no clothes, which smart readers know to look out for.
  • Narrative instinct: Is the author distorting real events to form a coherent narrative? This is common in biographies, memoirs, and historical texts. In The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality, Hayden White explains our tendency to meld history into a narrative: “So natural is the impulse to narrate, so inevitable is the form of narrative for any report of the way things really happened, that narrativity could appear problematical only in a culture in which it was absent… narrative is a metacode, a human universal… Narrative becomes a problem only when we wish to give to real events the form of story… This value attached to narrativity in the representation of real events arises out of a desire to have real events display the coherence, integrity, fullness, and closure of an image of life that is and can only be imaginary. The notion that sequences of real events possess the formal attributes of the stories we tell about imaginary events could only have its origin in wishes, daydreams, reveries. Does the world really present itself to perception in the form of well-made stories, with central subjects, proper beginnings, middles, and ends, and a coherence that permits us to see “the end” in every beginning? Or does it present itself more in the forms that the annals and chronicle suggest, either as mere sequence without beginning or end or as sequences of beginnings that only terminate and never conclude? And does the world, even the social world, ever really come to us as already narrativized, already “speaking itself” from beyond the horizon of our capacity to make scientific sense of it? Or is the fiction of such a world, a world capable of speaking itself and of displaying itself as a form of a story, necessary for the establishment of that moral authority without which the notion of a specifically social reality would be unthinkable?”
  • Survivorship bias: Is this (non-fiction) book a representation of reality or is the author failing to account for base rates? Survivorship bias is abundant in business, self-help, and biographical books. A particular case of a successful individual or business might be held as the rule, rather than the exception.
  • Utility: If a book offers advice, does it have practical applications? At what point do diminishing returns set in?

Put It Down If You Get Bored
As a general rule, people who love reading never, ever finish a crappy book.

As Schopenhauer once wrote, “one can never read too little of bad, or too much of good books: bad books are intellectual poison; they destroy the mind.” Life is much too short to finish a bad book.

Nancy Pearl advocates the Rule of 50. This entails reading the first 50 pages of a book and then deciding if it is worth finishing. The Rule of 50 has an interesting feature: once you are over the age of 50, subtract your age from 100 and read that many pages. Pearl writes:

And if, at the bottom of Page 50, all you are really interested in is who marries whom, or who the murderer is, then turn to the last page and find out. If it's not on the last page, turn to the penultimate page, or the antepenultimate page, or however far back you have to go to discover what you want to know… When you are 51 years of age or older, subtract your age from 100, and the resulting number (which, of course, gets smaller every year) is the number of pages you should read before you can guiltlessly give up on a book…When you turn 100, you are authorized (by the Rule of 50) to judge a book by its cover.

Nassim Taleb also emphasizes the importance of never finishing a substandard book:

The minute I was bored with a book or a subject, I moved to another one, instead of giving up on reading altogether – when you are limited to the school material and you get bored, you have a tendency to give up and do nothing or play hooky out of discouragement… The trick is to be bored with a specific book, rather than with the act of reading. So the number of the pages absorbed could grow faster than otherwise. And you find gold, so to speak, effortlessly, just as in rational but undirected trial-and-error-based research.

“The things you're looking for, Montag, are in the world, but the only way the average chap will ever see ninety-nine percent of them is in a book.”

— Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

After Reading

Most people think that consuming information is the same as learning information. This idea is flawed.

The basic process of learning consists of reflection and feedback. We learn ideas gained through experiences – ours or others – that remain unchallenged unless we make the time to reflect on them. If you read something and you don't make time to think about what you've read, your conclusions will be shaky.

The Feynman Technique
The Feynman technique is named after the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman. You can think of it as an algorithm for guaranteed learning. There are four simple steps: choose a concept; teach it to a toddler; identify gaps and go back to the source material; and review and simplify.

Think About What You Can Apply
So, you've finished the book. Now what? How can you use what you have learned? Don't just go away with a vague sense of “oh yeah, I should totally do what that author says.” Take the time to make a plan and decide how to implement key lessons from the book.

Reading alone is not enough. We have to contextualize the knowledge. When does it work? When doesn't it work? Where can I apply it? What are the key variables? The list goes on. If you can take something you've read and apply it immediately, it will reinforce the learning and add context and meaning.

Teach What You Have Learned
Teaching others is a powerful way to embed information in your mind. This is part of the Feynman technique.

