How to Choose What to Read
Four years ago, I never devoted any of my free time to reading. Now I spend a few hours every week reading, amounting to 30+ books a year. My reading habit has not only allowed me to read more but has also improved my ability to filter what information to consume.
Over the years, I have gone from casually reading books for mere enjoyment to building a thoughtful system for selecting, reading, and processing what books to read. By sharing my system, I hope it will help you make the most out of your reading.
But before you go pick out your next book, you need to understand what questions you are trying to answer.
Define Your Goal
Before you even pick out a book, you need to define what goal you are trying to achieve. What is your next book trying to solve? Perhaps it’s one of the following:
- Improving your performance at your job or in the classroom.
- Helping you develop an important skillset.
- Expanding your worldview.
- Gaining knowledge so you can impress your peers.
- Giving you a brief escape from reality.
Whatever your goal, it’s essential to understand what you wish to accomplish. Being thoughtful with your approach will allow you to make the most out of the time you spend reading.
Choosing A Book
Choosing what book to read out of the near-infinite options can be a daunting task. Streamline the selection process by using the following methods: scan the reading list of experts, read books that have aged well, and consider reading for depth.
Scan the Reading Lists of Experts
One benefit of the Internet is it has never been easier to share content with others. Fortunately, this has led to many thought leaders and experts openly sharing their reading lists on their blogs or email lists for you to scan. You can also follow a lot of authors and experts on Goodreads to see what they are currently reading or browse their book reviews.
Selecting a book off the list of someone you trust provides the benefit of knowing the information has already been pre-screened and evaluated. It not only saves you time but also limits your downside of picking out a bad book. A few of my favorite reading lists are Shane Parrish’s list at Farnam Street and Bill Gates’ list at his Gates Notes blog.
Read Older Books
It’s easy to fall into the trap of buying the latest book after hearing it be pitched on your favorite podcast or seeing reviews plastered everywhere online. However, the risk of buying the newest book is you don’t know the quality of the content. Most books that are popular right now will be completely forgotten about within the next five years.
Instead, read books that are ten years old or older. If a book is still relevant after being on shelves for ten years, then there is a good chance it will be just as relevant ten years from now. If what you’re reading is over 100 years old, then, likely, it will still be read many generations after you.
Don’t get sucked into shiny object syndrome. When it comes to knowledge, opt for the tried-and-true wisdom of older books. There’s just one caveat: in rapidly-changing fields, such as technology, newer books can be a better choice since their information is more relevant. I prefer reading older books for establishing life principles and systems then overlaying them with tactics found in newer books.
Syntopical Reading (Reading for Depth)
If I read about a topic that interests me, then I will sometimes choose another book on the same topic. Reading multiple books on the same subject allows you to compare and contrast the ideas, vocabulary, and arguments of the authors. Reading for depth will help you strengthen your understanding of the underlying concepts so you can learn to think for yourself.
A simple way to pick out a book on the same topic is to browse the index of the book you just read. There is a good chance the book you just finished will reference similar books on the subject matter for you to explore.
Reading A Book
I tend to read one to three books at a time across multiple platforms: print copy, Kindle, and audiobook. Each platform has its pros and cons with regards to accessibility, note-taking, and reviewing. Pairing a book to its optimal platform has helped me get the most out of my reading time.
I read non-fiction on Kindle or print for the sake of easy highlighting and note-taking. Paperback has an advantage over Kindle for note-taking, but the highlighting feature on Kindle is the best (more on that later).
For books on history and biography, I prefer consuming them on audiobooks since I’m unlikely to take any notes. Audiobooks are great for learning something new when I’m engaged in a low-level task such as driving or doing chores. I’m less picky about what platform I use to read fiction but tend to favor paperback if only for the nostalgia of holding a physical book.
“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. You’d be amazed at how much Warren reads — and at how much I read. My children laugh at me. They think I’m a book with a couple of legs sticking out.”
— Charlie Munger
I always keep a highlighter handy when reading (the Kindle has a built-in highlighter feature). When I come across a compelling argument or thought-provoking quote, I highlight the passage. Once I have finished the book, I go back through my highlights and take notes on what I still find to be useful information. For Kindle, I use Readwise to automatically sync all of my highlights to their web app and Evernote for easy access. Readwise also lets you add tags and notes to your highlights to help you organize how you best see fit.
Skimming and Skipping
I used to be a strict reader who believed you had to finish the book cover-to-cover to count it as “being read.” Over time, I’ve become more flexible with my approach to reading. I will now skim over certain passages or chapters that don’t apply to me and will even put books down I no longer enjoy. There are too many good books out there to get bogged down by books you no longer find interesting.
There are a select few books that have been life-changing or provide so much depth that I will read them again. Just like listening to your favorite music album or enjoying your favorite meal, you should find yourself returning to your favorite books to tease out all of the nuances that make it a masterpiece. Better to spend your time rereading the ten best books than to read the most books.
“Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.”
— Francis Bacon
Processing A Book
I used to read books for the sake of “checking them off” my list to impress others. But spending countless hours just for the satisfaction of stroking your ego is a poor investment of time. Now I find reading to be the most valuable when I can remember the ideas presented and apply them to my life. My reading process no longer ends when I finish the book; it ends when I have a solid understanding of the ideas.
A few weeks after reading a book, I will go back through it and review the highlights taken. If the book has important principles I wish to implement, then I will sometimes make notecards of the most important highlights. The process of writing down ideas is usually enough to get them to stick. If you want to learn more about my notecard system, I copied the system Ryan Holiday uses for his reading.
For books that have a more significant impact on my thinking, I will write a summary and share it on my book notes page. This forces me to grasp the key concepts so I can distill it down to what I find most important. I will refer to all of my highlights and any notecards taken to help with the summary process. It is a laborious process but has been beneficial for improving my comprehension, note-taking, and writing skills. You can access all of my book notes here.
Building Your System
Filtering and processing information to consume is a skill you can develop. But first, you must establish a reading habit. Only through the process of reading a lot of material will you begin to understand what is useful for your goals and what isn’t.
If you struggle with establishing a reading habit or haven’t picked up a book since graduation, I have some advice that helped me. When it comes to building any new habit, you must find it interesting since it will be competing with countless distractions for your free time. If you try to develop a reading habit by picking up a literary classic for the sake of “looking smart,” then you likely won’t be sticking with it for very long.
A good plan you can stick with is much better than a perfect plan you will eventually abandon. So, start by reading things you genuinely find interesting. Don’t worry so much about the quality of the content. Once you have established the habit, then you can be more conscious about what you choose to consume. Every sound system is gradually built over time.
“A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that works. The inverse proposition also appears to be true: A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be made to work.”
— John Gall
Establishing a daily reading habit can change your life, but reading for the sake of reading the most books is not the point. The purpose of reading is to be exposed to new ideas, to question your reality, and to learn. Having a reading system allows you to learn and grow from all of the hours invested so you can get the most out of your reading.
If you are interested in knowing what I am currently reading, feel free to add me as a friend on Goodreads. You can find my profile here.
This article was originally posted on lawsonblake.com