in Learning

Reading books for long-term value

For a while now, my Pocket reading list has been growing at a faster rate than I have been consuming it. Recently this problem has crept into my offline reading as well, and now my GoodReads list is growing hopelessly long.

Initially I approached this as a quantity problem, and started looking into speed-reading as a method of consuming more information. There is a neat tool called Spritz that controls for eye movement to help you learn. But it turned out the problem was about quality of reading, rather than quantity of material. This manifested itself in a disappointing recall of key arguments and theses of books I had read more than a year or two before.

Part of the problem was that I considered the primary goal of reading to be acquiring information. The issue with this approach is that if the raw data is not synthesized, you won’t remember it for as long. I now consider the primary goal of reading to be rewiring parts of my cognitive process based on the information in the book.

Here are a couple of the systems I have put into place to derive more long-term value out of my reading:

Buy a kindle

Buying an Amazon Kindle has been a huge help. Besides the whole “thousand books in your pocket” thing, I find the highlighting feature to be incredibly valuable. I have never been much of a highlighter / markup-er of printed media, but I am well aware of the benefits for cognitively absorbing material. Kindle’s highlights lets you collect snippets from a book and export them as a text file.

Filter your reading list

In an effort to reduce the input side of my reading list problem, I have begun heavily vetting the recommendations or discoveries that I place into my reading list. Anything non-fiction gets checked for in Blinkist to see if there is already a summary available. For other genres, I like to check Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings to see if she has written on that book before. Reading through a summary like this will give you a better sense of whether you should commit to reading the full book. And if you do proceed to read the book, you begin with a rough mental framework that makes it much easier to absorb the arguments and theses into your mental model.

Read deliberately

Shane Parish of Farnam Street has written extensively on the subject of learning, reading, and self-improvement. He has some pieces of good advice that ultimately add up to the act of reading deliberately. Take a second before you begin to think about the author, the context, and your existing knowledge on the subject. While reading, mentally summarize arguments periodically, and try to abstract at a higher level. After you put down a book, spend a couple minutes in silence, contemplating what you’ve just learned, and attempting to synthesize it into your existing mental framework.

Write a book summary

There is a reason that Bill Gates publishes book reviews, and it’s not because he has nothing better to do with his time. Writing these reviews will encourage you to read at the analytical level required to summarize effectively. I usually start by sorting through all of my kindle highlights from a book, then organizing them into thematic groups, and trying to build a structured opinion on the work. Making a value judgement in your summary will force you to go a step further in your reading, to do the work of synthesizing the material and forming an argument.


I also find it useful to push one level above individual books, and to make a conscious effort of trying to integrate the knew book into my mental frameworks of knowledge. Mindmapping is a good tool for this, as it helps you visualize and form connections between pieces of material without the need to traverse the information in a linear fashion. Another option is to collect key passages into your commonplace book.

Adding these additional layers to my reading “stack” definitely slows down my rate of consumption, but I think it is well worth the increase in comprehension, synthesis, and long-term retention.