These days paper is not the only medium one can use to “read” books. There are e-book readers like Kindle. There are audio books from services like Audible. There are apps on the phone to read books. And there are apps which can read you e-books. So saying that you’ve just read a book might not be technically correct which is why I opted to used the word “consume”.
I have my books in 3 different mediums:
- on paper
- e-book via App or on Kindle
- audio book
A while ago I had an account on goodreads where I entered the challenge of reading X amount of books per year. This made me move from book to book without thinking about the contents much. As a result I could go through 25-30 books per year and not recall what I’ve read. Although I could brag about the high number (well, among some of my e-friends).
Over the time I figured out that it’s not the best way going forward, so I abandoned the goodreads account and decided to actually understand what I read and apply it in practice. I started taking notes. Below is the system which is a work in progress…
How I listen to audiobooks
I do not have an on-going subscription to Audible or other service while I’m reading books on paper or Kindle, but when a critical number of books gathers in audio format I either subscribe or buy an audio file directly.
A lot of people say that when listening the narrated version it’s like watching a movie: you’re consumed by the voice and emotions that you totally miss the point and forget everything you’ve just heard. That is true not only of audio books but anything if you don’t take notes.
Most of the audiobook players have the ability to create bookmarks. Whenever I hear an interesting thought, an inspiring quote, or something worth returning to, I bookmark the place where it started. This way when I’ve finished the book, I can go through the bookmarks one by one and re-listen to them to write down the important bits.
Similar to any book, not just audio, it is important to write a summary of the chapter you’ve just listened. This helps to not only recall everything you’ve heard, but also allows you to resume the book weeks or months later without forgetting what it was all about. It is not uncommon for me to stop reading/listening a book only to return to it 6 months later.
How I read e-books
I have an original 2nd generation Kindle that I bought ages ago. The only problem I had with it is its battery which died last year. Swapping it was simple, and so I continue using it to this day. It doesn’t support many of the fancy features modern-day devices do, but so is the paper book.
Reading on Kindle is somewhat similar to the process of listening to audio books. Whenever I stumble upon something worth remembering, I just highlight the text and bookmark it so that I could return to it later after finishing the book. Going through the notes at the end is akin to browsing your old photo albums from the time your were a kid in school. It’s very enjoying to do so. Likewise I also try to write a summary of every chapter I finished reading.
How I read paper books
Consuming paper books is slightly different because you cannot make easy notes or bookmarks inside the book. Technically you can, but I find it hard to browse them later and prefer my books clean. As a result, I take notes in Evernote. Yes, these days everyone’s using Notion, but I just love the way you can snap a crispy clear picture of text in Evernote.
I use a single note for the whole book and divide it into chapters. As I’m reading the chapter, I take pictures of the interesting paragraphs and write down the page number so that I can return to it later to get more context.
At the end of each chapter I write a short paragraph trying to describe what it was all about.
Retaining the knowledge
Most of the books I read are non-fiction. These are science books, biographies, diaries, self-improvement, and business books. Occasionally a novel or a science-fiction book finds its way into my reading queue. It’s hard to take notes of such stories because of the dialogues and the way the story flows. But I regret not doing so, or at least not writing a digest of each chapter. Even though there are less actionable advice that one can extract from, say, Catch-22, but some of the quotes and paragraphs are just so good that losing them to your memory is just pity. After all, whenever I read a book to my daughter, we always discuss every chapter together after she’s done summarizing it to me.
When we study in school, university, or taking a course, there’s always a homework assignment that helps you understand better, or cement in your memory, the topic you have previously covered. But I (or maybe we) rarely do that while reading an educational book. In fact, most of the business or self-improvement books don’t have an assignment section at the end of each chapter. I found a solution. Come up with the homework yourself.
One of the books I am reading right now is called Human Hacking which talks about human psychology, persuasion, and how to use human behaviour in the security domain. Given how practical this knowledge is, theory just complements it and explains the concepts better. But without practicing all of the theory would disappear. What’s the point in learning public speaking from books if you never practice? As a result while I am reading the book I also come up with the tasks I can do to apply the theory. These range from starting a conversation on the street with a complete stranger to complimenting a person behind the cash register, to building a rapport with the taxi driver.
The same homework concept can be applied to any educational book or topic you’re interested in, be it science, business, or other type of self development.