Recently, I wrote a post on 5 Tips for Determining Which  Books to Read (and Not to Read). As a follow up to that post, and in answer to a number of questions I received, here are four tips on how to get the most from your (non-fiction) reading:

  1. Make a plan (even if you are not, by nature, a planner).

There may be some folks out there who became seriously informed readers by wandering aimlessly through bookstores in order to buy random books that they would later read whenever they found time. But there wouldn’t be many of those folks; if there are any, you could probably count them on the one hand of a bad woodshop teacher.

So, make a list of books that are important to read in each of your various categories of interest. If you have difficulty finding the right books to read in each category, spend some time researching. Ask an expert to give you a short list of favorites. Visit your library. Cruise the local Barnes & Noble. Surf the net. In addition, answer a few other questions: How many books would you like to read per month?  How much time can you devote per day or per week? What time of the day is best for you? I know, I know, you are probably thinking: “Ashford is an even bigger dork than we’d imagined.” But I’d like to serve advance notice: we haven’t even arrived at the nerdiest parts of this post.

  1. Carve out time to read (even though your calendar is packed).

Once you’ve determined how many books you’d like to read per month and how much time you can devote to reading per day or per week, your next challenge is to bring that ideal into the realm of reality: if your calendar is already packed, how can you possibly make time for a reading plan?

This is a sterling question, and not easily answered in a couple of paragraphs. But here are a few pointers: Take an hour or two and sketch out your activities during an ordinary day, week, or month. Most likely, you will be pleasantly surprised at how much time you can find. I have found, for example, that (1) I can come to work a couple of hours early in order to enjoy peace and quiet and a good book; (2) I can read journals and newspapers on short flights, and entire books or stacks of books on longer flights; (3) my Sunday afternoons can be good times for reading; and (4) sometimes instead of watching a TV show or a ballgame, I am better served to pull out a book.

Finally, (5) my wife will tell you: I always carry a book or a journal. You would be amazed at how many minutes you can catch during the day. I laughed out loud at Al Mohler’s way of putting this, when he wrote, “My wife and family would be first to tell you, I can read almost anytime, anywhere, under almost any kind of conditions. I have a book with me virtually all the time, and have been known to snatch a few moments for reading at stop lights….I took books to high school athletic events when I played in the band. (Heap coals of scorn and nerdliness here.) I remember the books – do you remember the games?” I concur, although you’ll learn quickly that there are a few situations in life in which it is best not to pull out a book (I think my wife may not have fully appreciated my “reading plan” when I pulled out a book while she was giving birth to our first daughter. As it happens, I did not pull out a book during the birth of our second and third children).

  1. Read with comprehension (which takes a lot more effort than you might think).

Once you’ve made an ideal personalized reading plan and then brought that plan down to earth by carving out time to read, you’ve only just begun. Now you’ve got to read those books with comprehension, which take a lot more effort than one might typically imagine. Here are two books that will help you read for comprehension:

Adler and Doren, How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading

This is the classic text on how to read a book critically and with comprehension. Adler and Van Doren provide several chapters’ worth of general introduction to reading comprehension, and then apply their framework to comprehending specific types of books, such as history, science, math, philosophy and the social sciences, imaginative literature, plays, and poems.

James W. Sire’s How to Read Slowly: Reading for Comprehension:

This book is similar to Adler and Van Doren’s text, but it differs in at least two ways: it is much shorter and it is written from an evangelical vantage point.

  1. Find a personalized way to retain and organize what you’ve learned (which is not so easy).

I find it difficult to overstate the importance of this last tip. Even if you have read a book with comprehension, you have not retained what you’ve learned. Now, you may read a book and decide that the book was not very good; you could forget everything you just read, and do so without any fear of intellectual or moral deprivation.

And yet, some books are important books, so important that you wish to retain what you learned. For those books, you need to find a personalized way to organize and remember what you’ve learned. Here is what I do, for the limited number of books that, for whatever reason, are worth the time and effort:

First, with almost any good book, I underline the author’s main points, with pencil and ruler, in such a way that I can follow the author’s flow of thought.  I also underline significant quotes and make comments in the margins containing my reactions to an author’s points. This way, I can pick the book back up several years later and be able to “read” the entire book in 10 minutes by reading the underlined portions and annotations.

Second, if the book is especially significant or helpful, I will make a brief outline of the book for future reference. And if the books truly outstanding, I will make an expanded outline of the book (8-12 pages) and a one-page mental map of the book in which I depict spatially the book’s flow of argument.

Third, I have a file folder system for topics and sub-topics of interest. When a book makes interesting or helpful (or outrageous) points, I take notes and file them.

Fourth, sometimes I will write about the book. I might write a simple book notice, a book review, a critical essay, or an extended interaction of some type. This can be done in journals or magazines, at online sites such as Amazon, on your blog, or even in a journal. Writing will force you to think more clearly about the book and will help you to retain what you have learned from the book.

Just do it.

For people with crowded calendars, there is never a “good time” to change one’s habits in order to make room for a serious reading plan. So just do it. Make the adjustments you can, and do it now. I doubt you’ll regret it.


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