When's the last time you listened to an album from beginning to end? Yeah, right. But of course, you read books from cover to cover. I mean, who in their right mind wouldn't? Turns out, lots of folks. 

I once believed in the sacredness of books -- each text deserved to be read in its entirety. Frequently, though, this is a waste of time. I've since abandoned my tired ways and reinvented how I read. The catalyst was this podcast with Angelist founder Navil Ravikant, which a friend send to me. Dubbed the Yoda of Silicon Valley, Rakivant made a compelling case to change the way you read.

You have no obligation to finish a book.

"I came up with this hack, where I started treating books as throw away blog posts or as bite-size tweets or Facebook posts, and I felt no obligation to finish any book," confesses Ravikant. Within weeks of hearing this, I'd proudly joined the proponents of this unconventional approach. I no longer feel compelled to finish a book -- because I've given myself permission not to. The duty I had felt since childhood has vanished. I will never get stuck on a book again.

If you're thinking, How could someone just stop reading The Da Vinci Code midway through? I should clarify. I'm speaking mostly of nonfiction here. Sure, this unconventional approach can also apply to fiction, but I confess, the last time I read any fiction, Clinton was president.

Binge reading.

Ten years ago, the average American was consuming roughly 100,000 words a day. If you visit about 200 web pages a day -- a pretty easy feat -- you'll have seen a whopping 490,000 words. That's the same length as War and Peace. The problem is that very little information, if any, sticks with you. It surges out your brain faster than it came in. 

The goal, I think, is to convert the information (you read in books or elsewhere) into knowledge. Retain the bits and bobs, anecdotes, quotes, takeaways, passages, prefaces, and epilogues you can do something with, perhaps to share with a good friend or broadcast to the world. 

"The impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it's destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you," writes Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Dillard. The point is not to be a hoarder of what you learn but to actively process, share, debate, and continually adjust your thinking through feedback.

"You open your safe and find ashes."

Dillard warns us there are consequences of failing to share what you read or write what you think. We must take care in what we learn, for this is what we will know. When reading, there's often a false "feeling of fluency," explains Faria Sana. A psychology professor at Athabasca University, she says in-flowing information "actually doesn't stick unless you put effort into it and concentrate and engage in certain strategies that will help you remember." Since we tend to forget most of the books we read, I've made it a point to not let that happen to me. Here are some of the techniques I use:

  1. Scan and dip -- look over the table of contents, mark what you want to read, and consider dipping in wherever you fancy.
  2. Scribble in the columns, underline, and yes, dare I say it, dog-ear pages.
  3. Revisit the book (relevant passages) and in your own cryptic handwriting make notes on cards. (Part of this process is inspired by Ryan Holiday's note-card system.)
  4. Write a blog post about what you've read (as I've done here).
  5. Incorporate what you learn into a talk (if that's your bag) or into a conversation (we all have those).

Et voilà! You won't need to look anything up in a secondary resource, the knowledge is living, breathing, and evolving in your primary one -- the gooey mush between your ears. You can recall it on demand and with your own unique twist.

The forgetting curve.

When I first learned that others happily failed to read books from start to finish, I was horrified. The nerve of those who only read the parts of a book that interested them -- silently dissing the author. What I thought a misappropriation of bandwidth, an ill-fated undertaking, a foolish strategy, was, in fact, the best way to get the job done. And that job, of course, is learning.

The forgetting curve marks the decline of memory retention over time. The curve is steepest within 24 hours after you learn something. After a few days, you're lucky if you can recall one-quarter of what you've just read. A few days in, and you're a goner. Your only hope against this rapid deterioration of things you want to remember is by reviewing them. School teachers were making a good point after all.

We need to train our brains, and that means giving them a mental workout. We shouldn't outsource our minds, relying on Google, Wikipedia, Evernote, algorithms or AI to do the job for us. Thankfully, for the type of books I'm talking about, there often isn't much to remember. 

Marketing legend Seth Godin has long argued that most nonfiction books can be summed up in just a few short pages (if not paragraphs). The main idea is sandwiched between a bunch of filler there only to please publishers. Indeed, that's why so many of Godin's reads are exceptionally thin. Brevity also plays a large role in why his blog, with one new simple entry a day, is one of the top-rated in the world.

Multibooking over multitasking.

Books can be difficult to read as a modern person because our attention spans have dropped below that of a Goldfish's whopping nine-seconds. You have little hope of getting through Sapiens, not to mention this very article. Ionically, this is precisely why Ravikant reads 10-20 books at any given time. If something doesn't hold his attention, he simply returns to it later or abandons it altogether. He knows that reading is a tool to help him build skills over a lifetime.

True, there is a "cognitive cost" in rapidly switching from one task to another. But having many books on the go is not multitasking -- it's just reading -- and it's a pretty good strategy too. While the churn of your book intake becomes remarkable, perhaps the most astonishing benefit is the connections you make between once disparate topics.

There is also a benefit to taking your sweet time in getting through a book. Research suggests that if you want to remember the things you read, you should space your reading out and let all that information slowly soak in.

When you choose to read something, you're declaring it feels right to read this particular thing at this given time. You decide to read the parts of a book that feed and fuel your curiosity, not to win a reading championship. 

A leopard can't change his spots, you say. Ah, but he can change his dietary habits. If you don't like your newfound reading regime, you can always revert to being a cover-to-cover kind of person. It's OK. Perhaps I'm missing a trick.

Or maybe, you can't knock something until you've tried it.

I'm Jonas. I write and talk about work. Join thousands and get my monthly digest here

Published on: Aug 10, 2018
Like this column? Sign up to subscribe to email alerts and you'll never miss a post.