Upon completing a book, grab the nearest (willing) person and tell them about what you have learned. You'll have to remove or explain the jargon, describe why this information has meaning, and walk them through the author's logic. It sounds simple. After you try it the first time, you'll realize it's not easy.

If there is no one around who is interested, try talking to yourself. That's what I do … but maybe I'm crazy.

And if that doesn't work, write a review on Amazon or Goodreads, or post about it on Reddit or anywhere else where people are likely to be interested.

One of the benefits of our virtual reading group is that people are forced to actually think about what they are learning. We ask weekly questions on the assigned reading, and responses are diverse and thoughtful. The jargon goes away and people remove blind spots. It's incredible to watch. The result is that after reading a book with us, people say “I've retained so much more than I would have if I did it on my own.”

It was Schopenhauer who said, “When we read, another person thinks for us: we merely repeat his mental process.” To escape this, you need to reflect on your views and see how they stand up to feedback.

Catalogue Your Notes
There are endless ways of organizing your notes – by book, by author, by topic, by the time of reading. It doesn't matter which system you use as long as you will be able to find the notes in the future.

Having a catalogue of everything you learn from reading creates a priceless resource which can be consulted whenever you need an idea, want inspiration, or want to confirm a thought. Over the years, you will build up a bank of wisdom to refer to in times of crisis, uncertainty, or need. It is hard to convey quite how valuable this can prove to be.

As General Mattis wrote: “Thanks to my reading, I have never been caught flat-footed by any situation, never at a loss for how any problem has been addressed (successfully or unsuccessfully) before. It doesn't give me all the answers, but it lights what is often a dark path ahead.”

The options for cataloguing your notes include:

  • A box of index cards, ideally organized by topic, author, or time of reading. Index cards can be moved around.
  • A commonplace book (again, ideally organized by topic, author, or time of reading).
  • A digital system, such as Evernote, OneNote, or plain old Microsoft Word. Digital systems have the added benefit of being searchable, which can save a lot of time if you refer to your notes on a regular basis.

Schedule time to read and review these notes.

Reread (If Necessary)

Great books should be read more than once. While rereading them can seem like a waste of time because there are so many other books to read, this is a misunderstanding of the learning process. The best time to start rereading a great book is right after finishing. The goal is not to read as many books as possible; I've tried that and it doesn't work. The goal is to gain as much wisdom as you can.

Rereading good books is of tremendous importance if we want to form lasting memories of the contents. Repetition is crucial for building memories. As Seneca wrote: “You should be extending your stay among writers whose genius is unquestionable, deriving constant nourishment from them if you wish to gain anything from your reading that will find a lasting place in your mind.”

There's no better way to finish this article than with the wise words of Henry Thoreau:

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.

Comment on Facebook | Discuss on Twitter

Why You Shouldn’t Slog Through Books

Our system for reading 25 pages a day has been adopted by many of our readers and members of the learning community to great success. A couple points have been misinterpreted, though, so we want to clear them up.

***

Reading is a way to open windows into other worlds that cross time and disciplines. While most of us don't have the time to read a whole book in one sitting, we do have the time to read 25 pages a day (here are some ways you can find time to read). Reading the right books, even if it's a few pages a day, is one of the best ways to ensure that you go to bed a little smarter than you woke up.

Twenty-five pages a day doesn't sound like much, but this commitment adds up over time. Let’s say that two days out of each month, you probably won’t have time to read. Plus Christmas. That gives you 340 days a year of solid reading time. If you read 25 pages a day for 340 days, that's 8,500 pages. 8,500. What I have also found is that when I commit to a minimum of 25 pages, I almost always read more. So let’s call the 8,500 pages 10,000. (I only need to extend the daily 25 pages into 30 to get there.)

With 10,000 pages a year, at a general pace of 25/day, what can we get done?

Well, The Power Broker is 1,100 pages. The four LBJ books written by Robert Caro are collectively 3,552 pages. Tolstoy’s two masterpieces — War and Peace, and Anna Karenina — come in at a combined 2,160. Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is six volumes and runs to about 3,660 pages. That’s 10,472 pages.

That means, in about one year, at a modest pace of 25 pages a day, you’d have knocked out 13 masterful works and learned an enormous amount about the history of the world. In one year!

That leaves the following year to read Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1,280), Carl Sandburg’s Six Volumes on Lincoln (2,000?), Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations unabridged (1,200), and Boswell’s Johnson (1,300), with plenty of pages left to read something else.

