On reading


If reading is pleasure to you, then you love to read. Now, the crucial question is, are you a productive reader? Whereon I mean when you read, do you learn anything that you can apply immediately to your very life, or do the words and ideas expose in the book  just bounce around your brain’s pleasure areas for a while before disappearing like so many wisps of a morning fog?

Not that there’s anything wrong with reading just for pleasure now and again — by all means, grab a novel and hit the beach. But too often we read important stuff — how-to do manuals, business and personal development guides, science or current affairs treatises, newspapers, reviews, technical books, and yes, even personal productivity blogs with the same mindset.

Most of us probably read to make us feel good, inspired and alive, though others could do it for pleasure and amusement and not as an exercise in personal growth, and even others for strickly duty on school or at work. Here, then, I present some few more tips that can help us to read more productively:

  • Use an index card as your bookmark. That way you always have something to write on while you’re reading. Go ahead and stick a few post-its to the back for marking significant passages, too.
  • Have expectations. Not about quality, but about content. Before you start, ask yourself, “What do I expect to gain from reading this?”
  • Keep a reading journal. When you finish a book, write down a quick summary of the book, any quotes you highlighted or flagged, and what you learned from it. Or keep a collection of chapter-by-chapter notes — maybe on a blog or notebook.
  • Talk about it. Tell you boss about the new working strategy you just read about. Tell your friends about the interesting history you’re reading. We labor under the misconception that we learn by reading; we don’t. We learn by using what we’ve read (this is a very crucial remark on reading.) Then, I invite you to begin to share what you’ve just read.
  • Teach it. You don’t have to be a formal teacher to share your knowledge with those around you who might need it. When you can, take the opportunity to present the information you’ve gleaned: set up a seminar at work, organize a workshop at the local library, etc. This may not be for everyone, but let me tell you: nothing will help you make better sense of a topic than teaching it to others.
  • Always pay attention to the structure of a book. You can often learn as much from the way the author has organized their information as from the text itself.
    • (Let me give you an example: for several years, I taught anthropology from a textbook that promoted a view of humanity as defined by a group’s relationship with the natural environment. The central part of the book had a chapter on foragers, one on horticulture (small scale farming), one on animal herding, one on agriculture, and finally one on industrialist societies. Then I switched to a textbook that saw political organization as the key element in understanding human behavior. This book devoted its central chapters to the different kinds of political structure: bands, tribes, chiefdoms, and states.)
  • Google it. Nowadays, it’s easy to find authors on the web, who often post new material expanding or correcting their work after it’s published. Check out their websites — even strike up a conversation with the author if you feel like it.
  • Take a moment. People want to read fast, to get it done. That’s why speedreading courses are so popular, despite the fact that you almost never come across anyone who can successfully speedread. The reality is, reading takes time, and learning takes even more. If you only have 20 minutes to read, read for 15 and spend 5 minutes thinking on what you’ve read. If you’re not pressed for time, take long breaks between chapters, even between sections, to reflect. Also remember that when you’re reading and meditating at the same level and time, you’re making the most remarkable impression upon your brain. Reflecting on the reading is other excellent way to learn something in true.
  • Interrogate. It’s a cliche, but not everything is true just because it was in a book. While developing a Stephen Colbert-like distrust of books is probably overkill, it’s a rather good idea to ask from time to time, “How does the author know this?” and even “Does what s/he’s saying really mean this?” Making questions to what you’re just reading improves your ability to think and even sharpen your way of view. In a deep way, reading is broadening.
  • Make a list. Always carry a list of books you want to read or topics you want to read up on. You never know when the opportunity might arise — maybe you stop into a library to kill some time between obligations, maybe you notice a new used book store in your neighborhood and want to check it out, maybe someone in your office clears out a box of books from their office, whatever. As you read, add books recommended by the author to your list. And, remember, one step to create a most vigorous and so open society and, at the same time, a  roboust democracy is by all means reading books (books are the very rocks which sustaine the building of any society.)
  • Switch it up. Every now and again, read something you wouldn’t normally read. Check out an aisle of the bookstore or library you’ve never been down. Take a friend’s recommendation even if it doesn’t sound very interesting. You might be pleasantly surprised — or you might be challenged to your very core. Either way’s a net gain.

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