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The Four Kinds Of Reading

Each book deserves a different amount of your finite resources. Don’t feel the pressure to give everything you have to every book you read. Be more selfish with your focus and time.

Do you make time each day to sharpen your mind?
The benefits of reading to your mental life and creative process are numerable. However, many people choose not to read because of (a) perceived lack of time, (b) lack of knowing what to read, or (c) a lack of recognition of the benefits.

I do a lot of my reading early in the morning, before my family wakes up. I have a sofa in my home office where I engage in my morning routine, and kickstart my mind. I also take a long walk each day, and find that listening to books is a great way to work more reading into my life. (If you have a library card, there are typically tons of great audiobooks available for download – absolutely free – from your local branch. The same applies for Kindle ebooks.) For you, evenings may work better. However, I’d encourage you to set aside some time each day to sharpen your mind, and to engage with the thoughts of others.

If you’re wondering what to read, I’ve collected some of my favorites on creativity, life, and business here.  I’d also recommend visiting BrainPickings.com and perusing Maria Popova’s posts for potential books.

Here’s the thing: reading a book is an investment. It costs you time, focus, and energy. There is an opportunity cost involved. Therefore, it’s important that you ensure that your reading time is reaping a return, even if it’s just enjoyment. There are four approaches I take to a book, depending on how much I wish to invest in it.

Skip: This is the easiest. No matter how much others are raving about a book, or how popular it is, if it’s of no interest to me I will skip it. There are too many great books in the world to waste resources on something that doesn’t spark my enthusiasm. (That’s not to say that I don’t read things for research that aren’t of particular interest. I’m only addressing personal reading time.)

Skim: When I first get a book, I will flip through the chapters, or find a summary online so that I can familiarize myself with the subject matter and style. On my Kindle, I’ll move chapter by chapter to get a sense of the book. At this point, I choose to skim many books rather than devoting hours to them. I will look for key concepts and supporting arguments, but I won’t spend a lot of time reading through stories or details. This is typically my approach for books on a subject with which I’m fairly familiar, or with books that are ancillary to the main topic I’m exploring in my life at the moment. I may go through a skimmed book in a few hours. (Most of these come from the library.)

Study: If the book contains new arguments, or subject matter that I think will stretch my perspective or challenge my existing assumptions, I may choose to study it. This means that I dedicate time to closely reading each of the sections and arguments, taking notes throughout, and reviewing each day’s reading before moving on to the next section. I keep my notes and review them regularly. (I purchase many of the books I choose to study, and may even own them in multiple formats.)

Savor: There are a handful of books that I go back to over and over. I re-read them every year or two, and deeply immerse myself in the language and arguments of the author. If I really love a particular book, I may read perhaps ten to twenty pages per hour, which is far slower than a normal reading rate for me even when studying a book. This is not about absorbing the content of the book as much as it is about inhabiting the language and thoughts of the author.

Each book deserves a different amount of your finite resources. Don’t feel the pressure to give everything you have to every book you read. Be more selfish with your focus and time. However, regardless of your approach, ensure that you are making space to – as former USC President Stephen Sample calls it – “commune with great minds.”

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Last modified: December 1, 2022

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