This is how the great works get read: day by day, 25 pages at a time. No excuses.

We hold to this advice today. But there are two areas that have been misinterpreted over the past year, so let's clarify them and make sure everyone is set on the right course.

Twenty-Five Pages a Day: Minimum, Not Maximum!

Our friend Ryan Holiday had an interesting retort to our piece, saying that while he agreed with it, he found it impractical in his own life.

Farnam Street had a post recently talking about how the way to get through big books is 25 pages a day. I don’t totally disagree with that, I’ve just found that style is nice in theory but less effective in practice. Really, it’s about whether you can go through large blocks of time at this thing, concerted but sustained blocks of effort—almost like a fartlek workout. Because broken up into too many pieces, you’ll miss the whole point of the book, like the proverbial blind man touching an elephant. Those who conquer long books know that it’s not a matter of reading some pages before you fall asleep but rather, canceling your plans for the night and staying in to read instead.

I suspect that our disagreement is one of degree and perhaps misinterpretation. We totally agree on the point of reading in long, sustained blocks. That's exactly how we read ourselves!

The point of assigning yourself a certain amount of reading every day is to create a deeply held habit. The 25-pages-a-day thing is a habit-former! For those of us who already have a strong reading habit, it's not altogether necessary. I love reading, so I no longer need to force myself to read.

But many people dream of it rather than doing it, and they especially dream of a day when they will read for hours at a time with great frequency, as Ryan does and as we do.

The problem is, when they start tasting the broccoli, they realize how tough that commitment can be. They think, “If I can't read for hours on end, why bother starting?” So instead of doing their daily 25 pages, they don't read anything! The books sit on the shelves, collecting dust. We know a lot of people like this.

Those folks need to commit to a daily routine — to understand what a small commitment compounds to over time. And, like us, most of these people will naturally read far more than 25 pages. They will achieve the dream and plow through a book they really love in a few sittings rather than with a leisurely 25 pages per day. But creating the habit is where it starts.

Eventually, you’ll love it so much that you’ll force yourself to read less at times so you can get other things done.

Don't Slog Through Books You Don't Like

The other misconception comes from the meaty books we referred to: long ones like The Power Broker, War and Peace, and Gibbon's Decline and Fall. Some readers took that to mean that they should attempt these huge tomes out of pure masochism and use the 25-page daily mark to plow through boredom.

Nothing could be further from the truth! (Our bad.)

Too many English lit professors have promoted the idea that “the classics” contain some sort of unique unobtanium of wisdom. Sorry, but that’s bullshit.

If you've gone through our course on the Art of Reading (which we recently updated and revised), you'll realize that there are many better strategies than plowing ahead. You must pursue your curiosities! This is by far the most important principle of good reading.

The truth is that when you're super bored, your interest and understanding come to a screeching halt. There are many, many topics that I find interesting now which I found dull at some point in my life. Five years ago, there was no possible way I would have made it through The Power Broker, even if I tried to force myself. And it would have been a mistake to try.

Here’s another unspoken truth: Any central lesson you can take away from War and Peace can also be learned in other ways if that book doesn't really interest you. The same goes for 99% of the wisdom out there — it's available in many places. Unfortunately, too many English lit professors have promoted the idea that “the classics” contain some sort of unique unobtanium of wisdom. Sorry, but that’s bullshit.

The better idea is to read what seems awesome and interesting to you now and to let your curiosities grow organically. A lifelong interest in truth, reality, and knowledge will lead you down so many paths, you should never need to force yourself to read anything unless there is a very, very specific reason. (Perhaps to learn a specific skill for a job.)

Not only is this approach way more fun, but it works really, really well. It keeps you reading. It keeps you interested. And in the words of Nassim Taleb, “Curiosity is antifragile, like an addiction; magnified by attempts to satisfy it.”

Thus, paradoxically, as you read more books, your pile of unread books will get larger, not smaller. That’s because your curiosity will grow with every great read.

This is the path of the lifelong learner.

General James Mattis: Arm Yourself With Books

How many situations will you face that have not already been experienced by someone else? Billions of people, thousands of years … probably not too many. It’s been done.

Luckily, sometimes those experiences are captured by history, and thus they become valuable tools for us to learn and prepare for similar situations. This is part of the central ethos of Farnam Street.

