I've Been Reading Books Wrong

| reading |

I read a lot. I try to balance out a healthy mix of fiction and nonfiction. I have an unhealthy habit of not being able to give up on a book once I have started reading it. This had led me to some brutal weeks-long slogs through dull historic fan fiction. There are hundreds of books on my shelf at home that I’ve not read yet. I am also a glutton for punishment because recently I’ve been exploring the Personal MBA reading list, which is adding another 99 books to my pile of books that I want to read. The good news is that there is a hack to reading that I didn’t know about until today. 

I saw the Personal MBA at a local bookstore recently and initially I thought that it was yet another modern snake oil book which over promises and under delivers. However, when I got home I did a bit more research and I am really motivated by the work that Josh Kaufman has done over the last decade with this project. 

As a part of reading through his manifesto, I discovered a hidden gem that teaches you how you are actually supposed to read non-fiction books.  


Apparently I’ve been doing it wrong all this time. According to Paul Edwards, the purpose of a reading any non-fiction work is to discover, understand, and remember what the author has to say. There are some great tips in that paper. My biggest takeaways were that you should read actively and with a strategy, go over the work several times with specific goals, and review the information that you’ve learned using multiple modes of thinking. 

Reading Strategy 

Edwards recommends having a strategy for every piece of nonfiction work that you read. You should be trying to answer these questions as soon as you can. 

  1. Who is the author?
  2. What are the books arguments?
  3. What evidence supports these arguments?
  4. What are the conclusions?

This creates another handy acronym: ACE (arguments, conclusions, evidence) which we can use to guide the next parts of our reading strategy. ACE helps us with the discovery and understanding process. 

In addition to finding out the ACE of the article, you should also begin to start thinking about these things: 

  1. Are there any weaknesses in the authors ACE?
  2. What do you think about the ACE?
  3. How does the author, if at all, respond to these weaknesses?

Read Three Times 

This is a bit counterintuitive because the purpose of this article is to help you save time in reading nonfiction. After thinking about it, it makes more sense to me. 

  1. During the first reading (more like skimming) your goal is to get a sense of the whole piece of work, and start to generate questions for ACE. 
  2. During the second reading your goal is to start getting answers to the questions that were raised. 
  3. During the third reading (which is also the part that helps you remember), you should make notes about ACE in your own words and using your own mental model.

Review and Apply 

This was one of my favorite tips. It’s not enough to just read something. You should write about it, speak about it, listen to other people speaking about it, and visualize it. If you are able to hit this grand slam on a specific topic then you will start to develop some real expertise in a given subject. 

After reading all of these tips, I feel much more prepared to start tackling the 99 nonfiction books on this reading list, along with the hundred or so more that I have on my bookshelf at home. 

Thank you for reading! Share your thoughts with me on mastodon or via email.

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