[How-to] The 4 Commandments of Reading for Self-Education


Photo credit: swamibu (from flickr.com)

Note: I'm not a big fan of trashy link bait names.  That being said, calling these the 4 commandments of reading for self-education is, while opinionated, not a stretch for me.  Forgive the self-aggrandizing title and if you think there needs to be an addition, let me know in the comments!

During the four years I was in college, I read definitely one, maybe two books– total (excluding schoolwork).  Now, I read definitely one, maybe two books every week.  I’ve only been doing this for a year and a half, so it’s not like I’ve read every book on the planet– but for just about every book I used to think wow, I should read that, I actually have.  And it’s pretty cool to be able to say that.

I’m not trying to chug through a list of supposed classics or something.  My aim here (trite as it sounds now) is wisdom— knowing how best to act in any situation.  As I see it, that’s the reason why anyone would try to educate themselves in the first place.

And that’s the aim I’m presuming you have too.  Reading only for entertainment is a bit saccharine, and if that’s what you want to do, you won’t find many tips in this essay to help you.  I don’t talk about how to speed read, and I don’t talk much about making time to read.  I liked The Hunger Games as much as the next person, but I’m much more excited about changing the way I live because of ideas I find.  Consequently, these commandments apply mostly for non-fiction (though a few fiction books really have changed my outlook on life).

I hope you have a pile of books you are dying to read.  I want you to devour them, highlighting and notating some and reading 3 chapters of others that you just toss away incomplete.  I want you not to say “I wanna read that!” but “I have read that, and a few of its sources.  Here are my favorite ideas.  I disagree with this part.  Here’s where I think the field is headed next.”

I submit this set of guidelines for going in that direction.

The 4 Commandments of Reading for Self-Education

  1. A book is only as good as what you remember from it
  2. Actually reading is more important than reading fast
  3. Don’t be afraid to burn books
  4. Read books to become better at non-books


1. A book is only as good as what you remember from it

Books are for strip mining.  Leave them feeling filthy rich or slightly bitter.

The pages are the land on which you hunt for wisdom.

This doesn’t mean you have to read through at a furious pace, toss it, and move on to the next one.  On the contrary, strip mining a book can be a slow process.  Leave no thought unturned.  Dwell on what matters.  When inspiration strikes, mark your page and think for a few minutes.

And when you finish, don’t bury your gold and walk away.

If I had to sum up my reading philosophy in one sentence, it would be a book is only as good as what you remember from it.  What do you remember from the books you’ve read?  Those are the only parts that can change you.  Those are the only parts you can really learn from.

There are a few ways to remember more from books:

  • Mark up your book with mini-sticky notes at the important parts
  • Write notes in the margins
  • If you use a Kindle, use the highlighting functionality
  • Outline the book after reading
  • Keep a commonplace doc

What’s a commonplace doc?  A commonplace book is something I heard of when I first start getting into reading.  Apparently, in the renaissance and enlightenment, a learned man would carry with him a small notebook for recording thoughts, quotes, passages, and small practical notes like transactions or to-do lists.  This struck me as really pretty extraordinary.  In one little book, you might have inspiration and wisdom from dozens of sources– all the things you found most meaningful and useful to you.  Being able to review those with regularity would be a privilege!

I keep the 21st century equivalent of a commonplace book– a Google doc of quotes from a variety of books and other sources.  Every time I finish a book, I open it up and type out what I want to take with me from that book.

But what’s even more useful is every six months, I take the document, format it for a small paperback book, and print it for ten bucks on Lulu.com, a website that does one-off book publishing.

A page from my commonplace book, vol. I

At this point, I have two commonplace books printed and another halfway done.  They make an absolutely wonderful meditation tool– there is no type of problem that I cannot find advice for in these books.  Business, interpersonal, spiritual, motivational– all of the best advice I’ve seen is collected here.  If you’ve ever heard of the concept of having a mental board of advisors, this is a sort of similar practice.

2. Actually reading is more important than reading fast

Do you want to read over 1000 words per minute?  Do you want to comprehend information 5 to 10 times faster than the average person while increasing retention and recall?  Here’s how!

Shut up.

Unless you’ve already made reading something you do on a regular basis, don’t get sucked into the speed reading hype.  I am not against speed reading per se, but I am against people trying to develop a habit of speed reading before they even have a habit of reading.  A lot of people, when they hear how many books I read, say “Wow, you must be great at speed reading!”  But that’s not the case.  I’ve looked into some blog posts about it in the past, but it never stuck.  Why?  It’s simply not necessary.

I don’t actually read that much.  On my way to work, on my way from work, and, if the book is particularly riveting, for a short while at home.  But the vast majority of my reading is done on daily bus rides.  And maybe I don’t know the right people, but if a consistent habit of reading for 45 minutes to an hour a day allows me to read more than most anyone I know, I’m led to believe one thing: it’s not how fast you read that truly matters, but whether or not you consistently read at all.

When will you consistently read?  If reading matters, what can you set aside that’s less important?

3. Don’t be afraid to burn books

As you read more, you will find that some books are not worth the paper they’re printed on.  Use a Kindle.  Skim the rest (if you read it at all), and move on to the next one.  There was a time when every other book I saw seemed exciting and impossible not to want to read.  That’s marketing.  I’ve come to believe that few things are better marketed than books (especially marketing books).

I think the realization struck me gradually.  “This author’s not saying anything“.  Or, even worse, “This author’s saying something actively harmful to the way people view the world.  If people listen to this author and others like him, they will be sitting ducks!”  A lot of self-help and business books are like that, but the culprits come in all genres.

Be thankful you’ve learned better.  And if you haven’t found that distinction yet, keep going.

I understand now why books were burned and banned.  The world would be better sans a few.

4. Read books to become better at non-books

What do you want to read all these books for?  So you can brag about it on a blog?  I tried that; it’s not that great.

Know the reason you read.  It had better be something besides “so I can finish the List of 100 Books to Read Before You Die”.  If you have the drive to finish 100 books from someone else’s list, you have the drive to be doing a lot better things than wasting 1000 hours jumping through someone else’s useless hoop.

No, read books to become better at non-books.  Read books to become better at life.

What does that mean?  Here, pick:

To be conversational in a broader range of topics.  To live virtuously.  To be more effective.  To dispel one’s delusions.

Knowing why you’re reading helps you know when to part ways with a book.

The acknowledgements section is not the finish line; it’s the start.



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