In an email that went viral in 2013, U.S. Marine General James Mattis (now the U.S. Secretary of Defense) candidly wrote about the value of this approach near the beginning of the Iraq War. Advising a colleague, he wrote:

Thanks to my reading, I have never been caught flat-footed by any situation, never at a loss for how any problem has been addressed (successfully or unsuccessfully) before. It doesn’t give me all the answers, but it lights what is often a dark path ahead.

Speaking specifically about situations he faced in the context of his military role, he said “We have been fighting on this planet for 5,000 years and we should take advantage of their experience. ‘Winging it’ and filling body bags as we sort out what works reminds us of the moral dictates and the cost of incompetence in our profession.”

Whatever country you are fighting a war in, someone has already fought there before. Someone has also explored it, mapped it, studied it, and done humanitarian work there. The hard work has already been done. All you have to do is read.

Maybe Napoleon shouldn’t have dismissed the Swedish accounts on the perils of invading Russia. He might have learned that the Russians didn’t follow the traditional norms of warfare. They weren’t going to surrender, or even admit to losing a battle, not with thousands of miles of country to withdraw into, scorching the earth along the way. And also that the Russian winter is really, really, harsh. 130 years later, with Napoleon’s experience to draw from, it’s staggering that Hitler went down the same path. He got the same results.

Books have a limitless amount to teach us if we're willing to pay attention.

You don’t need to be a military general to benefit from the fore-arming and forewarning that books can provide. Ask yourself, what body of knowledge would I benefit from having deep in my bones? Unless you're trying to make discoveries in fundamental physics or advanced technology, someone else has probably already gained the knowledge that you seek, and they likely have put it in a book to share with you.

Learning how to read for wisdom is simple, but not easy. The payoffs though, can be incredible.

The more you read, the more you will build your repertoire. Incrementally at first, the knowledge you add to your stockpile will grow over time as it combines with everything new you put in there. This is called compounding, and it works with knowledge much the same as it does with interest. Eventually, when faced with the new, challenging, and perplexing, you will be able to draw on this dynamic inner repository.

You will react, not as a neophyte, but as someone whose instincts have been honed by the experiences of others, rather than just your own. You will start to see that nothing is truly new, that awesome challenges can and have been overcome, and there are fundamental truths to how the world works.

So learn from others. Figure out where you are going and find out who has been there before. Knowledge comes from experience, but it doesn’t have to be your experience. Deep reading helps you to understand the world allowing you to conquer panic and maximize your chances of success.

If you're interested in military matters, you might even start with Mattis' reading list itself.

What We Can Learn From The Laboratory of Literature: Two Great Thinkers

We all have a feeling that literature is important. And yet many of us avoid the category altogether, feeling it's a waste of time to pick up literature when we can learn so much more from non-fiction. Literature, however, isn't a waste of time at all. In fact, literature saves us time.

Literature rapidly increases our learning. We learn through experiences, either our own or those of other people. Literature amplifies our exposure to a range of situations and events that would otherwise take decades for us to experience ourselves. For example, we can safely learn what it's like to get divorced, quit your job and fly to another country on a whim, have an affair, be in love, or kill someone.

Literature allows us to live other lives. We can be a Princess or a Prince. And we can explore what's really on our minds, which makes us feel less lonely. We can be good or evil. We can explore taboo sexual fantasies and more. Importantly, we can explore with an honesty and safety that is generally unavailable to us in our day-to-day life. We don't have to compromise. As Emerson wrote, “In the works of great writers we find our own neglected thoughts.”

Through literature, we develop emotional connections with characters and a shared community. We witness unparalleled kindness and terror. And though these experiences, we start to learn about ourselves and others. Reading the right passage can feel like the author knows us better than we know ourselves. It can put coherence to things we've only felt. If we are the territory, good literature can be the map.

Literature opens us up to a wider range of emotions. We learn to shift our perspective by putting ourselves in the shoes of others. We learn about who we are and who we want to be. And we experience the second order consequences of choices without having to live them ourselves.

***

Umberto Eco in On Literature and Jean-Paul Sartre in What is Literature, expand on our sense community.

Literature allows for community. All literature encompasses at least a community of two: the reader and the writer. And each member plays a valuable role. As Sartre writes “each one trusts the other; each one counts on the other, demands of the other as much as he demands of himself.”

The community of great books becomes so large that it becomes part of our culture. When this happens, the work allows us to share experiences with others we've never met, making us better global citizens. Eco explains “certain characters have become somehow true for the collective imagination because over the course of centuries we have made emotional investments in them.”

Many generations of people have experienced Elizabeth Bennett from Pride and Prejudice and Athos from The Three Musketeers. These stories have become part of our shared fabric, even for those who haven't read the books. We transcend time and place. These characters make us feel. Whether it's the joy that Elizabeth felt reading Dary's letters or the sadness that Athos felt because he could never come to terms with the complexity of Milady. And importantly we learn moral lessons. Who doesn't know ‘all for one and one for all.'

Eco suggests that literature has a lot to teach us about fate, or destiny, because no matter one’s desire, the story is already written and cannot be changed. As a reader we discover more than information, “it is the discovery that things happen, and have always happened, in a particular way.”

We all wish we could change stories. That we could sit down with a character and say ‘hey, aren’t you overthinking this retribution thing? Or, just be honest with her, she loves you’ and rewrite their endings. Eco thinks this is part of the power of literature, “against all our desires to change destiny, they make tangible the impossibility of changing it. And in so doing, no matter what story they are telling, they are also telling our own story, and that is why we read them and love them.” Through this emotional investment, we start to see the world through the eyes of others, with their limited information.

Literature further contributes to developing community by participating in the creation of language and identity. Eco writes that “without Dante there would have been no unified Italian language,” and then goes on to say “we might also think of what Greek civilization would have been like without Homer, German identity without Luther’s translation of the Bible, the Russian language without Pushkin, or Indian civilization without its foundation epics.”

The language used in works of literature that attract large communities enters the lexicon and becomes part of the identity of the collective. Even if you haven't read the original work, its impact is accessible to you. For example, how many of us know that a ‘foregone conclusion’ originated in Othello? Or that to call someone a ‘laughing stock’ came from The Merry Wives of Windsor? These phrases started in the works of Shakespeare, but the huge community of readers has taken these beyond their original pages and made them part of everyday speech to the extent that we no longer associate them with literature. They are just ‘how we speak’.

***

Another value of literature is its link with freedom.

The freedom to express ideas that challenge people, to create language to capture aspects of the human condition, to bring to the forefront stories that go against the majority and which in doing so might make us uncomfortable. Sartre writes, “the freedom of writing implies the freedom of the citizen. One does not write for slaves. The art of prose is bound up with the only regime in which prose has meaning, democracy. When one is threatened, the other is too.”

Literature questions. It asks, what if? What if she does this? What if the world looks like that? It places characters in a certain time and space, imbues them with particular qualities and lets them go, showing us what can happen if we marry the wrong person, ignore our values, or survive a war. And thus implores us to question as well. Are we making the right choices?

This, of course, implies that we have choices, and thus Sartre’s link to democracy. To write and to read both involve freedom. Thus the value of literature is more than the stories, it is also the link it provides to others, the sense of community it can develop, and the social structures it supports.

***

Still Curious? Here's a list of fiction that influences and inspires

Arthur Schopenhauer on the Dangers of Clickbait

German Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860) influenced some of the more prominent minds in the world. His writings and lessons traverse time and discipline. Schopenhauer confronted similar problems with media to the ones we face.

We live under a constant onslaught of content that is not meant to live beyond the moment in which it appears.

Weaving together two of his essays, “On Authorship” (from The Essays of Schopenhauer: The Art of Literature) and “On Reading.” we can see that he foresaw the problem of clickbait in terms of its distraction from what’s important and how we can fend it off.

Let’s first turn our attention to Schopenhauer’s beliefs on the two kinds of authors and their motivations:

[T]hose who write for the subject’s sake, and those who write for writing’s sake. The first kind have had thoughts or experiences which seem to them worth communicating, while the second kind need money and consequently write for money. They think in order to write, and they may be recognized by their spinning out their thoughts to the greatest possible length, and also by the way they work out their thoughts, which are half-true, perverse, forced, and vacillating; then also by their love of evasion, so that they may seem what they are not; and this is why their writing is lacking in definiteness and clearness.

The author has a moral duty to not cheat the reader. You could write about how our media demands this cheating. For example, the 24-hour news cycle broadcasts only for the sake of filling up time and generating pageviews. It has changed our definition of ‘news.'

The author is cheating the reader as soon as he writes for the sake of filling up paper; because his pretext for writing is that he has something to impart. Writing for money [is], at bottom, the ruin of literature. It is only the man who writes absolutely for the sake of the subject that writes anything worth writing.

(There is an argument to be made that media fragmentation and low barriers drive down the monetary value of success. If this were true, it is possible that people will once again begin to create for the value of the activity and not the dollars.) We should only read good books. More than read them we should re-read them.

What an inestimable advantage it would be, if, in every branch of literature, there existed only a few but excellent books! This can never come to pass so long as money is to be made by writing. … The best works of great men all come from the time when they had to write either for nothing or for very little pay.

The problem is these bad writers, offering little timeless value, monopolize the time and attention of people that could be otherwise spent on more profitable pursuits.

They are written merely with a view to making money or procuring places. They are not only useless, but they do positive harm. Nine-tenths of the whole of our present literature aims solely at taking a few shillings out of the public’s pocket, and to accomplish this, author, publisher, and reviewer have joined forces.

The fact these views consume us underpins why our views are so shallow. Remember, Schopenhauer was writing at a time when people valued deep work and attention in a way we no longer do. As an audience it is easier to skim the surface of the volume that is available.

Oh, how like one commonplace mind is to another! How they are all fashioned in one form! How they all think alike under similar circumstances, and never differ! This is why their views are so personal and petty. And a stupid public reads the worthless trash written by these fellows for no other reason than that is has been printed today, while it leaves the works of the great thinkers undisturbed on the bookshelves.

We often forget the existence of words is no statement on their truth.

Incredible are the folly and perversity of a public that will leave unread writings of the noblest and rarest of minds, of all times and all countries, for the sake of reading the writings of commonplace persons which appear daily and breed every year in countless numbers like flies; merely because these writings have been printed today and are still wet from the press.

This is where the art of not reading comes in. We have a choice, even if we refuse to exercise it. Schopenhauer offers us guidance on what to read.

Remember rather that the man who writes for fools always finds a large public: and only read for a limited and definite time exclusively the words of great minds, those who surpass other men of all time and countries, and whom the voice of fame points to as such. These alone really educate and instruct.

Furthering this notion, he adds:

One can never read too little of bad or too much of good books: bad books are intellectual poison; they destroy the mind.

Which can equally apply to the websites and articles that consume us. Before we know it, we develop a Pot-Belly of Ignorance.

Inverting the problem Schopenhauer suggests “in order to read what is good one must make it a condition never to read what is bad; for life is short, and both time and strength limited.”

It is because people will only read what is the newest instead of what is the best of all ages, that writers remain in the narrow circle of prevailing ideas, and that the age sinks deeper and deeper in its own mire.

If you're looking for ways to filter out the noise consider Peter Kaufman's idea of the three buckets of knowledge and Nassim Taleb's lindy effect.

 

Mortimer Adler on Understanding What You Read

One of our goals when reading is to find and elucidate the key sentences in a book.

Independent of whether we agree with these key sentences, we first need to digest them — to capture the author's meaning. This is easier in non-fiction than fiction (in part, because typically non-fiction authors stick to the same definition throughout the book whereas fiction authors can change the meaning.)

Consider this beauty from Machiavelli's The Prince:

You must know there are two ways of contesting, the one by the law, the other by force; the first method is proper to men, the second to beasts; but because the first is frequently not sufficient, it is necessary to have recourse to the second. Therefore it is necessary for a prince to understand how to avail himself of the beast and the man.

Think for a second. What does it mean in your words?

In a long ago discussion between Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, authors of The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading, they dissect this quote.

Van Doren: That's a terrible statement isn't it? It means that in the way of life, in which we all live, we cannot afford to be wholly human, we also have to be beastual.

***

Most of the time, especially with expository books, it's easier to find the key sentences than to understand them.

We all read these sentences and feel as though we understand them. After all, we understand the words the author is using. Adler, however, encourages us to go further. To demonstrate understanding he recommends putting the sentence in your own words. After you've done this, he suggests you offer a concrete example of the meaning.

***

Here is another example of this process playing out from Adler and Van Doren's conversation.

Adler: In the middle ages the great philosophers were very fond of saying, again and again, ‘nothing acts, except it is actual.' What does that mean to you? Say that in your own words now …

Van Doren: It means I can't be hurt by something that is only potential. Unless something actually is, it can't hurt me.

Adler: Unless something exists it can't hurt you. Show me you understand that by giving me a concrete example of something that can't hurt you because it isn't actual.

Van Doren: Well … a possible thunder storm can't wet me.

***

We've just added some insightful excerpts from Adler and Van Doren's fascinating conversation as bonus content to How to Read a Book. You don't want to miss this.